Abdias do Nascimento

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Abdias do Nascimento

Abdias do Nascimento

Early life/education

Abdias do Nascimentowas born in the town of Franca, State of Sao Paulo, Brazil, in March 1914-the grandson of enslaved Africans. His father was a cobbler and a musician; his mother made and catered sweets and candies. He earned a secondary level degree in accounting in 1929. He earned a B. A. in Economics from the University of Rio de Janeiro in 1938, and post-graduate degrees from the Higher Institute of Brazilian Studies (1957) and the Oceanography Institute (1961). He holds honorary Ph.D.s from the State University of Rio de Janeiro, the Federal University of Bahia, the University of Brasília, the State University of Bahia, and Obafemi Awolowo University of Ile-Ife, Nigeria[1].


Nascimento participated in Brazil’s early civil rights movement, the Brazilian Black Front (Sao Paulo, 1929-30). He led the organization of the Afro-Campineiro Congress, which protested against racial discrimination and discussed race relations in the city of Campinas, Sao Paulo State, in 1938. He participated in the movement against the New State government and was imprisoned in Rio de Janeiro. He protested against racial discrimination in Sao Paulo and spent two years as a political prisoner at the Carandiru Penitentiary. In 1943, he founded the Convicts’ Theater, in which prisoners created, rehearsed, and presented their own stage works, and helped found the prisoners’ newspaper. In 1944, he founded the Black Experimental Theater (TEN) in Rio de Janeiro, which broke the color barrier in Brazilian theater, trained the first generation of black actors, and created opportunities for Afro-Brazilian playwrights and dramatists.

This was the first Afro-Brazilian organization to link the fight for black people’s civil and human rights to the recovery and valorization of African cultural heritage.

Under Abdias Nascimento’s leadership, TEN sponsored the National Black Convention, held in Sao Paulo and in Rio de Janeiro in 1945-46, and the First Congress of Brazilian Blacks (Rio de Janeiro, 1950). The National Black Convention formulated "anti-discrimination and affirmative anti-racist policy measures" and presented them to the Constituent Assembly of 1946 under the sponsorship of Senator Hamilton Nogueira. Abdias Nascimento was a key organizer of the Afro-Brazilian Democratic Committee (1945-46), which fought for the release of political prisoners, and edited the newspaper Quilombo. Under his leadership, the Black Experimental Theater (TEN) organized important events on African culture, as well as art exhibitions, beauty contests and events like the Fine Arts Contest on the theme of The Black Christ, held in 1955 in Rio de Janeiro, on the occasion of the 36 th World Eucharistic Congress[2].

Negritude movement

As head of TEN, Nascimento maintained contact with African liberation movements and with the civil rights movement in the United States. He and the artists and intellectuals associated with TEN were the only, supporters in Brazil of the Negritude movement led by Leopold Senghor, Aime Cesaire, and Leon Damas. Yet in 1966, they were excluded from the official Brazilian delegation to the First World Festival of Negro Arts, held in Senegal as President Senghor’s international statement of the value of African culture and Negritude.

Trouble with the Authorities

Abdias Nascimento’s Open Letter to Dakar denouncing the process that led to this exclusion was published in the journal Présence Africaine, and was the first "African-Brazilian intellectual’s protest to be heard by a world audience against racial discrimination in Brazil". From 1950 to 1968, Abdias Nascimento acted as founding curator of the Museum of Black Art, an initiative of the Black Experimental Theater implementing a resolution of the 1950 Congress of Brazilian Blacks. Its inaugural exhibit was held at the Museum of Image and Sound in Rio de Janeiro in 1968. During this period, he was active in the Brazilian Labor Party, the main democratic force opposing the authoritarian regime instituted by the 1964 military coup. Shortly after inaugurating the Museum of Black Art exhibit, Nascimento traveled to the United States with a Fairfield Foundation grant to promote exchange between the Afro-Brazilian and African American civil and human rights movements. Targeted by the military dictatorship’s police repression, he was unable to return to the country because of the authoritarian measures brought into effect by the 5th Institutional Act promulgated in December of that year[3].

Exile from Brazil/international networking

In 1968 Abdias do Nascimento was forced into exile by Brazil's military regime He spent the next 14 years at universities in the United States[4]and in (1975-76) studying in Ile-Ife, Nigeria[5].

During this period, Nascimento participated in many African world events including the Preparatory Meetings (Jamaica, 1973) of the 6th Pan-African Congress and in the Congress itself (Dar-es-Salaam, 1974). He also took part in the Encounter on African World Alternatives/ First Congress of the African Writers’ Union (Dakar, 1976), the 2d World Congress of Black and African Arts and Culture (Lagos, 1977) and the First and Second Congresses of Black Culture in the Americas (Cali, Colombia, 1977; Panama, 1980).

He was elected Vice-President and Coordinator of the Third Congress of Black Culture in the Americas. Also during this period of exile, he developed an extensive corpus of artwork – mostly paintings – dealing with African-Brazilian religious and cultural themes. He exhibited widely in the United States in galleries, museums, cultural centers, and universities, such as the Studio Museum in Harlem, Yale University, Howard University, the Museum of the Afro-American Artists’ Association, Ile-Ife Museum of Philadelphia, Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center In 1978, he participated in public protests, demonstrations, and in the creation of the United Black Movement against Racism and Racial Discrimination, now known as the MNU. He also helped, in 1980, to create the Memorial Zumbi, a national organization bringing together AfroBrazilian civil and human rights groups from all over the country; he served as its President from 1989 to 1998[6].

