Editorial intro: We publish below an introduction to the geographical thought of the radical Black Brazilian thinker and political organiser Beatriz Nascimento. We do so in the hope that the piece will introduce geography educators to alternative conceptions of Brazilian history and geography. This introductory piece marks the beginning of what we hope will be a fertile dialogue between teachers and researchers about the value of the thought of Beatriz Nascimento and other radical Black Brazilian thinkers.
Beatriz Nascimento was born in Sergipe in 1942. At the age of seven she moved with her family from the impoverished Northeast to Rio de Janeiro, where she grew up in the suburb of Cordovil. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in history from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) in 1971, and completed graduate work at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF) in 1981.
She wrote from an early age, and throughout her life she experimented with different modes of expression, from the scholarly to the poetic and the cinematic. Her research covered a broad range of topics in African and African‐Brazilian history, culture and social organisation. Nascimento played an important role in Black politics in Brazil from the 1960s to the early 1990s, particularly as a member of the Unified Black Movement. She participated in, and helped organise, various Black student organisations. On 28th January 1995 she was murdered while defending a friend against an abusive partner.
Here we will introduce Beatriz Nascimento’s distinctive geographical interpretation of the relationships between land, liberation, Black embodiment and transatlantic space. In particular, these ideas revolved around her research into, and re-interpretation of, the concept of quilombo, and her thinking about Black embodiment.
Quilombos are powerful symbols of political and territorial autonomy for the Black Brazilian community. They are historical spaces of Black resistance, where escaped, formerly enslaved Africans set up autonomous societies. They are also the contemporary physical spaces where descendants of these communities still reside. Since the new Brazilian constitution of 1988, quilombolas – people descended from escaped enslaved people, living in quilombos – have legally been recognized, and granted the right to claim land from the state. These rights are hard won, and often denied and overlooked by the state and Brazil’s landed elite, but they demonstrate that the spaces and practices of quilombos remain politically urgent today. Finally, quilombos are symbolic spaces of resistance that constitute metaphors for Black struggle, and cultural strength. Quilombos connect Black Brazilians’ fight for political recognition with the right to refuge.
Beatriz Nascimento theorized quilombo not only as a set of fixed geographic spaces in Brazil, but also as a political practice important to everyday cultures and survival strategies of Black Brazilians both historically and in the present day. Quilombo, for her, was as much the 17th century settlement of Palmares as it was the self-organised modes of life, sociality and culture of 20th century Brazilian favelas. In her hands, quilombo emerges as a new way of thinking about the relationships between space, territory, community, identity and history. Quilombo as historical, physical space and a social model is inseparable from quilombo as a mode of political, cultural and economic life, and as sites of political possibility. Her ideas about quilombo therefore move away from understanding territoriality as something fixed, but rather see it as a kind of becoming. That is, in the practice of making liberated spaces, new ways of constructing social life and human subjectivity emerge.
Beatriz Nascimento’s prioritisation of the body as a political site puts her in dialogue with Black feminist discussions about embodiment. Out of her particular poetic and political concerns emerges a distinctive contribution to this global exchange of ideas. Katherine McKittrick (2006) wrote that “humanness is always geographic—blood, bones, hands, lips, wrists, this is your land, your planet, your road, your sea” (2006:ix). In this understanding, Black women’s bodies are both archives of violence, and spaces of potential internal escape. The ideas that unique possibilities for freedom are anchored in Black women’s transnational experiences of unfreedom, and that Black women have a unique perspective on problems of exploitation and possibilities of liberation, are clear in Nascimento’s work.
Nascimento’s understanding of quilombo as a territorialised home located in the Black body draws on the African‐Brazilian religious cosmology of candomblé. In candomblé, the orixás (African spirits) travelled with enslaved Africans across the ocean. From a spiritual starting point, this inverts the notion that the body is the materialisation of Black alienation and suffering, to propose that it is a space of relative freedom through which the Black diaspora subject has ties to both the ancestral homeland of Africa and to the Americas. This connection, located in the body, is mediated through the natural world (forests and rivers) and the orixás, minkisi and voduns. As the subject of Black migration, escape and liberation, Beatriz Nascimento interprets the Black body as an extension of the land.
This vision of the relationship between embodiment and liberation underpins Nascimento’s narration of the film Orí, directed by Raquel Gerber. There she represents and inhabits the flows between Africa and the Americas that created quilombo as a contemporary practice of escape and liberation. She draws on the embodied experiences of Black Brazilians through dance, and her own poetic interpretation of oceanic and West African space. One of her most distinctive insights is to draw on the distinctly Afro‐Atlantic spiritual experience of trance to explore how members of the Black diaspora exceed their own geographic boundaries, and the territorialised boundaries of place.
The most innovative aspects of Beatriz Nascimento’s discussion of quilombo, therefore, are her demarcations of quilombo as quintessentially corporeal (located in the Black body), transcendent (anchored in the spiritual simultaneity of the here and there of Black life between the Americas and Africa) and transatlantic (emergent from a new Black spatiality created by the transatlantic slave trade).
Editorial note: Christen Smith and Archie Davies, along with Bethânia Gomes, recently made the first English translations of Beatriz Nascimento’s work, published by Antipode. Their translators’ introduction and translations of Nascimento’s work can be read here. We encourage you to read that work and to contribute to further discussions about the value of Beatriz Nascimento’s ideas for geography education.
Archie Davies is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield.
Christen Smith is Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.