Stanford University The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute
Outspoken Brazilian Civil Rights Leader Abdias do Nascimento Dies at 97
June 01, 2011

Artist, politican, and scholar Abdias do Nascimento died in Rio de Janeiro from complications of diabetes. He was 97.

The grandson of slaves, Abdias do Nascimento was born in the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo in 1914. While he earned a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Rio de Janeiro, Nascimento began his involvement in the country's civil rights movement, the Brazilian Black Forest, as a teenager. From that point on, Nascimento would establish himself as a voice of dissent against governmental insistence and popular belief that Brazil was a racial democracy. "He was a legend," wrote Princeton professor of sociology, Edward E. Telles. "He wasn't afraid to tell people that racial democracy was a myth. And he said it for 60 years."

In combating the racism embedded in Brazilian society, Nascimento founded the Black Experimental Theater in 1944 to celebrate the country's African-influenced culture. The theater countered tradition by training black actors for roles usually filled by white actors in blackface, and sponsored civil rights events including the inaugural 1950 Congress of Brazilian Blacks.

Nascimento entered the realm of politics with his involvement in the foundation of the Afro-Brazilian Democratic Committee in 1945, which fought for the release of political prisoners. When the military overthrew the Brazilian government in 1964, Nascimento left for the United States and Nigeria; he did not return to Brazil until the early 1980s. During his self-imposed exile, he taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo where he established the chair of African cultures within the Puerto Rican studies program and spent time lecturing at both Yale and Wesleyan. At the same time, Nascimento began producing art work that put human and natural images together with shapes suggestive of the Afro-Brazilian culture and religion.

In the late 1970s, although still in exile, Nascimento re-entered Brazilian politics through his involvement with the newly founded Democratic Labor Party of Brazil. Insisting that the party's platform deal with issues of racial discrimination, he served as a congressman and senator after the fall of the country's military dictatorship. Following his return, Nascimento was influential in the founding of the Afro-Brazilian Studies and Research Institute in Rio de Janeiro known as Ipeafro. His widow, Elisa Larkin Nascimento, is the current director of the Institute.

"There was no more important Brazilian than Nascimento since the abolition of slavery in 1888," said Wayne State University professor of Africana Studies, Ollie A. Johnson. "For Americans to understand him and his contribution, you'd have to say he was a little bit of Marcus Garvey, a little of W.E.B. DuBois, a little bit of Langston Hughes and a little bit of Adam Clayton Powell."

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