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We Belong to the Land

Insights from a quilombola thinker on Brazil’s state-sanctioned violence and the power of oral traditions.

We Belong to the Land

Antônio Bispo dos Santos is a writer, poet, farmer, and one of the greatest thinkers in contemporary Brazil—or rather, a “translator of knowledges,” as he likes to put it. Bispo is also a political activist, playing an important role in the fight for land and for the recognition of the culture and way of life of the quilombos—communities originated by enslaved Black people who were able to escape and resist slavery. In the following text, originally published in Piseagrama in 2018, he reflects on colonial history and the violence inflicted by the Brazilian State upon the quilombola people, whose practices are based on orality and on the ties between the land and its use to the fulfillment of life. The land does not belong to the people; they belong to the land.


When I provoke a debate about colonization, quilombos, and their means and meanings, I don’t want to position myself as a thinker. Instead, I want to position myself as a translator. My elders taught me orally, but they also put me in school to learn the written language so that I could translate the contracts we were forced to undertake.

I went to the school of written language at the age of nine, but ever since I started talking, I was also schooled by craft masters in the activities of our community. While I was attending school at the end of the 1960s, the oral contracts were being broken in our community and replaced by written contracts imposed by the white colonialist society. I studied until I was thirteen, when my community assessed that I was ready to be a translator.

In the 1940s, there was an extensive campaign to regularize land through legal contracts. This happened in my home state of Piauí, and also in the rest of Brazil. The law defined those who occupied the land without legal contracts as posseiros, literally people “taking possession” of what was otherwise considered “empty” and “unproductive.” The law gave us a name, objectifying us. We were not posseiros, we were people… what did that mean to us?

When the law says we are posseiros, it fulfills a critical role for colonialism. Colonialists need to name the people they seek to dominate. Sometimes we do the same without realizing it, for example when we name our dogs but don’t give them surnames. Colonialists name things, but they refrain from providing surnames because that means giving them power. The name objectifies; the surname empowers. So, by calling us posseiros, they put us in a situation of subordination, forcing us to fulfill the contracts that this very term imposed upon us.

“The land did not belong to us; we belonged to the land. We did not say ‘this land is mine’; we said ‘we are this land.’”

Among our people, contracts were held orally because our relationship with the land was established through cultivation. The land did not belong to us; we belonged to the land. We did not say “this land is mine”; we said “we are this land.” There is an understanding among us that the land is alive, and that if it can produce, it should also rest. We did not want to own land deeds, but the State imposed it upon us. If we could choose, our lands would remain as they wereas nature would have it.

The quilombola ownership over the land is based upon words, trust, and relationshipsnot upon writing. When the State came to demarcate the land, my grandfather refused. He said: “How can we demarcate something that is already ours?” Thus, the whites came, bought the land, and we lost our right over it. Even the elders who had initially agreed to demarcate their lands ended up losing them, as there were no estate inventories when they died.

Most of the lands belonging to traditional communities in Brazil are considered spoils, as no one has a deed to them. If today we register and obtain deeds to them, we only do it because it is imposed upon usand there is a grave implication in this. To obtain a deed to the land we need an anthropological reporteven when the law states that being quilombola is a self-declaring identityand an agronomic report. This demonstrates the sophisticated use of State intelligence to identify and profile resistance. Why would we need an anthropologist to diagnose us, to understand our customs, traditions and culture? Because, in the present day, the greatest threats to the system are traditional communities and peoples, as we are the owners of knowledge that is transmitted spontaneously and orally, without charging anything for it.

“We are also trying to understand what makes the colonialists think the way they do, and what we must think so as not to behave like them.”

Our people did not know how to read and did not know how the deeds worked, and therefore they lost the ability to live in their own lands. That is how our people decided that one of us should learn how to read and write, in order to face this situation. I was trained for that, and still do such work today. That is why I say I am not a thinker; I am a translator of my people’s thoughts. And for my people, I am also a translator of colonial thinking. When we discuss colonization, quilombos, their means and meanings, we are also trying to understand what makes the colonialists think the way they do, and what we must think so as not to behave like them.

Our people were brought here from Africa, unlike our Indigenous friends, who were attacked in their own territory and could at least speak their own language and farm their own seedswho could still be in a dialogue with their own environment. We were taken from our territory to be attacked on Indigenous peoples’ territory. That is why we needed, and still need, to be very generousand we have been successful at it. Even if we were brought to their territory, we never fought the Indigenous people for land. We dispute with the colonialists the territory that was taken away from Indigenous peoples, and that hurts us. But we need to do it, or else how are we going to live?

