Detail from a book jacket for Marcelo D’Salete’s “Angola Janga.” (Fantagraphics Books)
I was in the middle of some street. Didn’t speak the language. Wasn’t hardly no one around. I was supposed to meet someone from samba legend Martinho da Vila’s camp. So I nodded at the occasional person I saw and waited. But not for long. Shortly the street was filled with members of the Vila Isabel carnival crew. They passed out the handbills for one of the songs they would perform on Mardi Gras day.
Mart’nalia, Martinho’s daughter, arrived shortly and immediately identified herself to me; her father had told her I would be there. Through an interpreter, he invited me to attend the rehearsal and said that his daughter would meet me there. She spoke a little English. As promised she joyfully explained what was going on, translated the mimeographed small sheet of lyrics, and encouraged me to get with the program. I could sway and keep time with them, but their swift and fancy footwork was far beyond me.
Yes, this was a celebration but also a whole lot more. The lyrics were political as hell. I don’t even remember the specifics, but do recall how serious and intentional the overtly expressed sentiments were. Once they got rolling, hey had literally well over a hundred people learning and shouting out the song. They might have been—check that, there wasn’t no might have been— they were definitely shaking their asses but they were also raising their fists. Talk about a party with a purpose! That’s when my impression of Brasil changed dramatically (they spelled the name of their country differently from the way we mangled the country’s name, us calling it Brazil with a “z”).
Now, whenever I see or hear Brasil (or Brazil) I have a deeper appreciation for the landing spot of pirated people from Africa. I had not been aware of just how broad their resistance was and is. They remain conscious of their history, their struggle. I knew they, like Africans everywhere, had resisted and even during colonial times had established Palmares where they lived free for almost a hundred years, while most of us in the western hemisphere were laboring under colonial lashes and forced servitude. Intellectually, they were far more conscious than most of us were in the good ole USA.
Which is a deep realization. Because of our successful Civil Rights movement and our long history of resistance from Cripus Attucks in 1770, a Black man who was the first person to die in the American revolution, on up through Malcolm, Martin and eventually Obama, we often labor under the delusion that we are the leading Blacks in the western hemisphere. Totally unaware not only of other Black struggles throughout the hemisphere, but also oblivious to the fact that our social status is majorly due to our intimate proximity to the USA’s economic and political power.
Of course there is no doubt, we really have had a major impact internationally in terms of both political and cultural matters. But if we look at our impact comparatively we will realize that our alleged pre-eminence is not all that we think, or misconstrue, our position to be. For example we think our music dominates world culture, yet objectively reggae has a far broader acceptance world wide. And, of course, Carnival in Rio is the most celebrated expression of Black culture on the planet. (We can discuss the Blackness of Carnival at another time, right up next to when we discuss the Blackness of American musical culture coming out of the USA.)
Anyway, that one night on the street sufficiently opened my eyes wide enough to re-look at everything I had seen before, everything I thought I knew not only about Brasil but, indeed, concerning the broader history of Black resistance. This was back in the eighties. My brother spirit Jimi Lee had led me there. He and I would eventually spend hours, and hours, and days and deep times throughout the Caribbean and South America, including an especially harrowing but also immensely beautiful sojourn in Suriname. We were there when a coup attempt went down and it was not a certainty that we would all get out alive. Indeed, Jimi’s passport was confiscated and he was forced to remain while our group was sent home early. Fortunately, Jimi eventually was released about a week later.
Jimi was one of the first truly international Blacks I knew on a personal level. We went a bunch of places including Barbados (a personal favorite), Trinidad & Tobago, but especially Brazil. It helped a whole lot that Jimi was fluent in Portuguese and also that he knew people up and down the social structures of the various countries we went to.
At one of the many meetings Jimi brought me to, we conversed with cultural workers in Brasil discussing the ups and downs, potentials and pitfalls of what was then called “cultural tourism”. There was always a political undercurrent steady flowing through our travels and connections. And in Brasil, from the fabled Sugarloaf Mountain with the gigantic Jesus-statue on its crest, to the favelas where the poor were encased, everywhere we went there was a lot to learn.
Which brings me to Angola Janga: Kingdom of Runaway Slaves. (Thank you Ms. Lynn Pitts for bringing this book to my attention.) This is a graphic novel by Marcelo D’Salete focusing on Palmares, the historic Brazilian resistance movement.
D’Salete is an internationally acclaimed illustrator born in 1979 who earned a master’s degree in art history from the University of Sao Paulo. Angola Janga is a powerful, richly researched, 432-page graphic novel translated from the Portuguese by Andrea Rosenberg.
The focus on Palmares is a conscious choice by D’Salete. He also has another book translated into English, Run For It: Stories of Slaves Who Fought for Their Freedom. Together these two books are an important alternative celebration that illuminates a history of resistance that deserves to be more widely known.
Most of us may never get to Brasil, nevertheless all of us need to be aware of the struggles in the heart of this country that is the home of the largest population of Black people outside of Africa.