The history of black slavery in Brazil has largely been told from the perspective of the colonizers, not the enslaved. Few firsthand accounts exist, and even in art, slaves often appear as exotic secondary characters. Despite extensive texts on the subject like those written by sociologist Gilberto Freyre, many Brazilians still think of slavery in an abstract way that obscures the suffering their ancestors inflicted and endured.
The 157-page graphic novel Cumbé by black artist Marcelo d’Salete represents one of the first literary and artistic attempts to come to terms with the country’s dark past through the eyes of its victims. “To build a new visualization of black people is to subvert the old image of the black in Brazilian history,” d’Salete told Hyperallergic. “I want to show them not only as victims, but also as protagonists.”
Divided into five stories, each tells of ordinary slaves who stood up to their masters, even if they never made the big history books. One centers around a group plotting a rebellion; another follows a slave’s revenge against a white owner for the rape and murder of his sister. The book’s title comes from the Bantu word for Quilombos — rural villages founded by escaped Congolese and Angolan slaves that have become symbols of resistance.
Though Cumbé is rooted in fact, its stark illustrations and magical realism vividly provoke the poetic imagination. In “Calunga,” a mistreated slave drowns while attempting to escape a sugar plantation; as he sinks to the ocean floor, he has a stirring romantic vision of his lover. In “Sumidouro,” a female slave experiences a similarly moving hallucination of her dead baby, killed by the master’s mad wife. Together, these gruesome tales offer a tragic but illuminating portrait of Brazil’s black origin. It’s hard to look away.
Marcelo d’Salete’s Cumbé is available from Livraria da Travessa.