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Neusa Maria Pereira

The journalist who played a key role in founding the Unified Black Movement, Brazil’s first national movement for racial justice


In 1978, a coalition of different black cultural and community groups in Brazil protested racial discrimination on the steps of the Municipal Theater in São Paulo. The event was historic, both because it marked the first unified effort to debunk the myth that Brazil is a “racial democracy” and because it did so in the midst of a military dictatorship. Neusa Maria Pereira is a black journalist and activist who was part of the core group that established the protest, which resulted in Brazil’s Unified Black Movement. Through both words and actions, Pereira worked at the intersection of the fight for racial justice and resistance to Brazil’s military dictatorship. Here, she sits down with Artememoria to explain how she pioneered a political and cultural outcry against racism in a society that feigns color blindness.

Artememoria: Tell me about how you first became interested in writing in general, and in journalism more specifically.

Neusa Maria Pereira: I’m old school, and I had a literary education. I’m machadiano.1 I read Lima Barreto, da Cruz e Souza. I read almost all of James Baldwin, who was a key author in my literary, political, and emotional education. I’m from that school of thought, you see? I identify with those authors.

I also inherited the practice of writing from my father. My dad always wrote. He was the neighborhood block association representative. He was the one who wrote up meeting minutes and neighborhood demands, who wrote prayers. I inherited writing from him.

Journalism taught me to meet people and to listen. More than just listening, it taught me to put the stories I heard on paper. And journalism taught me to do that in such a way that anyone from a domestic worker to a higher-up in the literary academy would understand what I had written. I’m not a researcher. I observe our society and I am a victim of our society, and my actions are part of the historic liberation movement tied to issues of race in this country.

Neusa maria pereira cadernos negros black justice brazil mnu
Neusa Maria Pereira brought her copy of the second volume of Cadernos Negros (Black Notebooks), published in 1979, to the interview. Cadernos Negros is a groundbreaking annual anthology that showcases fiction and nonfiction written by black Brazilian authors.

Artememoria: Was there a specific moment in your youth that you began to get involved in political and social activism?

 Pereira: My childhood was very rich because my grandmother raised me. My mother died when I was three years old, and my grandmother was a feminist, even though she worked in the home. My black feminism comes from her. She was a matriarch who raised my brother and me. She didn’t know how to read and yet, when we were just toddlers, she told us: “you two are going to go to school.”

I didn’t want to go to school. That world was a total nightmare for me. I was in public school and the teacher made the girls who talked during class sit under the desks. The girls who had to go under their desks were always the poorest black girls, you know? I came from a lower middle class background in financial terms, but my dad received a standard salary as a government employee, my grandmother received a pension, and my uncle also worked. I wasn’t someone who went hungry. I would go to school nicely dressed with a bow in my hair, which meant that I didn’t get discriminated against. But seeing those little black girls going under their desks – the ones who came from poorer backgrounds, which you could see in the way they dressed and acted and all of that – it terrified me. I remember that I stayed completely silent. I got 100 on behavior and bad grades in every other subject. That affected me psychologically, and I had to repeat first grade.

My dad was a visionary, taking me out of that school. He enrolled me in a Catholic school and that’s when I began to shine. I sat in the first row and the teacher loved me. It’s so important to be loved, to understand that others like you, to discover that people see you as an important, beautiful, and vivacious child, someone who can learn and go somewhere in life. I remember that the desks in that school weren’t in rows. We had big tables, and a few different girls could sit at each one. That was such an important phase of my life. During those years, I became best friends with other black girls. I remember how they made me feel comfortable in that context. In that school, I was around people who were like me.

I grew up in an environment in which my dad, poor thing, denied racism. He saw racism as something destructive to black people in every way. He thought black people had to adapt in order to join society in order to not suffer, in order to be accepted. I was educated along those lines: you have to be a good girl, you have to be a good student, you can’t have an afro. But the thing is, my grandmother also raised me, and she was old school. She never told me to straighten out my hair. She always kept my hair in braids. And when afros were in fashion, I had one, and it was huge! That’s because my grandmother took good care of my hair, respecting it for the way it is. She would never, ever comb my hair and say, “such coarse hair, such difficult hair.” I never heard my grandmother say that. She did it up nice. She identified completely with the person who she was, and that’s what she passed on to me. “You are black, you have these characteristics, and you should never disrespect them. You have this kind of hair, here’s the way to care for it, and it’s not a bad kind of hair.” I even wrote a story about this, called Pixaim, on the site Blogueiras Negras.

