Beatriz Nascimento: Brazil’s Black Feminist Revolutionary

Nyanna Williams | May 5, 2021

“When I returned again to my studies, I found myself on the familiar soil of an obsolete territory. Obsolete not because this territory has ceased to exist, or has been surpassed—in truth it is continuously in flux—but because it has been reduced to a status of minority, with all that implies: the slight, the inferior, the preliminary, the impotent and the infantile. This territory is both the path already taken, and the one that lies ahead.”1

— Beatriz Nascimento, “For a (New) Existential and Physical Territory”, 1988

The way that we perceive history is often influenced by who has the power to tell its stories. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade, centuries of racial oppression, systems of white supremacy, and patriarchy have historically silenced the voices of black women—erasing these stories and perspectives from history. Brazilian-born Beatriz Nascimento was a black activist, academic, and poet whose ideas about blackness and womanhood revolutionized black feminism in Brazil and across the African diaspora. Nascimento sought to highlight a new perspective on feminism in the social and academic world that showcased the realities of black womanhood in Brazil. In addition to her work as an activist during the Movimento Negro (Black Movement) in Brazil, Nascimento directed and narrated the film Ôrí (1989) that presented her poetry and revolutionary conceptualization of quilomobos. Nascimento’s perspective on the connection between the earth and black bodies alludes to the common homeland of Africa for black Brazilians that was lost but not forgotten.

Black Femininity in Brazil

Afro-Brazilian women dressed in traditional clothing.

The history of slavery and oppression in Brazil has tied the perception of Brazilian black women to domestic servitude.2 For this reason, the racial dynamic between black women and white women places more power in the hands of white women; black women are perceived to be subordinate and subservient. The harmful stereotypes of uneducated and submissive are widely accepted as truths in Brazilian society. The stereotyping of black women in Brazil has presented challenges to black feminists as “black feminists…have struggled to create a new set of symbolic associations for black women beyond the confines of the ‘dependencies’”.3 In addition to this, in many pro-black spaces, inequality has often only been viewed solely through the lens of race, again disregarding black women’s experiences in Brazil. As a result of this lack of representation, black women have created their own spaces in racial and feminist discourse.

Racial Democracy

From 1964 -1985, Brazil was controlled by a military dictatorship. Under this dictatorship, many leaders promised to restore democracy in Brazil; however, this 21-year-old dictatorship was defined by political corruption and human rights violations. During the height of military rule, power-hungry leaders violated the nation’s constitution and helped to consolidate the military’s political power.4 Because of the many case of human rights abuses that occurred under the military rule, many oppressed groups in Brazil were compelled to protest; this included the lower class, black people, and women.

Brazilians protesting against the military dictatorship, 1964.

Protesting against racial discrimination in Brazil during the rule of a repressive dictatorship presented its challenges. For one, the government had proclaimed Brazil to be a racial democracy. The idea of racial democracy “holds that there is no prejudice or discrimination against non-whites in Brazil”.5 However, claiming that racism did not exist did not automatically abolish systemic racism and social inequalities. There were still many disparities in economic opportunity, education, and resources between black Brazilians and non-black Brazilians that needed to be addressed. Racial discrimination and racial profiling continued to be serious issues that were ever so present in Brazilian society, even while government leaders denied that such issues existed. Despite the claims of a racial democracy in Brazil, it was evident that race relations directly impacted the social stratification in Brazil. Under the military dictatorship that defined this time, “Afro-Brazilians were the primary victims of police brutality and assassination…black bodies remained under constant surveillance and various kinds of black social spaces were dismantled,” demonstrating that claims of racial democracy in Brazil were, in fact, lies.6


The most influential concept developed by Beatriz Nascimento was her interpretation of quilombos, or Maroon societies. Quilombos are locations where formerly enslaved or escaped African slaves would settle, develop their own societies, and partake in their unique cultural practices. Quilombos were exclusively black settlements where blackness could be fully embraced and celebrated. In this sense, quilombos can be considered definite geographic locations. However, Nascimento translated the concept of quilombos into a state of mind not limited to physical space. For Nascimento, “quilombos [are viewed as] sites of resistance at which Black collective…through time and space, construct and deconstruct, make and unmake the world”.7

Painting of a quilombo; a place where former slaves developed their own communities.

Nascimento conceptualized quilombos as ideological spaces where blackness can thrive; quilombos could include spaces in education, entertainment, government, activism, etc. ascimento believed that quilombos were sites of liberation for black Brazilian people and all black people. This belief is reflective of the ideas of black self-determination. Black self-determination is an ideology defined by the principle that black people can excel and achieve liberation by developing their own communities.  By establishing black autonomous spaces, Nascimento believed that there could be black liberation and prosperity.

What makes Nascimento a black feminist is her perspective on blackness in itself. All of Nascimento’s works speak to the black female experience through her own eyes. In addition to this, Nascimento’s “conceptualization of quilombo is uniquely gendered because she privileges the body as a political site…her theoretical engagement with the politics of trance and spirituality locates her in dialogue with Black feminist discussions of the body as spiritual-political portal.”8 This stance made Beatriz Nascimento’s work revolutionary. In the 1989 poem “Dream,” Nascimento places her experience of blackness and womanhood as the central theme. She writes:

Her name was pain

Her smile laceration

Her arms and legs, wings

Her sex her shield

Her mind freedom

Nothing satisfies her drive

To plunge into pleasure

Against all the currents

In one stream

Who makes you who you are?


