In 1995, Brazilian political activist Beatriz Nascimento publicly confronted a man, Antônio Jorge Amorim Viana, for physically assaulting her friend, Áurea Gurgel da Silveira, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A few weeks later, Nascimento, while in a bar, was shot dead by the man after reportedly advising her friend to leave him. Her tragic death on this day in 1995 remains a loss to many, including the many women and students she worked with while fighting for Black liberation.
At the time of her death, Nascimento probably didn’t know that confronting Viana publicly about domestic violence would cause her death, after all, she had been speaking and writing about the ills of society and how Black people would be freed from oppression if Black women are liberated from the violence of male-dominated society. Thus, it was expected that she would speak against a violent boyfriend, but she paid the price for it.
Born on July 12, 1942, Nascimento, by the age of 28, had started her undergraduate degree in history at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). During this period, the civil rights movements in the U.S. had picked up steam while in Brazil, discussions about race and power were just beginning. Nascimento, being one of few Black students in her history program, came face to face with racism during her years in school.
She would before graduating gain interest in how “quilombos” could serve the wider cause of anti-racism in Brazil or become “alternative forms of society and government for Black people.” Quilombo was the name given to one of the first places, in the Americas, where Black people, who were brought to the New World enslaved, found freedom. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, more than four million Africans were transported to Brazil as slaves to work in the sugar plantation in Brazil. Some of the slaves escaped the brutal slave owners and lived unobtrusively in isolated regions (quilombos) as a way to avoid recapture.
They carved out homes in the hinterlands as far as the Amazon and carried on with their African way of living, which had been suppressed while in captivity. For almost a hundred years, Black people in quilombos fought against their enslavers, particularly the Portuguese who attempted to colonize Brazil.
In her articles published in widely circulated newspapers and national magazines, and the 1989 documentary, Ori, Nascimento looked into the concept of the quilombo, and, according to a report, “traced the links between Black Brazilian communities and the cultural and political traditions of several African countries,” all the while arguing that quilombos have practical use in the contemporary society.
As anthropologist and author Alex Ratts said: “Nascimento knew that quilombos were not fixed places.”
“She was the one who widened the meaning of the term quilombo. In her thinking, there could be quilombos in literature, in history—even a person could be a quilombo.”
And her ideas have in recent years grabbed the attention of Black people in cities in Brazil. Some have begun forming urban quilombos — spaces to celebrate their identity and energize their fight against racism. Others are also moving towards “aquilombar” (the verb form of quilombos) on social media and in literature and art, TIME reported.
Currently, around 56% of Brazilians identify as Black, making them the largest population of African descent outside of Africa. In the early 90s when Nascimento became a key figure in Brazil’s Black rights movement, many of her colleague writers, activists, and artists had to flee the country over fears they may be targeted by the then-military dictatorship. But Nascimento stayed and continued to travel across the country speaking on issues about gender, racial equity, and political suppression.
Amid her work on Black Brazil, Nascimento, also a poet, touched on the experiences of being a Black woman in most of her works. In an essay she wrote five years before her murder, the academic and activist looked at the implications of “colorism, misogyny, and the violent sexual legacy of slavery” on Black love and intimacy. This is where she argued that to achieve freedom for Black people, Black women must first be freed from the violence of a male-dominated society. And that is largely why she intervened in her friend’s relationship issues with a “violent boyfriend”, only to be killed at the end.
When the man, Viana, was caught after allegedly shooting her, he blamed it on alcohol and drugs. And that is how Brazil and the world, in general, lost an intellectual, activist, and dedicated researcher who was all for the Black Movement.
“Being black is facing a history of almost five hundred years of resistance to pain, physical and moral suffering, the feeling of not existing, the practice of still not belonging to a society in which he consecrated everything that he possessed, offering still today the rest of himself/herself. Being black cannot be reduced to a “state of spirit”, “white or black soul,”* the aspects of behavior that certain whites choose as being black and so adopt them as their own,” Nascimento stated in 1974.