Okê Oxossi, Abdias Nascimento, 1970.

To the colonialists’ surprise and to our own happiness, when we got to the Indigenous territories, we found out we had similar ways of life. We found a similar relationship to nature. We found a great confluence in ways of living and thinking. That made us stronger. We made a great cosmological alliance, even if we spoke different languages. By means of our ways and attitudes, we understood each other.

My elders guided me to try and comprehend why the colonialists were doing that to other peoples. I read the Bible, and I read what they wrote. And in the Bible, in Genesis, I found a good explanation: “Jehovah God said to the man, why have you disobeyed me? The earth will be cursed because of you. You shall only eat by the sweat of your brow. The land will offer you thorns and weeds. And all your descendants will be perpetually cursed.”

At this moment, the Bible’s colonial godEuro-Christian, monotheisticdeterritorialized his people. When he cursed the land to colonialist people, he said that his people could not even touch the land. When he said that the land would offer them weeds and thorns, he said that the people could eat neither the fruits, nor the leaves, nor anything that this land offered. When he said that these people had to eat by the sweat of their brow, at that very moment he created work as an action of synthesizing nature. At the same time, he also created a disease that I call “cosmophobia”: the fear of the cosmos, the fear of god. The monotheist Euro-Christian subject feels hopeless.

“We see things in a circular way; we think and act in a circular way, and for us there is no endingwe can always find a way to start over.”

As quilombolas, we had to learn to live with that god. We even learnt to accept him. Because if he is a god, he must be good. So, in addition to our gods and goddesses, we now have this other god. And that was when the colonialists started to lose, because they only have one god, and they still had to share him with us. We, on the other hand, have several gods and goddesses. As they only have one god, they only look in one direction. So their vertical gaze is linear; it does not curve. That is how they think and act. As we have several deities, we are able to look and see divinity in every corner. We see things in a circular way; we think and act in a circular way, and for us there is no endingwe can always find a way to start over.

Our way of thinking allows us to better scale things, movements, and spaces. Circular spaces can fit more than rectangular ones. This enables us to live well with diversity and always think that the Other is important. We understand the need for other people to exist.

The enslaved Africans brought to Brazil were the inventors of capoeira. Euro-Christians invented soccer. If there is a game at the Mineirão Stadium, there might be 40,000 people in the stands and 22 people on the field. Let’s say Cruzeiro is playing against Atlético Football Club, and Neymar Jr. is watching the game. He came all the way from France to watch the game. At a certain point, the soccer team Neymar is cheering for is losing, and he asks to play. Can he? Why can’t Neymar play for the team he is cheering for? Why can’t he enter the field?

“Everything for the colonialist is linear, limited to a single direction.”

Now, let’s see the other side. There is a capoeira circle. A person from France is watching; they have never seen a capoeira circle before. There are 50 people playing capoeira, and a person who doesn’t know how to play asks to join. Can they? Capoeira is played in spinning circles, sambas are sung in circles, drums are played in circles, the Umbanda and Candomblé religious rituals are held in spinning circles… everything is constantly spinning for us. On the other hand, everything for the colonialist is linear, limited to a single direction.

Our quilombos are persecuted precisely because they offer a different way of living. It is not because of the color of our skin. In the Church documents that I evaluated, the permissions for peoples to be enslaved do not mention these peoples’ skin color; they mention their religion. Pope Nicholas V’s papal bull states that the pagans and the Saracens should be enslaved. It does not refer to Black, white, or Indigenous people. It refers to pagans, to the peoples who have a cosmology. These are peoples who have continued to eat the fruits of the trees. The peoples who disobeyed the Euro-Christian god. These are peoples who feel no obligation to work. They do not rely on the sweat of their brow to eat, because nature offers them food.

Afro Estandarte, Abdias Nascimento, 1993.

We think that the concepts of “good living” and “welfare” are very similar to the concepts of “living organically” and “living synthetically.” Good living is living organically; to have welfare is to live synthetically. We understand that there is organic knowledge and synthetic knowledge. While organic knowledge is a type of knowledge that develops “being,” synthetic knowledge is a type of knowledge that develops  “having.” We are operators of organic knowledge, and colonialists are operators of synthetic knowledge.

