The book: Poet, historian, and activist Beatriz Nascimento (1942-1995) was a leader and powerful voice in Brazil’s Black consciousness movement. The Dialectic is in the Sea (Princeton University Press) offers the first English translation of Nascimento's writings. This collection traces her thoughts throughout her years as an activist covering a breadth of topics from Black women to Black spirituality. It also includes an introduction by Nascimento’s daughter Bethânia Gomes, who shares personal insights that add invaluable context to the life and career of Nascimento.
The authors: Archie Davies is a lecturer in geography and fellow of the Institute of Humanities fellow of the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at Queen Mary University of London.
Bethânia N.F. Gomes is the daughter of Beatriz Nascimento and a former principal dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She’s also the founder of the Beatriz Nascimento Foundation, which promotes Afro-Brazilian arts and education.
Christen A. Smith ’99 earned her undergraduate degree from Princeton in anthropology and Ph.D. in cultural and social anthropology from Stanford. She is an associate professor of anthropology and African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
Beatriz Nascimento was one of the most innovative Black intellectuals of the twentieth century in the Americas. During the twenty-five-year period in which she wrote, she produced compelling, avant-garde, and foundational ideas about the Black condition and the Atlantic world. A working-class Black woman who grew up in the peripheries of Sergipe and Rio de Janeiro, she was a radical public intellectual, and an organizer in Brazil’s Black Movement from the 1970s through the 1990s. She critiqued white supremacy, patriarchy, sexism, racial capitalism, white paternalism, and racial democracy at the height of Brazil’s military dictatorship, making her a critical voice on the Left during one of the most repressive periods in Latin American modern history. She was also one of only a few women to become a leading intellectual voice on the national stage for Brazil’s Black Movement in that time of intense political struggle. She was transnational in her thinking, passionate in her critiques, and decisive in her analytics. In 1995, her life was cut short when she was tragically murdered, leaving behind unfinished essays, unrealized dreams, and our own speculations about the global impact she could have had, should she have lived longer. In the spirit of expanding her reach and her legacy, this book is the first to collect and translate her work into English.
Beatriz Nascimento engaged in topics from Brazilian history, culture, and politics, to race, gender, and sexuality. She wrote academic scholarship, public opinion pieces, essays, and poetry. Her primary theoretical contributions focused on the past and present life of quilombos — communities of runaway enslaved Africans that formed in Brazil beginning in the sixteenth century (roughly translated as maroon communities). However, despite her deep and richly insightful work, to date her oeuvre has been understudied. Like many intellectuals from the Global South writing and researching in languages other than English — especially Black and Indigenous scholars—Beatriz Nascimento has not received the global academic attention she deserves. The fields to which she contributed most — history, human geography, anthropology, sociology, communications, Black Studies, and gender and sexuality studies — can learn much from her writings. This book hopes to partly redress her marginalization by putting her into her rightful place in the global Black radical tradition.
A Short Biography
Beatriz Nascimento was born in Aracaju, Sergipe, Brazil, on July 12, 1942. Her parents, Rubina Pereira Nascimento and Francisco Xavier do Nascimento, had ten children, of whom Beatriz was the eighth. Her mother cared for the family and the home, and her father worked as a stonemason. When she was seven, the family moved from the northeast to Rio de Janeiro, and settled in the suburb of Cordovil.
After excelling at school, Beatriz Nascimento briefly worked in a textile workshop. In 1967 she married José do Rosário Freitas Gomes, an artist and architect from Cape Verde, with whom she had one child, Bethânia Gomes. That same year, she began her undergraduate studies, and completed her bachelor’s degree in history from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) in 1971. Afterward, she interned at the National Archives in Rio de Janeiro, working with the historian of Rio de Janeiro, José Honório Rodrigues (1913–1987). She completed graduate work at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF) in 1981. In 1994 she began a master’s in communication from the UFRJ under the direction of renowned Black Brazilian intellectual Muniz Sodré.
