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Quilombo

Concepts and Repertoires of Living Together (RePLITO)

Published onAug 26, 2021
Quilombo

Quilombo is a multi-sited concept that encompasses historic and continual movements of decolonial and anti-racist struggles, initiated by runaway enslaved persons in the colonial regime. Both a theory and a practice, the notion of quilombo involves political strategies, embodied memories, and everyday practices of fugitivity and living together, that directly interrogate the Eurocentric definition of ‘social cohesion’. Hence, more than a countermovement to survive, quilombo is the radical propose for coalition and a politics of and for life.

Officially, the term quilombo first appeared in a Portuguese reference 1559, related to the colonial fear of slaves’ flight and insurgency. In 1740 the Conselho Ultramarino formally defined quilombo as a community of at least five “runaway enslaved persons” (Moura 1981, 16; B. Nascimento 1975, 67). Yet, different official definitions of the quilombo coexisted in the country. Accordingly, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, there were colonial chambers which defined quilombos as two or more runaway slaves, and others that established as a requirement the existence of “ranchos e pilões” (ranches and pylons), for instance, which refers to the organization of a fixed economic structure (Gomes 2015, 38). More than defining it, the practice of quilombo was legally framed as a crime. Such a juridical persecution formally endured until the formal abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888 (Alencastro 2000, 345). Nevertheless, and refusing the myth of racial democracy, the juridical and political antiblackness extermination remains in the afterlives of slavery until today (A. Nascimento 1989; Flauzina 2006; Hartman 2007; Vargas 2008).1

Historically, since the first decades of Brazil’s colonization, such communities were known first as mocambos and only later as quilombos (Gomes 2015, 6-7). Far from a Portuguese term, both were Central African words used to designate improvised camps, used for warfare or even slave arrests. The kilombos have been territories where persons from multiple trajectories, languages, and backgrounds formed communities and articulations to live together  (A. Nascimento 1980; Guimarães/Cardoso 2001, 96).2 Instead of a common economic system, the quilombo communities have had multiple forms of socioeconomic structures. Given this reality, it is more appropriate to describe their common feature as that of non-isolation (Gomes 2015, 10), that is, the “rede” (web): the coalition. The description of the quilombo as a type of alternative society, where everyone would be free and equal, just as it would have been in Africa, has been considered within a critical historiographic framework as a romanticized reading of Africa (Reis/Gomes 1996, 11).

Spread throughout the Americas, quilombo refers to Afro-diasporic communities similar to the cumbes, palenques, mambises, ladeiras, bush negroes, cimarrones, cimaronaje, marronages, and maroons (Price 1973, 10, 17; Gonzalez 1988, 76-79).

Politically, the quilombo practice of “fugitivity” does not refer to an action taken to avoid or to escape from a problem. Rather, the notion of fugitivity relates to the movements of exodus, exile, abolition, transmigração the movement towards the disruption of the Othering mechanism that objectifies Black corporeality and forms of living. It “is above all the result of a whole process of reorganisation and contestation of the established order” (B. Nascimento 1975, 73). “[T]here is no outside, refusal takes place inside and makes its break, its flight, its exodus from the inside” (Moten/Harney 2013, 64).

In 1980, the writer, politician, and founder of the Black Experimental Theatre in Brazil (TNE) Abdias do Nascimento coined the term “quilombismo” to refer to the praxis of Afro-Brazilians implicated in the vital necessity to survive and assure their own existence, which manifested in the form of flight as well as in the active organization of a free society (A. Nascimento 1980, 255). For him, such a free society entailed an economic system based on communitarianism from the ‘African tradition’. There, all the means of production, natural elements, and land would be from collective use and ownership; and people would be free from the techno-capitalist form of production and exploitation (ibidem, 263-264). In this way, the concept of quilombismo evokes an anti-capitalist and anti-racist ideology, an idealized political project.

The most studied example of a historical anti-slavery community in Brazil has been the Quilombo dos Palmares.3 Founded in the sixteenth century in the captaincy of Pernambuco (the modern-day states of Pernambuco, Alagoas, and Sergipe), the Quilombo dos Palmares is considered the largest anti-colonial settlement in all Latin America. Since the 1970s, the Unified Black Movement in Brazil (MNU) has been invoking the counter-narrative of Palmares and its century-long resistance against colonial attacks as a symbol of resistance (E. Carneiro 1966; B. Nascimento 1990, 350).

In an innovative, and, I would say, feminist way, Beatriz Nascimento proposes an understanding of quilombo as a non-sporadic and continual movement, that overcomes the ultra-masculinized descriptions of the warrior (embodied by the figure of Zumbi dos Palmares), as well as the romanticized reading of quilombo (B. Nascimento 1975, 67). Despite the absence of official reports on women’s presence in the quilombos, Nascimento evokes the important role performed by Black women in providing conditions for the formation of a quilombo. “It was up to the woman to sustain the escape” (B. Nascimento 1989, 335; own translation).

By engaging with the ongoing praxis of quilombo, Beatriz Nascimento brings to the forefront the peace as a crucial and profoundly dismissed element (B. Nascimento 1975, 76). In fact, in a remarkable number of cases throughout the Americas (for instance: Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Mexico, and Surinam), colonial/settlers forces had to propose to a maroon/quilombo community a ‘peace treaty’. Freedom would be offered to the communities, and in return, slave-owners demanded “an agreement to end all hostilities toward the plantations, to return all future runaways and, often, to aid the whites in hunting them down” (Price 1973, 14-15; Gomes 2015, 44). By situating quilombo beyond the context of the war, Nascimento importantly defines it as not only as a reaction to the politics of extermination, but also as a movement towards the continuity of life, in an everyday life community. Instead of understanding quilombo mainly in relation to violence, or erasing its contradictions (B. Nascimento 1975, 67), quilombo is conceived as a complex politics of and for life.

The Brazilian 1988 Constitution established as a modern juridico-political collective/group identity the ‘quilombo remnant communities’ (art. 68/ADCT). Different from a top-down decision, the Constitutional provision was an achievement of the Black Unified Movement (MNU), in which Lélia Gonzalez, Abdias do Nascimento and Beatriz Nascimento, for instance, were active members. They organized the Convention of Black People for the Constituent, in which 580 anti-racist organizations gathered and prepared a unified document that systematized common revindications for the new Constituent. In 1987, the document was presented to the National Constituent Assembly, and only then, the Constitution of 1988 recognized the ‘quilombo remnant communities’, especially regarding their territorial rights.

In the last decades in Brazil, the practice of quilombo has been widely voiced by Black activists with the claim to “aquilombar” the politics. In 2019, the Afro-Brazilian writer Conceição Evaristo wrote the poem “Tempo de nos Aquilombar”, in English “Time for us to Aquilombar”. Aquilombar, that is, the quilombo conceived as a verb, as a practice, as a movement.

“It is time to form new quilombos, / wherever we are, / and may the future days to come, ‘salve’ 2021, / the quilombola mystic persists in stating: ‘freedom is a constant struggle’” (Evaristo 2019; own translation).

With the reference to the title of an Angela Davis’ book and concept, “Freedom is a constant struggle” (Davis 2016), the quilombo vitalizes transnational, non-binary, and transdisciplinary coalitions between anti-racist, decolonial and feminist praxis, yesterday, today and towards other futurities.

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