No Free Labour

Slavery remains endemic to Brazil. Danda quilombo, July 2015.

Jair Bolsonaro’s violent authoritarianism is nothing new in Brazilian society.  The country’s Afro-Brazilian population lived under these terms for centuries.  Today Bolsonaro voices an unfounded belief, common in the United States as well as Brazil, that slavery is long gone and irrelevant to contemporary concerns. 

Cultural activists are challenging that ahistorical denial.  Brazilian artist Marcelo D’Salete’s Run for It: Stories of Slaves who Fought for their Freedom (Fantagraphics, 2018) provides one antidote.   Originally published in Portuguese in 2014 as Cumbe, the book won awards in Brazil and recently took an Eisner award for best international material published in a US edition. 

US readers do not have an extensive selection of graphic literature dealing with chattel slavery.  Given that transatlantic slavery and African genocide were formative for the Americas, this lacuna needs questioning and challenge.  Despite some excellent recent efforts, such as the Duffy-Jennings graphic edition of Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner, graphic treatments of historic slavery remain mostly outside mass-market venues. 

This avoidance speaks to a pervasive preference in US society to overlook the social history of slavery and its historical decedents.  For too many people, discussion of slavery should have ended after the Civil War.  Images of slavery provoke unwanted guilt. So, while mass-market comics use references to and tropes of slavery, as happens in Black Panther, they avoid wrestling with historical slavery as a topic.  There is little market payback. 

More than avoidance, representations of US slavery most often fail to contextualise it within a hemispheric history.  African slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean remains in the background, as do antislavery movements and liberation struggles.  US slavery becomes an isolate, a ‘peculiar institution’ that was, in reality, a vast interrelated colonial system and not at all peculiar. 

D’Salete’s work is especially important for how it parallels emergent understandings of slave revolts in the Americas.  The then-Marxist Eugene Genovese and David Brion Davis represented an earlier group of scholars who located slave revolts within a transatlantic perspective, one that examined rebellions in Europe and the Americas as twinned phenomena.  Another group of scholars – Edward Braithwaite and Sidney Mintz, for example – addressed Creolisation as a source of social change that emphasised less violent means of assuming power in colonies. 

A third group can be identified in the work of Paul Lovejoy and John K. Thornton and their concern for the African presence in American slave societies, including how African culture informed slave revolts.  In so doing they question the extent of European inspiration for African revolts.  Lovejoy, especially in some of his more recent work, has examined how African-born consciousness of freedom shaped slave consciousness in the Americas, and how retained cultural memories supported willingness to revolt.

The four stories in this volume, as Allan da Rosa points out in a brief forward, manifest Bantu culture brought primarily from Congo and Angola.  Bantu culture infused the Palmares quilombo (escaped slaves settlement), that powerful symbol of resistance to European slavery.  Bantu phrases, concepts, and iconography stream through Run for It, a reminder that enslavement never extinguished a profoundly defining African cultural presence.

All of the stories are traumatic.  For the most part, they do not end well for the vassals, a realistic point, but all emphasise an indelible spirit of resistance even where the colonial slave masters triumph. 

The first, ‘Kalunga’ (a multivalent Bantu term referring to God, or in this case, the sea), tells the story of two lovers, Nana and Valu, on a sugar plantation.  D’Salete’s black-wash drawings juxtapose the oppressive architecture of a massive sugar press with the humans who labour to feed it.  Nana, a domestic servant, is more content with her lot; Valu, a field hand, cannot bear slavery and wants to escape with her.  The story concludes with Valu murdering Nana then attempting a futile escape run that concludes with him swimming to his death in the ocean. 

In this tale and elsewhere, D’Salete employs women as subjects for violent jealous rage, a narrative choice not muted when Valu goes to his watery death dreaming that Nana arises from the ocean depths to greet him with a kiss (an image also featured on the back cover, underlining its importance).  The surreal image of a dead woman come alive to greet her drowning murderer-lover with a kiss has a Poe-esque quality, not a compliment given Poe’s pervasive misogynistic association of women and death.      

This association continues in the next story, ‘Sumidouro,’that tells of plantation rape and murder.  The term sumidouro refers to a mythic deep well supposed to be connected to an underground river. The story takes place on Mr. Tomé’s plantation where he rapes Calu, a slave woman.  She becomes pregnant and incurs the jealousy of Tomé’s wife, who steals the newborn and drops it into the well.  Calu cannot find justice for the murder of her child and, facing a whipping for revealing the crime to a priest, she kills her slave-master instead.  The story suggests that Calu retreats into fantastical imagination of her lost child.  Her tears become infants and float away. Unlike the first story where a woman remains male obsession and victim, in this story a slave-woman possesses agency, wile, and an ability to use violence where slaveholder injustice prevails. 

‘Sumidouro’ is redolent with visualisation of psychological tropes – the well, blood, tears, eyes, knives, cattle skulls, turtle-shell patterns.  D’Salete packs imagery into narrative frames where they speak through the silence and minimal dialogue that inhabit many pages.  Closure can be ambiguous so as not to limit rebellion’s possibilities.

The individual slave rebellions in the first half of the book shift into collective action in the second half.  ‘Cumbe’ (a synonym for the quilombo settlements of escaped slaves) details the origins of a failed local slave revolt.  It portrays a slave community that overcomes fears of betrayal and internal divisions to achieve unity, erasing the difference between creole and African.  D’Salete weaves his stories around the numerous rural slave revolts in the Bahian hinterlands during the early nineteenth century, many of them led by Africans relatively recently arrived in Brazil and labouring on sugar plantations.  This village revolt encounters the militia and finishes quickly, with bodies littering the street.  An old African woman prophesizes “Cumbe is strength.  It always comes back.”  Quilombo warriors watching the massacre from concealment in the forest suggest how cumbe will return. 

The fourth story, ‘Malungo’ (companion), takes readers to the quilombo and completes the progression from isolated individuals to articulated community.  Yet here once again D’Salete uses sexual violence against a woman to provide motivation for male-led slave revolt.  It provides the story’s protagonist, Damiāo, with cause to return to his old plantation and rescue a masculinity too young to resist when a slave-master raped and murdered a girl he loved. 

The repetition of a rape-murder theme mars this volume and questions D’Salete’s apparent reluctance to imagine women as resistant actors in their own right. This section concludes with an invocation of a revivified young woman with a flower, a circle dance led by drums, and the image of a frightened white slave-master who has lost everything to the rebels and is watching his plantation burn.              

There is a risk of historical misimpression here.  The Palmares quilombo did not last until the eighteenth century and Brazilian slavery lasted until 1888, the end of the nineteenth century.  Slave revolts were more numerous and stronger in Brazil than in the United States, but they did not bring down slavery.  At the same time, one of the tasks of antislavery fiction, embodied in Run for It despite the flaws, is to imagine the untold stories of resistance to slavery, the stories that the upper class did not tell or publish.

Screenshot courtesy of the United Nations. All rights reserved.