Beatriz Nascimento’s most sustained academic and political concern was “to rewrite and reinterpret the history of black people in Brazil” — a task that she connected directly to the question of Black liberation, freedom, and peace. For Nascimento, writing history was a fiercely political act. She used historical analysis to mount an affront against the racism of the Brazilian academy and the Brazilian state. She relentlessly insisted on documenting the intrinsic and intimate relationship between living Black people, African history in Africa and the Americas, and Black cultural practices and forms. Her research on quilombos was key to this life project. Quilombos became the representation of Black continuity for Beatriz Nascimento. While pursuing her thesis at UFF (in the 1970s), she conducted ethnography on surviving quilombo communities in the state of Minas Gerais. Between 1976 and 1979 she investigated this topic, often working with Black anthropologist Marlene de Oliveira Cunha (1950–1988). Cunha was the first president of the Grupo de Trabalho André Rebouças (GTAR) and collaborated with Nascimento, undertaking oral history and archival research in a quilombo near Carmo da Mata in Minas Gerais. The most important elements of this work were published and became part of Nascimento’s master’s thesis. A large portion of this work is gathered in part III of this book.
Nascimento carefully crafted a theory of quilombo that argued for a continuous sociocultural-political relationship between the historical practice of quilombo and Brazil’s Black culture today—particularly as it manifests in favelas. She developed this perspective through her ethnographic interactions with quilombo communities, her close analysis of urban Black culture in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and her archival research on quilombos in Angola, Brazil, and Portugal. Nascimento always saw this research as intimately connected to her political work. And, as her writing in this collection shows, she also connected this work to her personal experience.
Beatriz Nascimento’s political and intellectual trajectory can be traced back to her work as a student organizer in Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s and 1970s. As the global student protest movement reached its apex in May 1968, students on the Left in Brazil protested the military dictatorship, marched in the streets, and occupied universities. These actions were met with police repression, torture, and disappearances. During this period, Nascimento participated in, and helped found, several Black student groups at UFF. She took part in important public events and debates around Blackness and contemporary racial politics, contributing to the resurgence of Black activism in the context of Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964–85). While the stories of student and leftist organizing during the dictatorship have become central to political discourse in Brazil in the four decades since the end of the period, histories of the Black experience under the dictatorship remain silenced and marginalized. The dictatorship was a dangerous time for anyone to be politically active, and to be a young Black woman leading student and Black political movements was highly risky work. Nevertheless, Nascimento remained outspoken and active throughout the most intense periods of political repression.
Beatriz Nascimento was an early member of the Movimento Negro Unificado (MNU, the Unified Black Movement). In the early 1970s she began to organize student groups in Rio de Janeiro and Niterói, and at the newly created the Centro de Estudos Afro-Asiáticos (CEAA, Centre for Afro-Asiatic Studies), founded in 1973. With others, including Eduardo de Oliveira e Oliveira (1924–1980) and Marlene Cunha, she founded and ran the Grupo Trabalho André Rebouças (GTAR, The André Rebouças Working Group). The group was both academic and activist, made up of Black students and scholars. It was named, by Beatriz Nascimento herself, after the Black Brazilian engineer and abolitionist André Pinto Rebouças (1798–1880). Under Nascimento’s intellectual leadership, the GTAR had the strategy of taking their meetings outside the university, and they organized events at the CEAA as well as at the Teatro Opinião (The Opinion Theater) in Copacabana. For instance, in 1976 they organized the Week of Study on the Contribution of Black People in the Brazilian Social Formation, and they continued to organize events for two decades.
In 1977 Nascimento was one of only a few women who took part in the Quinzena do Negro (Black Fortnight) at the University of São Paulo. This was a vitally important event in the history of Black Brazilian thought, bringing together activists and scholars, and setting out new directions for the movement. At the Quinzena, Nascimento was in dialogue with other important Black scholar activists, like Hamilton Cardoso (1953–1999) and Eduardo de Oliveira e Oliveira. It was during the Quinzena that Nascimento introduced her early theoretical ideas about quilombos as not just historical occurrences but also cultural and political practices that can be traced back to Bantu-Congo (Angolan) cultural practices. She also expounded her reflections on the intersectional political realities of Black women in Brazil and articulated a critique of racism in the Brazilian academy. In various capacities she worked with, or was in dialogue with, other important Black women intellectuals and activists, such as Thereza Santos and Lélia Gonzalez. Nascimento maintained a wide and deep network of relationships with Black activists not just in Brazil but increasingly across the Atlantic world.
