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Roma Negra: Salvador, Brazil and Afro-Latin American Classicisms

Andrea Kouklanakis

Bard High School Early College and Hunter College

This paper offers a concrete example of the sort of Reception study that might be used in a Latin or Roman Civilization class for which there is interest in including Afro-Latin American social histories that deploy classicisms in their narratives. The explicit purpose of such inclusion is to complement traditional narratives of Greco-Roman legacy and influence in the West, which often entirely exclude Afro-Latin America. In this case I discuss the use of the term Roma Negra to refer to Salvador, the capital of Bahia in Brazil. For those who teach with Comprehensible Input methods, one could imagine a Latin novella featuring the sort of reception story I illustrate here - a Black Rome within the transatlantic and diasporic space of the new world, shaped by race, slavery, religion, and contested identities.

According to what has now become tradition, the epithet Roma Negra used for Salvador (also called Soteropolis) was first coined by one of the city’s most renowned priestesses of candomblé (the foremost Afro-Brazilian religion), Eugenia Ana Santos (“Aninha”), founder of the first Afro-Brazilian sacred precinct (terreiro). The phrase was first cited in 1937 by Edson Carneiro, the organizer of the second Afro-Brazilian Congress (Segundo Congresso Afro-Brasileiro). The Congress was attended by prominent religious leaders, particularly female heads (mães-de-santo) of sacred cult spaces (terreiros) including “Aninha” herself. Since then there have been various interpretations for what the priestess meant by Roma Negra. For Edson Carneiro (1981) Salvador is Roma Negra because it is the central urbs and the critical space for the negro question: how to be a negro and have full citizenship rights, particularly when it comes to Afro-Brazilian religion. In Ruth Landes’ view (Lima, 2010) Roma Negra refers to the intense black cultural activity of the city, especially the central role of women in candomblé, just as for Cendras and Agier (Lima, 2010) the term refers to the essentially African culture in Bahia. Luna (2006) interprets the epithet to represent the constitutive presence and rebellion of slaves in Brazil, as well as ancient Rome. Rome relied on slave work just as the Portuguese empire was fortified by slaves working on the sugar plantations (Luna, 2006).

Moreover, just as there were slave rebellions in Rome, and freedom fighters (notably Spartacus), African slaves in Brazil rebelled throughout the period of the slave trade and produced their own leaders (notably Zumbi). African slaves who escaped plantation work became fugitives, often joining communities known as quilombos, which helped preserve African culture, language, and religion. Freedom of Afro-religious practices, long written into law by the 1930s, was regularly infringed. One comes to see that in Roma Negra, too, as in ancient Rome, regulation, oppression, and assimilation of slaves, especially in religious spheres, have analogous historical contours (Hodkinson & Geary, 2012).

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Race Classics and the Latin Classroom

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