When the god of white people said that the earth was cursed because of Adam and Eve and that they would eat by the sweat of their brow, he said they could not enjoy nature as it presents itself. Soon, they would need to synthesize everything. And so, they went out into the world synthesizingincluding themselves. Much of white thinking is synthesized. The thought produced in academia is synthetic thought. It is a type of knowledge geared towards the production of things. The thought operationalized by writing is synthetic thought, disconnected from life. On the other hand, our thinking, moved by orality, is organic.

“Being” has little value in synthetic knowledge, even though it creates “having.” “Having” is the creature that devours its creator. People act in order to “have.” Even biology is becoming synthetic. Soon there will be meat without the need of cows…

In our understanding, we are experiencing the possible end of the Euro-Christian, monotheist, colonialist and synthetic world at this exact moment in time. This world is coming to an end. This is why we are going through such despair and confusion. But, incredibly, we are also experiencing a new confluence.

“Even when they try to take away our language and our ways of life, they cannot take away our cosmos. They cannot take away our wisdom.”

I work with the concepts of “confluence” and “transfluence.” Confluence was a straightforward concept to develop because I only needed to observe the movement of waters, through the rivers and through the earth. It took me longer to develop the concept of transfluence because I had to observe waters moving through the skies. It took me a long time to understand how a river that flows in Brazil is in confluence with a river that flows in Africa. I realized this happens through the rain, through the clouds—through rivers in the sky. If it is possible for freshwater in Brazil to get to Africa through the skies, the skies can also carry our people’s wisdom to Brazil.

That is why, even when they try to take away our language and our ways of life, they cannot take away our cosmos. They cannot take away our wisdom. That is why we managed to re-edit ourselves wisely, without harming the true owners of this territory, our Indigenous earthlings. We were able to do that because even though we were forbidden to go back, we met our elders in Africa through our cosmology. This is what we call transfluence.

“We need to turn enemy weapons into defense, so we don’t turn our defense into a weapon, for if we do that, we are only able to attack. And those who can only attack are bound to lose.”

Both quilombolas and Indigenous people only became legal subjects when Brazil’s most recent Constitution was enacted in 1988. Until then, being a quilombola was considered a crime, and Indigenous people were considered savages. The 1988 Constitution states that we have the right to gain title to our lands through writingwhich is an aggression, because only through writing can we become landowners. But our elders taught us how to deal with this kind of aggression.

I had an uncle named Antônio Máximo, who was the operador of a great defense art called jucá. He taught me that, at times, we need to turn enemy weapons into defense, so we don’t turn our defense into a weapon, for if we do that, we are only able to attack. And those who can only attack are bound to lose.

People in the cities, with all their weapons, cannot live in peace; we, on the other hand, live in peace without weapons in our communities. Therefore it is clear that weapons do not solve problems. That is why my uncle Antônio would tell us to turn weapons into defense. Mother Joana, one of my great teachers, used to say that the vessel for giving is the same for receiving. Therefore, if I point a gun at someone, it is because I am afraid of that same gun. Thus the dispute has no end.

When we discuss land titling through writing, that does not mean we agree with it. We adopt one of the enemy’s weapons and transform it into a defense mechanism. It is not land titles that determine if we are quilombolas, but rather our relationship with the land. In this regard, we and Indigenous peoples are conjoined. We converge in our territories, because our territories are not just made of earth, but of all the elements.

The State of Piauí practically does not exist for the rest of Brazil. When I say I am from Piauí, people ask me where that is, as if it was not mapped. It is not on the maps that fit into certain people’s minds. It is said that there are no Indigenous people in Piauí, just as it is said that there are no quilombos in the State of Roraima. But in Piauí today, three Indigenous peoples are fighting for their self-identification, their self-recognition, and the demarcation of their lands. And who are their partners? The quilombolas. Ours are continuous territories.

In Piauí, there is a great alliance between quilombolas and Indigenous peoples, both from the perspective of regularizing ownership of the land and re-editing our cultural expressions, based on organic knowledge. Organic knowledge re-edits itself, while synthetic knowledge recycles itself.

“Even if they burn what is written, orality can’t be burned; even if they burn symbols, meanings can’t be burned; even if they burn bodies, ancestry can’t be burned.”

We are not losers. I do not work within the logic of “victimology.” I have no right to be a victim. I am a winner; my people have won. My great-grandfather had three sugar mills; I was raised in abundance. I have no slavery scars in my memory, but I do not disagree with those who evoke the scars of slavery. I, however, do not work with that image; I work with the image of the winner. Even if they burn what is written, orality can’t be burned; even if they burn symbols, meanings can’t be burned; even if they burn bodies, ancestry can’t be burned. Our images are also ancestral.