I started to become conscious of racial issues when I turned 16, but even then it wasn’t fully clear to me. My dad got me a scholarship for me to study at Mackenzie, an American school. Only the most elite students attended that school. The other girls who studied there had been studying at Mackenzie practically since they were born. A lot of them spoke English at home because they were foreign. I was one of two black students, and the other was a boy who studied engineering. The school is in the Higienópolis neighborhood, which was another shock for me. I had to go from the periphery in the North Zone to study there in Mackenzie. And just getting to Mackenzie high school would take two hours. Two hours to get there, two hours to get back home. I barely had any time to study.

I started to feel racial discrimination when I studied at Mackenzie. The teachers didn’t discriminate against me, and a lot of people at Mackenzie liked me, but it was because of the way men acted. One of the boys was part of a group called the Incríveis, which was a rock band at the time, and once, when I was going down for recess, I heard him shout: “mon-key, oo–oo—aah–aah, mon-key, oo—oo—aah–aah.” I was 16 years old and, as you can see, I still remember that to this day. Men are manipulated to reproduce all of the values of the dominant class. And one value of the dominant class is that women are inferior, and black women more inferior still, so they have to be even more disrespected. Once, when I was 16, I went to the movies. I was wearing a blue shirt and sat with a friend. I heard a boy say, “Those two are cute. The one wearing blue is pretty, but one thing’s wrong with her.” What was wrong with me? The color of my skin. Boys were always the most discriminatory, the ones who were the most explicit in their racism. It’s still like that. They continue to reproduce the values of the dominant class, which is the way they were raised. Imagine taking a black girl home back then, more than 40 years ago. Even friendships were questioned. Imagine a black girlfriend. It was impossible in the world we were brought up in, in which standards of intelligence and beauty were defined by whiteness.

I didn’t have time to rationalize these racial issues back then. I felt different than other people, but I didn’t necessarily feel inferior. I was afraid to speak up in certain situations. I felt like I had to stay quiet, that I had to study more, but all of that was a product of my background. My dad would say, ‘black people have to study, they can’t mess up. If you want to achieve something, if you want to have a decent job and survive, you need to study.’ He didn’t speak in terms of, ‘look at how racism –’ No. And he never said, “you have to present yourself as white as possible,” but today I understand that that’s what he meant.

I think that’s why I write. I write more than I speak. Black people didn’t speak, they listened. That was a huge barrier. Sometimes, you wouldn’t understand something and you didn’t have the courage to ask a question because there was this notion that black people were intellectually inferior. You had that idea in your head without reading anything about it, simply because white people were the ones who raised their hands, the ones who were confident in their argumentative power, the ones who could say whatever nonsense they wanted in class and no one would pay any attention to it. But if a black person raised their hand, the entire class would turn to see what they were going to say, to see if they were going to say something stupid. That was intimidating.

Artememoria: It sounds like a long process of growing conscious about racism. 

Pereira: Very. A process of becoming conscious about what racism is and how it relates to those who want to maintain ideologies of white supremacy. Racism became apparent to me from that boy at recess, from what that other one said to me at the movies, from a friend of mine who was just as tall as me and who said, “eesh, you are just so tall.” She was just as tall as me, but she wanted to make me feel inferior because of my height, just because everything that is black had to be ugly. I knew all about self-acceptance because of my grandmother, so this was never hugely traumatic for me. I lived with her until I was 27 years old. But when I went to that other world, I did start to feel that kind of discourse.

But then the era of the student movement began. In the midst of dictatorship there were marches demanding that the regime be toppled, that the oppression of all different social sectors had to end. A branch of the University of São Paulo was right in front of Mackenzie. I was studying next door during one of the most intense crackdowns of a dictatorship that lasted for two decades. There were bombs, the police were always there. And I came from the periphery, witnessing those historic events as I entered Mackenzie high school.

Artememoria: Did you participate in the movement against the dictatorship at that time?

Pereira: I did. Alone, too, because I was the only one who studied in Mackenzie from my neighborhood in the periphery. I would go to the marches out of curiosity, not because of ideology. I was also a student and I wanted to know what was going on with those other students and workers holding signs. All of that started waking me up to the fact that society was not equal, and that’s why groups were protesting.