Return to Brazil

In the early 1981 Abdias do Nascimento returned to Brazil from the U.S. exile and was elected to the federal Chamber of Deputies[7].

He also founded Ipeafro, the Afro-Brazilian Studies and Research Institute, which sponsored the 3rd Congress of Black Culture in the Americas (Sao Paulo, 1982) and the National Seminar on 100 Years of Namibia’s Struggle for Independence (Rio de Janeiro, 1984). In these events organized by Ipeafro, for the first time representatives of the African National Congress of South Africa and the South West African Peoples Organization, were received in Brazil. Ipeafro created the first major teachers’ training course for the introduction of African and Afro-Brazilian culture in the school curriculum. Entitled Sankofa, it was held at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo in 1983-84 and at the State University of Rio de Janeiro from 1984 to 1995[8].


Abdias Nascimento worked with Leonel Brizola, during their exile, to create what would become the Democratic Labor Party (PDT) of Brazil.

As a result of Nascimento’s pioneering efforts, the party included the issue of racism and racial discrimination as a priority in its official political platform.

Abdias Nascimento also spearheaded the organization of the black movement within the Party.

Candidate in the first elections of the political liberalization period (state and local governments and the national Congress, but not the Presidency), he took office in 1983 as the first AfroBrazilian Congressman to defend his community's cause in the Brazilian national legislature. In Parliament, he introduced pioneering proposals for effective anti-discrimination legislation and presented the first bills of law proposing affirmative action measures. Serving on the Foreign Relations Committee, he proposed and articulated anti-Apartheid measures, supporting the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa and the Namibian independence movement led by SWAPO, and urging Brazil to break diplomatic relations with the Apartheid regime.

As a member of Congress, Abdias Nascimento participated in regional and international United Nations Conferences in support of the Namibian Peoples Struggle for Independence (San Jose, Costa Rica, 1983; New York, 1984). He was also a major force in the creation of the Palmares Cultural Foundation, an agency of the Ministry of Culture, as well as the institution of National Black Consciousness Day on November 20th, anniversary of the death of Zumbi dos Palmares.

In January 1999, after his term of office in the Senate was completed, he was appointed Secretary for Human Rights and Citizenship of the Rio de Janeiro State Government. In 1995, he served as Patron of the Continental Congress of Black People of the Americas, held at the Latin American Parliament in Sao Paulo, commemorating the Third Centennial of Zumbi of Palmares Immortality (November 20).

In 1991, he became the first African-Brazilian Senator to dedicate his mandate to the promotion of the African-Brazilian people’s civil and human rights. Rio de Janeiro State Governor Leonel Brizola appointed Nascimento head of the newly created State Secretariat for the Defense and Promotion of Afro-Brazilian Peoples, in which he served until 1994[9].

Black Press Institute

In 1987 Abdias do Nascimento was on the Board of Directors of the Black Press Institute[10].

International activism

In 1988, Nascimento gave the inaugural lecture in the W. E. B. Du Bois Annual Lecture Series sponsored by the Pan-African Cultural Centre of Accra. In 1989, he served as UNESCO consultant for theater in Angola. He participated in the International Directorate of FESPAC, the Pan-African Culture Festival and of the Gorée Memorial, both seated in Dakar, Senegal. He was also on the international founding board of the Institute of Black Peoples, founded in 1987, in Burkina Faso, with UNESCO support.

He participated in the Comparative Human Relations Initiative on Brazil, South Africa and the United States, organized by the Southern Education Foundation of Atlanta.

Abdias Nascimento participated in the Brazilian national organizational process of the United Nations’ 3rd World Conference against Racism and was Keynote Speaker at the NGO Forum of that Conference, held in Durban, South Africa, September 2001. In January 2001, Nascimento was honored with the African World Heritage Award by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Public Libraries of New York Harlem. The award ceremony was held at United Nations Headquarters on the 75th Anniversary of the Schomburg Center to honor six outstanding personalities of the African world, including Katherine Dunham, Amadou Mahtar M’Bow, Billy Taylor, Gordon Parks, and Dorothy Height[11].


Nascimento received the UNESCO Human Rights and Culture prize in 2001 and the United Nations Commemorative Prize for Relevant Services in Human Rights in 2003.

2004, Bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution, was defined by the world community as the International Year in Celebration of the Fight against Slavery and of its Abolition. On this occasion, UNESCO created a prize to recognize two activist intellectuals who dedicated their lives to this struggle and to the fight against racism and racial discrimination. The personalities honored with this prize in December 2004 at UNESCO headquarters in Paris were Abdias Nascimento and Aime Cesaire[12].

"Support Bill Ayers"

In October 2008, several thousand college professors, students and academic staff signed a statement Support Bill Ayers in solidarity with former Weather Underground Organization terrorist Bill Ayers.

In the run up to the U.S. presidential elections, Ayers had come under considerable media scrutiny, sparked by his relationship to presidential candidate Barack Obama.

We write to support our colleague Professor William Ayers, Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who is currently under determined and sustained political attack...
We, the undersigned, stand on the side of education as an enterprise devoted to human inquiry, enlightenment, and liberation. We oppose the demonization of Professor William Ayers.

Abdias do Nascimento, Professor Emeritus, State University of New York/ Buffalo, signed the statement[13].