Several quilombola communities in all corners of Brazil are being attacked in the same way as historical quilombos such as Palmares, Canudos, Caldeirões, Pau de Colher were attacked and destroyed in the past. The Brazilian Army is in Rocinha, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, practicing ethnocide just as they did with Palmares, Canudos, Caldeirões and Pau de Colher. The government of president Getúlio Vargas was one of the most ethnocidal governments we have ever had. He killed and burned the people of Caldeirões in the State of Ceará in 1936. He killed and burned the people of Pau de Colher, on the border of the State of Bahia, in 1941. But even so, we did not stop fighting.

Our relationship with world images is based on the logic of the emancipation of peoples and traditional communities through counter-colonization. It is not based on the logic of class struggle, for class struggle is European and Christian-monotheistic. I do not treat traditional peoples and communities as Marxist categories: workers, unemployed, revolutionaries. That language is not ours. That is the Euro-Christian-colonialist language.

Ideograma Adinka, Abdias Nascimento, 1992.

Some thinkers from Piauí wrote very well about the quilombos, but they adopted a Marxist perspective, which bothers me. I think of our journey as starting from inside the slave ships. When the first slave ship left Africa, that was when the first quilombo was formed. The first quilombo was inside the ship, with people reacting, throwing themselves into the sea, fighting and dying. That is when the first quilombo was formed. Marx was not even alive at that time! What does Marx have to do with this? The Palmares community was already struggling 200 years before Marx wrote anything. I think Marx has his role there in Europe. As we say back in the sertão: “to each their own.”

The Landless Workers Movement (MST), for example, is a wonderful thing, one of the greatest inventions ever made, but it is a colonialist organization. You only need to travel through most Brazilian States to see that the MST coordinators are usually white men from the South of Brazil. Why? I do not believe that other States are unable to produce their own coordinators. If you go to Piauí, you will find the MST coordinator drinking chimarrão, a typical Southern mate drink! Well, in Piauí we drink cajuína, a beverage made of cashews! Of course, the MST contribution is essential. However, from a political standpoint, the MST is monolithic, linear, and vertical. They want to be the only movement representing rural people. We, the quilombolas, don’t want to be “the only ones.”

From the beginning of colonization in 1500, to the abolition of slavery in 1888, the African people were regarded and treated as nothing more than slaves, and what they said and thought was not a part of Brazilian thinking. From 1888 to 1988, our cultural expressions, such as capoeira or samba, were considered crimes. This is colonialism. To colonize is to subjugate, humiliate, destroy, and enslave the trajectories of people with a cultural matrixan original matrix different from one’s own.

What does it mean to counter-colonize? It means re-editing our trajectories, taking into account our own matrices. And who can do this? We can! Only those who think in a circular way and through a polytheistic cosmovision can re-edit the quilombola people’s trajectory. Not white intellectuals such as Boaventura de Sousa Santos, although he plays a vital role in that process, at least to the extent that he says it is necessary to undo what his people, the colonialist people, have done. This is enormously generous. At least he is not saying we need to get more sophisticated and do more.

We are debating counter-colonization. For us, quilombolas and Indigenous peoples, this is the agenda: counter-colonization. The day universities learn what they do not know, the day universities agree to learn Indigenous languagesinstead of teaching them, the day universities agree to learn Indigenous architecture and to learn about the plants of the caatinga, the day they are willing to learn from us as we once learned from them, then we will have a confluence. A confluence of knowledge. A process of balancing the different civilizations of this place. Counter-colonization.

Antônio Bispo dos Santos (he/him), also known as Nego Bispo, was born in 1959 in the state of Piauí, Brazil. A resident of the quilombo Saco-Curtume, he was the first in his family to be formally educated. A poet, writer, teacher and political activist, he is also one of the main exponents of the quilombola fight for land and social rights.

Title image: Composição nº2, Abdias Nascimento, 1971

Translation: Brena O’Dwyer, with the support of Carmela Zigoni.

CROSSINGS—TRAVESSIAS is a collaboration with the Brazilian publishing platform Piseagrama. We will be working together to translate into English a series of urgent Afro-Brazilian, indigenous and LGBTQIA+ voices, originally published in Portuguese by Piseagrama. The project aims to function as a transnational meeting point across cultural, geographical, cosmological, and linguistic borders.