I also started to see what was going on with the civil rights movement in the United States. That really woke me up. You’re American, your country is an imperial power. It’s the developed world, the country that dictates the behavioral norms for the black diaspora in a lot of other countries. Our media gave airtime to the civil rights liberation movement because it was American. And I started paying attention to these movements in the United States, since I already identified with what was Americanized. What music did I listen to? American music. Which artists did I know about? American artists. Who was the king of my generation? Elvis Presley. Of course, no one said that everything Elvis learned came from Harlem, that he went to Harlem and found rock music, but that he was accepted because he was white.

When I started researching more about these US liberation movements, I identified with the Panthers. My world started to open up. They’re black just like me, they are part of the diaspora just like I am, and they’re doing this, they’re feeling this, imagine what we’re dealing with! We were the lowest of the low in Brazil because that idea of racial democracy reigned supreme. “Brazil isn’t like that. There’s no racism here. We’re all equal.” Why wasn’t there racism? Because black people were never at any negotiating table, because black people were unemployed, because they were drunk on the street, because they faced barriers at every turn – that’s why there wasn’t racism. That’s what a racial democracy is: black people in their place, which is no place at all.

Now, the way the TV portrayed what was going on in the US – everything except for Martin Luther King – made black people seem like troublemakers. That’s also interesting in light of Brazil. Television and media only represent a specific sector of society, that of the dominant class. They won’t open peoples’ eyes to the fact that black people are fighting because they want to be treated as equals, because they also want to have power, because they want everything that white people have. Angela Davis is practically a banned name in mainstream circles in the United States, and that’s because she openly identifies as a communist.

Artememoria: That last comment is an interesting point of intersection between racial struggle and class struggle. How did you see the dynamic between movements for racial justice and socialist movements in Brazil during the dictatorship? 

Pereira: We were a leftist black movement, and our demands didn’t clash with those of the left. But we were seen as entirely communist. The dictatorship lumped those of us involved in the black rights’ movement in with the socialists because we were seen as people who wanted to disturb public order, because we were seen as bringing up a problem that didn’t exist.

I thought Martin Luther King was so wholesome. He was a person with really excellent principles who believed in humanity, so much so that he was assassinated. Malcom X, who later would become one of my idols, was also assassinated. But he provoked society, he attacked society. He even argued for separation, a black United States and a white one, because there was never going to be equality and there was never even going to be dialogue. I thought that Malcom’s ideas were very relevant here in Brazil. Here, nothing came close to dialogue because the dictatorship implanted racial democracy as public policy, and various thinkers corroborated that philosophy. So what did we have? We didn’t have any thinkers to unmask that idea, we didn’t have anywhere to publish our ideas, we didn’t have space on TV to speak out, we didn’t have a radio station that would air us. We had a few newspapers, some pamphlets called Árvores das Palavras, and we would go out onto the streets distributing them to try to help black people see that what they were suffering wasn’t because they were incompetent, it wasn’t because they were less intelligent, it was because they had been inserted into this post-racist, post-slavery social structure.

Artememoria: In 1977 you published a manifesto about the discrimination against black women in the newspaper Versus entitled “Em defesa da dignidade das mulheres negras em uma sociedade racista” (“In Defense of the Dignity of Black Women in a Racist Society”). Was it this national and international context that led you to write that piece? 

Pereira: What led me to write that article is the fact that I really started to feel racism. It was very hard for me to get a job as a journalist, and I needed to work. I had been part of the counter-culture. When I discovered the hippie movement, I really identified with it because it was a movement about all kinds of freedom for young people. They had those beautiful clothes, amazing musicians, Woodstock. I started to go camping with friends on far off beaches and wore long colored skirts. We would date around because we were in favor of free love. But then I said no, I can’t keep following this movement because I have to work.

In Brazil, journalism is a white person’s profession. A profession for upper-middle-class white people. I would spend time with excellent journalists, but that wasn’t enough because I needed to make money. I got a job at the newspaper Diário Popular. I was thoroughly mistreated and was assigned the worst stories and the worst hours. Journalism in Brazil was, as it is today, an entirely unstable profession. When there were cuts, who was at the top of the list? I was. I moved from newspaper to newspaper, and it wasn’t possible to make a living. I went to local papers and worked in revision. I had a few extremely intelligent black friends who worked as editors, but because they were black, they weren’t able to work as reporters. All they could do was stay there, editing other journalists’ writing.

