The history of the Catholic Church has always captivated me, and to know it was to understand the world around me. That’s because Catholicism was part of my life. I listened to my father tell the stories of his times in the CEBs (Ecclesiastical Base Communities), in a country struggling to redemocratize itself.
In elementary school, I attended a middle class Catholic school in Duque de Caxias (RJ), in Baixada Fluminense. In the months of May, at a certain time of day, everything was stopped to say a prayer to the Virgin Mary. As a teenager, I entered catechism at the neighborhood church. My interest in history, which sharpened at age 12, made me want to understand this experience that surrounded me on all sides.
As I got older, this search became harrowing as there were so many parts that didn’t fit together. Being a black person changes the entire trajectory reported so far. It didn’t fit: how did the Catholic Church lay the foundations for African slavery? What was my family history, and how did captivity get through it? Why was school one of the first environments that showed me that being black in Brazil was a hostile situation? How to be black and Catholic?
These questions only began to be answered after a few years, during a degree in history at Universidade Federal Fluminense. At that time, I joined the research group “A Cor da Baixada”, which, among other topics, investigated the slavery past of the Baixada Fluminense. By chance or not, the group’s coordinator, Professor Nielson Bezerra, handed me a scanned copy of the baptism book for slaves from the former São Bento de Iguassu farm, belonging to the largest slave religious order in Imperial Brazil: the Order of São Benedict
As I made an effort to decipher the 19th century calligraphy, I was surprised by the fragments of these people’s lives. Very often they were described by the monks as “slaves to religion”. In the eyes of someone from the 21st century, the term sounds strange and nebulous. And it was precisely from this misunderstanding that I tried to understand what it meant to be “a slave to religion”. Somehow, this path also helped me to fill some silences about who I am.
The research showed me that the lives of those enslaved by the Church were permeated by the force of Catholic dogmas, the uncertainties of captivity and the violence of the slave system. However, that didn’t sum up the experience of those people. These flesh-and-blood agents tried at all costs not to give in.
These are stories like that of the African Nathalia, baptized in Iguassu at the age of 12, in 1831, at the limit of the end of the Atlantic slave trade. Still very young, she not only survived the traumatic ocean crossing and the intense work pace, but also raised a family and died freed at 56 years of age. A misfortune like that of Querubim, who fled to live in a quilombo and was arrested after fleeing a police raid, near Iguassu. Haughtiness like that of Marcellino de Nação, described by the monks as “incorrigible” and “rebel”, and therefore sold to another gentleman. Without forgetting the strength of family ties, Francisco das Chagas disbursed a high amount to free his granddaughter from the power of the monks, as well as Fidelis to emancipate his wife, and Emerenciana to free his daughter.
Revisiting a past that means pain, suffering and stigma for me and for so many people is no easy task. However, I continue to believe that the work of a historian can give new meaning to the relationship that individuals have with the past.
By studying the lives of the “slaves of religion” I was able to redimension my own family history. I understood that, despite the violence of the slave system, possibly my enslaved ancestors also bet on their few resources available to support and overcome the painful experience of slavery.
It is not about positiveizing suffering, romanticizing pain or heroicizing trajectories: this is not possible. But, yes, trying to balance the force of the system’s oppression with the power of the responses given by enslaved Africans and Afro-Brazilians. Such answers have a lot to teach us.
And I keep learning to try to explain the world around me and somehow respond to those anxieties of adolescence that still live in me.
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