Marcelo D’Salete says that he was a kid when he heard the first mention of the extraordinary story of the largest uprising of black slaves in America. "Today is November 20, the day of Zumbi de los Palmares!" Said a classmate, "this comic book author recalled a few days ago in São Paulo. Brazil —the last country in the world to free its slaves— was commemorating the centenary of its abolition in 1888. That community created by fugitives from the sugar mills, and its leader Zumbi, star in the most popular episode in the black history of Brazil and the monumental comic Angola Janga (Little Angola in quimbundo language), recently published in Spain. Palmares symbolizes for many contemporary Brazilians resistance, then against the Portuguese and Dutch colonizers; today in the face of racist injustices. But paradoxically, few know in detail what happened.
For the traditional story, "Palmares was something exotic, an enclave of bandits in the jungle. The approach was always' How good that Palmares was destroyed because it threatened the Portuguese empire", a vision supported only by the story of the soldiers, the governors … Of those who “had the mission to destroy that community,” explains D'Salete (São Paulo, 1979) during an interview in his home studio, where he creates his cartoons by hand when he leaves his other job. Winner of an award Eisner in 2018 (the Oscars of the comic) with his previous work, Cumbe, teaches Visual Arts classes to teenagers.
Angola Janga relates what Palmares was, but from another perspective. Through the gaze of the men and women who survived inhuman days of up to 20 hours of work a day, of those who managed to flee from that earthly hell to create in a corner of colonial Brazil this kind of republic that lasted more than a century and it came to have 20,000 inhabitants dispersed in several villages of the Sierra de Barriga (in the captaincy of Pernambuco, today the state of Alagoas) in the seventeenth century. Its capital was almost as populated as Rio de Janeiro at the time. The illustrator narrates the systematic attacks of the conquerors, the guerrilla warfare deployed by the palmaristas, but also daily life with romances, moments of intense family tenderness, work in the crops or commercial exchanges with their indigenous neighbors and settlers.
This work subtly combines Brazilian historical documentation, including maps, and fiction. As the testimonies of those Africans of oral tradition did not last, the cartoonist recreates the blank spaces of traditional historiography. "It is my interpretation, there may be others," he insists. Theirs is a choral story of more than 400 pages, without heroes, in which women have a remarkable presence. A black and white story, with very little dialogue. “I didn't want to make an idealized story, I don't like heroes. We do not need heroes here, we need good stories, complex characters ", emphasizes the author, who places at the center of his interpretation" the objectives and interests of those characters, with their doubts, their fears … That was the great challenge. "
D’Salete thus puts himself in the shoes of chief Ganga Zumba to delve into the reasons that led him to reach a peace agreement with the Crown of Portugal in 1678, which the author considers “crucial because it divides the Palmares group”. Soares, who in the Brazilian imagination is the Judas who betrayed Zumbi, makes him a complex character, with contradictions, without distorting historical facts such as that he obtained the long-awaited freedom after the assassination of the leader on November 20, 1695.
To this author of the stories in squaresAs they are called in Brazil, they did not speak to him about Palmares as a family, nor did he study it at school. Nor to others of his generation. He discovered "the black perspective on the history of Brazil and current Brazilian society" in adolescence through rap. Those songs that hammered stories of social inequality, discrimination and racism were drawing a story of injustices of which he was beginning to be aware.
With a mother who started working as a domestic helper at the age of ten, D’Salete was the first university student in her family. To light up Angola Janga He dived for eleven years in archives, museums and books although he is not a historian, but a graduate in Plastic Arts. He was always studious. Humble, he constantly lists historians, writers, musicians, illustrators … who were clearing the path that he travels. Because, he emphasizes, Angola Janga It is not "the history of Palmares, it is a history of Palmares." The thousands of people who inhabited it came from present-day Angola – hence the name – and Congo. More than 12 million Africans were forcibly brought to America between 1500 and 1900, including some five million who arrived in Brazil.
The effects of that aberration appear, for example, in the black term to describe slaves. In Portuguese, as in Spanish, it does not necessarily imply a pejorative connotation, but D’Salete says he has had to carefully calibrate with translators into other languages.
In the same way that rap managed to break down the barriers of the most elitist culture for a boy like him, he hopes that the language of comics will make Palmares reach the general public. Although its price, 90 reais (21 euros), makes it difficult. One step in that direction is that Angola Janga Y Cumbe, another history comic, have been included in the reading catalog for public and private schools. It supposes an advance in a country, like so many, forgetful with the contribution of certain groups to common history. The teaching of Afro-Brazilian history has only been mandatory since 2003. These are achievements that many Brazilians see at serious risk with a president like the far-right Jair Bolsonaro.
D’Salete links the institutional forgetfulness of black history with the structural racism of Brazil. He explains that the descendants of those slaves continue in many cases without access to land – they are the origin of the favelas -, without effective access to education … they are treated with a different standard. Remember how the Army fired 80 rounds ago at the car of a black family in Rio and killed the father and a passerby who tried to help them; or the five kids riddled with 111 shots in their car. Also black, also in Rio. It was in 2015. "There was no commotion … They were from the periphery, from places where there is a large black population, where the State sees itself with the right to kill in a terrorist and genocidal policy," he laments after listing similar cases.
Among the countries to which D’Salete will travel to present his latest comic, Angola stands out. Where it all began.
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