In September–October 1979 Nascimento made an important trip to Angola, via Portugal, to conduct research on quilombos and write on newly emerging social and national formations in the recently independent African nation. In 1987–88 she traveled to Dakar with a Brazilian delegation to attend the Festival Pan-Africaine des Arts et Cultures (FESPAC, The Pan-African Festival of Art and Culture). Her archive attests to a growing international network in this period, and in the early 1990s she traveled to the Caribbean, to Martinique and Haiti. Following the success of her film Ôrí (1989), which won international prizes from Ouagadougou to Portugal and San Francisco, Nascimento was invited, alongside her collaborator, the film director Raquel Gerber, to present the film outside Brazil, including in Germany.
Nascimento’s activism is indissociable from her writing and research, and she writes explicitly about her activist work in texts published here, such as “The Slaves Seen by the Masters: Merchandise and Counterculture in National Cinema,” and “Maria Beatriz Nascimento: Researcher.” The most poetic source, however, for her activist work, is perhaps the film Ôrí, which she worked on between 1977 and 1988 with its director, Raquel Gerber. The film, which was released in 1989, draws on her research, writing, and political practice, and constitutes one of Nascimento’s most significant intellectual offerings.
Nascimento continued to write and research while teaching in the early 1990s, particularly in publications linked to the Black Movement. Beatriz Nascimento’s life ended tragically on January 28, 1995. She was murdered while defending a friend, Áurea Gurgel Calvet da Silveira, against an abusive partner. Upon her death, the secretary of the antiracist organization the Centro de Articulação de Populações Marginalizadas (Centre for the Articulation of Marginalized Populations), Ivanir dos Santos, placed her death in a long line of murders of Black political activists. She was in a relationship with Roberto Rosemburg at the time of her death. She was buried in the São João Batista cemetery in Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro.
In addition to her published articles and essays, Nascimento left a substantial archive of unpublished academic and nonacademic work. It is clear that if she had continued living, she would have published prolifically. Her research incorporated a broad range of topics, including but not limited to African and Afro-Brazilian history, the Black condition, gendered racism, and Black love. Her work helped build the intellectual foundation for Brazil’s Black Movement at a key moment in its history by forging a new Brazilian thought and politics.
Since her death, Beatriz Nascimento has been increasingly recognized as a vital figure in Black Brazilian intellectual and political history. In 1997 the Afro-bloco Ilê Aiyê paid homage to her in their carnival presentation. In 2016 the National Archive in Rio de Janeiro named its main library after her. In October 2021 the UFRJ, her alma mater, bestowed her an honorary doctorate.
In the rest of this introduction, we first place Beatriz Nascimento’s work in the context of the Black radical tradition in Brazil. We then introduce how her work might be read in relation to contemporary English-language Black Studies, Black feminism, and critical geography, articulating how her theorizations of the quilombo and transatlantic Black history and experience can extend and challenge our understandings of Blackness, race, space, and nature in the anglophone world. Finally, we discuss the spirit of collaboration that lies behind this book, as well as some of the challenges and nuances of translating Beatriz Nascimento into English.
Excerpted from THE DIALECTIC IS IN THE SEA: THE BLACK RADICAL THOUGHT OF BEATRIZ NASCIMENTO © 2023 by Beatriz Nascimento; edited and translated by Christen A. Smith, Bethânia N.F. Gomes, and Archie Davies. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.
"Groundbreaking ... . Radical and influential, Nascimento’s work is available here for the first time in English." — Karla J. Strand, Ms. Magazine
“A beautiful and necessary collection. The Dialectic Is in the Sea offers an exciting and deeply important opportunity to bring the work of a significant Black Brazilian intellectual and activist to an English-speaking audience.” — Alissa Trotz, editor of The Point Is to Change the World: Selected Writings of Andaiye