Reclaiming Quilombismo in the End of the Conciliations

From the Series: Bolsonaro and the Unmaking of Brazil

Photo by Fernando Piva/ADUNICAMP. "Amerindian Scholars from Unicamp (State University of Campinas) against budget cuts in education." Student rally against Bolsonaro (Campinas-SP, May 2019).

There are ideas whose greatest strength lies in their ability to emerge in disturbing situations. Like some savanna plants whose seed dormancy is broken by the passage of fire, such idées-forces tend to emerge whenever certain social figurations are exhausted by the heat of the flames. One of them is quilombismo, a proposition coined by the Afro-Brazilian intellectual, artist, and politician Abdias do Nascimento (1914–2011).

Nascimento formulated his quilombista proposition in the 1980s (Nascimento 2002), conceiving it as a concept that operates bonds of combative solidarity with the African peoples of the diaspora and the continent. Extrapolating the ethnographic connotation later acquired by quilombos, limited to the forms of territorial organization of traditional Afro-Brazilian communities, Nascimento’s proposition took the quilombos as any black association aligned with the struggles of emancipation, from rural villages to slums. Amid effervescent debates within the tradition of pan-Africanist thinking, largely polarized between socialist and nationalist alternatives, Nascimento proposed to make quilombismo the prime image of African American resistance. It was also a programmatic prescription: at once an active principle for the organization of diasporic struggles and an antidote against black genocide in the Americas.

Why should anthropology reclaim quilombismo today? As Brazilian anthropologists committed to quilombola life forms, at least two contemporary movements have driven us toward this course of action. First is the international political conjuncture, which attests to the revival of an era of extremes. The exhaustion of old strategies of reconciling antagonistic interests, which underpinned both the social democracy in the western world and the pact of the new republic in Brazil, is increasingly evident. In a scenario where the ultra-right uprising is not an exclusive Brazilian feature, one of the great challenges is to dispute a horizon of common transformations in which the lack of black propositions contributes to the renewal of old white totalitarianisms.

But what would be the role of anthropology in this reclaiming of the quilombismo? The first task consists of contributing to the reopening of debates within the various currents of pan-Africanist thought. In addition to conceiving the quilombos in tandem with other emancipatory struggles in Africa and the diaspora, this means broadening the political spectrum beyond the maintenance of territorial rights guaranteed by the Brazilian Constitution of 1988. To advance this proposition, it is necessary to remember what was known as the “resemanticizing” of quilombos in Brazil and the role played by anthropology in this process.

The work of the Brazilian Anthropological Association (ABA) with politicians and activists of the Black movement was very effective in translating the notion of “quilombo remnants” under legal frameworks compatible with the diversity of Afro-Brazilian forms of association and territoriality (Arruti 2006). The very elaboration of Decree No. 4.887/2003, responsible for regulating the constitutional article that guarantees territorial rights to quilombola communities, results from this gesture of public anthropology. Nonetheless, with the hope of making the constitutional text effective, Brazilian anthropology also contributed to the conversion of quilombismo into demands for contextually located recognition and distributive justice. Translated by ethnicity studies and the vast national literature on peasantry, the quilombista proposition was purified from their most radical aspect, associated with the pan-Africanist agenda.

However, the current situation is different, much less lured by the conciliatory compromise that marked the celebration of the 1988 constitutional charter. Between 2008 and 2017, there were thirty-eight murders in quilombola communities motivated by racism and violence related to territorial disputes with agribusiness. It is also worth mentioning the 350 percent increase in the number of quilombola murders between 2016 and 2017, from four to eighteen (CONAQ and Terra de Direitos 2018).

At the same time, the dismantling of the state apparatus that promotes public policies and the enforcement of laws that guaranteed rights to traditional populations is underway. In its administrative restructuring, the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), responsible for the regularization procedures of the quilombola territories, was transferred from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Agriculture, giving control of titling these territories to the most radical faction of Brazilian agribusiness. Not coincidentally, the budget allocation for 2019 reserved for expropriations is only R$3,423,082.00, which is just over 6 percent of the R$54,200,000.00 allocated in 2010.

Such data reveal a true necropolitics (Mbembe 2003) directed at this population segment, articulating forms of “make die” and “let die,” of genocide and neglect. Moreover, with the rise of Bolsonarism and its conservative turn, there is no longer room for conciliation appeals based on the republican pact and respect for minority groups. What follows in Brazil today is an explicit offensive against the Afro-Brazilian population, both in the countryside and on the outskirts of cities. President Jair Bolsonaro was recently acquitted of a lawsuit filed by the Federal Public Prosecution Service that accused him of racist claims against quilombolas. In April 2017, the then presidential candidate said at a public event that “quilombolas weren’t even fit for breeding,” as well as comparing Afro-descendants to animals that weigh “seven arrobas.” In this light, nothing is more naive than to expect from the state apparatus any effort to support quilombola resistance.

I would like to insist on a second contemporary movement that encourages us, as anthropologists, to reclaim quilombismo. This last one, even more provocative to the ethnographic tradition, is to take seriously the way quilombolas themselves are updating the quilombist proposition. Increasingly present in undergraduate and graduate programs, quilombola students are experiencing a creative process of appropriating African American literature. In my own research experience with quilombola communities in the Brazilian Cerrado region, I have been following the way youths have sought to resume the quilombist proposition in their monographs and dissertations (Silva 2019). And they do so in a very original way, articulating it with the intellectual production of contemporary quilombola thinkers, such as Antonio Bispo and his “counter-colonial” proposition (Santos 2015).

This is an unpremeditated effect of affirmative action policy in Brazil: as it was up to the quilombolas themselves to reclaim quilombismo, it is up to anthropology to learn from them how to resist the end-times of conciliations.


Arruti, José Maurício. 2006. Mocambo: Antropologia e história do processo de formação quilombola. 1st ed. Bauru: Edusc.

CONAQ and Terra de Direitos. 2018. Racismo e violência contra quilombos no Brasil. Curitiba: Terra de Direitos.

Mbembe, Achille. 2003. “Necropolitics.” Translated by Libby Meintjes. Public Culture 15, no. 1: 11–40.

Nascimento, Abdias do. 2002. O Quilombismo. Rio de Janeiro: Fundação Palmares/OR Editor Produtor Editor.

Santos, Antonio Bispo. 2015. Colonização, Quilombos: Modos e Significações. Brasília: Instituto de Inclusão no Ensino Superior e na Pesquisa.

Silva, Ana Claudia Matos da. 2019. “Uma escrita contra-colonialista do quilombo Mumbuca (Jalapão-TO).” PhD diss., Universidade de Brasília.