Solitary, solid

Engaging and defying

Who stops you from screaming

From the back of your throat

The only cry that reaches

That delimits you


Mark of a blunt myth

A mystery that announces all of its secrets

And exposes itself, daily

When you should be protected

Your rites of joy

Your veins crisscrossed with old trinkets

Of the strange radiant tradition


There are cuts and deep cuts

On your skin and in your hair

And furrows on your face

They are the ways of the world

They are unreadable maps

In ancient cartography

You need a pirate

Good at piracy

Who’ll bust you out of savagery

And put you, once again,

In front of the world


—Beatriz Nascimento, “Dream”, 1989

“Dream” is an example of Nascimento empowering black women through poetry. In this poem, Nascimento acknowledges the plights of black women; the pain and injustice black women have sustained through history. The cuts to skin and hair allude to the injury of the African identity that was stolen after the first slave arrived in Brazil. While highlighting struggle and historical disadvantage, Nascimento also alludes to a power that is sustained within womanhood, a power that can overcome tragedy. Nascimento invites women to step into their power despite the obstacles of systemic oppression; she knows that women, black women, must reclaim their space in the world. Throughout the works of Nascimento, she continually discusses the importance of space and autonomy, two aspects of being that have been historically denied from black women. Both space and autonomy must be created as these things are not given and have not been given to black people, specifically black women.10 Through film and academic work, Nascimento captured the essence of blackness and established an intellectual space where blackness could thrive.

Photograph of Beatriz Nascimento, c.1980.


Beatriz Nascimento was one of the most influential intellectual thinkers during the period of dictatorship in Brazil. Nascimento’s intellectual contributions were often left to be unexplored by feminist activists and black activists alike. Within her work, Nascimento places blackness and femininity at the center. The work and ideas presented by Nascimento were ahead of her time; they elaborated on the concept that we today recognize as intersectionality. Nascimento created her own intellectual space for black women, her metaphorical quilombo, where the history of blackness and womanhood are recognized.


1 Smith, C., Davies, A., & Gomes, In Front of the World”: Translating Beatriz Nascimento (2021), 286.

2 Cecilia McCallum, Women out of Place? A Micro-Historical Perspective on the Black Feminist Movement in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. Journal of Latin American Studies (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 55.

3 Ibid, 56.

4 Military Intervention and Dictatorship, (Encyclopedia Britannica).

5Carlos Hasenbalg & Huntington Suellen, Brazilian Racial Democracy: Reality or Myth? (Humboldt State University, 1982) 139.

6 Gomes, Daniela. Brazilian Politics and the Rise of the Far-Right (AAIHS, 2019).

7 Smith, C., Davies, A., & Gomes, In Front of the World”: Translating Beatriz Nascimento (2021), 286.

8 Christen Anne Smith, Towards a Black Feminist Model of Black Atlantic Liberation: Remembering Beatriz Nascimento (Smith College, 2016), 71-87.

9Smith, C., Davies, A., & Gomes, In Front of the World”: Translating Beatriz Nascimento (2021), 286.

10 Ibid.

Works Consulted

 McCallum, Cecilia. (2007). Women out of Place? A Micro-Historical Perspective on the Black Feminist Movement in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. Journal of Latin American Studies, 39(1), 55–80.

Gomes, Daniela. “Brazilian Politics and the Rise of the Far-Right,” 2019.

Hasenbalg, Carlos, and Suellen Huntington. ” Brazilian Racial Democracy: Reality or Myth? ” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 10, no. 1 (1982): 129-42.

“Military Intervention and Dictatorship.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, inc. Accessed April 11, 2021.

“Movimento Negro Unificado.” Religion and Public Life. Harvard University, 2021. Accessed April 10, 2021.

Smith, C., Davies, A., & Gomes, B. (2021). “In Front of the World”: Translating Beatriz Nascimento. Antipode, 53 (1), 279–316.

Smith, Christen Anne. “Towards a Black Feminist Model of Black Atlantic Liberation: Remembering Beatriz Nascimento.” Meridians 14, no. 2 (Smith College, 2016): 71–87.

Additional Readings

Hill Collins, P., & Bilge, S. (2017). Intersectionality. Polity Press.

Kwame Dixon, & John Burdick. (2012). 10. The Black Movement’s Foot Soldiers: Black Women and Neighborhood Struggles for Land Rights in Brazil. In Comparative Perspectives on Afro-Latin America. University Press of Florida.

Paulina Alberto, “Of Sentiment, Science and Myth, Shifting Metaphors of Racial Inclusion in Twentieth-Century Brazil,” Social History 37, no. 3 (2012): 261-296.

Rodrigues, C., & Prado, M. (2013). A History of the Black Women’s Movement in Brazil: Mobilization, Political Trajectory and Articulations with the State. Social Movement Studies, 12(2), 158–177.

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