Once, the editor-in-chief and director of Diário Popular treated me extremely badly. I heard him say, “working at a newspaper isn’t for black people.” I told my dad about it, and he scheduled a meeting with the director. He said, “my daughter is an employee here, and in addition to working very hard, she does everything that the editors ask of her. She does not like that she is treated differently. She heard the editor-in-chief say that journalism isn’t for black people, and it’s not the first time she’s heard that.” And guess what happened. The boss said, “come on, that doesn’t exist! There’s no racism here. Look, let’s ask someone who knows us best. We really like her, she’s like family,” and he called over the black girl who cleaned and served coffee in the building, someone who I had barely spoken to before. ‘Isn’t that right? Girl, do you feel any sort of racism here?’ She said no. I don’t think she was even aware of what racism meant, you know? She was working for a boss who maybe treated her well, who paid her salary on time. My dad and I just looked at each other. That confirmed it.

They saw black women as domestic workers, prostitutes, or people who would serve you. So they would ask themselves, how could I, as a white person, me, as the owner of this newspaper, send this person out to cover a business meeting? How could I send her out to interview a doctor? I had a friend who was a photographer, one of the best, and he worked at Jornal da Tarde, the most revolutionary newspaper in the Brazilian press in the 70s. His name was Laércio and he kept his hair natural and wore sandals. He had to work on a piece about Erasmos Dias, who was a terror during the dictatorship. He was the man who invaded the Pontifical Catholic University. Laércio went with the team to report on the article. Erasmos Dias looked at the photographer and called the newspaper to say, how dare you send me this unkempt black person in sandals? Send him back.

It was in this context that I identified with the counter-culture aspect of the Black Panthers. I shared their socialist views, because I wanted to change society and was not in favor of capitalism, but I also saw the new aesthetic they had, the way they did their hair, wore leather jackets, celebrated the idea of black is beautiful, you know? It valued our culture. All of this went into my head when I was 18, 19, 20 years old. And all of it was new: I was discovering counterculture, the hippie movement, civil rights, resistance to the dictatorship here in Brazil, a movement that permeated all social classes. It involved action from the church, from the student movement, from the workers’ movement in São Bernardo. All of these sectors were struggling against the status quo, which was a state of exception that was arresting, killing, cornering everyone, that was censoring all of the art and writing. There were a range of independent leftist newspapers that were pushing against that and that worked to denounce the dictatorship’s arbitrary acts of violence. I thought, this is the kind of paper I need to work at. These are the people who I need to align myself with if I’m going to have a voice because I am a woman who is the target of a racist society.

Artememoria: What brought you to Versus specifically, and what the environment of that publication like? And, once in Versus, you came to develop your own insert for the newspaper called Afro Latino América. How did you organize that initiative?

Pereira: I started to take a look at the independent press, which had communist, socialist, Trotskyist, or anarchist editorial lines. They were the publications I identified with most. I went around to various leftist newspapers. I remember going to Opinião, to Movimento, and when I showed them my manifesto they wouldn’t take it. They said they didn’t want to raise a new issue that would divide the greater struggle, which was the class struggle and not the racial struggle. You’re bringing up two things that will divide the movement, they said, you’re bringing up race and gender. There are people on the left who think like that to this day.

I read Jornal da Tarde, which was a very liberal paper with excellent writers who had almost a literary approach to journalistic writing, and the editors of Versus were from Jornal da Tarde. Versus was a Trotskyist newspaper, but it was open to any journalism that had freedom of expression as its goal. It was an open-minded publication. So I brought my manifesto there, and I remember that Omar de Barros Filho, one of the editors who was most present in the newsroom because Marcão [Marcos Faerman] was always traveling, told me to leave it there and that they would read it. At least they kept the thing instead of sending me away with an apology. After three or four days they told me that they thought it was a great piece and that they were going to publish it. And they did publish it: an article written by a woman, discussing discrimination.

I want to be clear that I didn’t have a clear feminist vision when I was at Versus. I wrote the manifesto about discrimination against black women, something that I, as an individual, felt. I thought that other women would think, “I’m in the same position, I have a diploma and still I go through that, imagine what women who aren’t in that position must feel like? They must suffer more than I do.” I also wrote it because I was outraged. It was a way for me to vent about the way I felt treated in the world and why I refused to accept it. The interesting thing is that I went to a feminist newspaper and they didn’t accept the manifesto. The people who ended up accepting it were men. White, bourgeois, intellectual men from Rio Grande do Sul.

My feminism doesn’t come from Simone de Beauvoir, it comes from Angela Davis. She is almost my contemporary and, like me, she was thinking about racism. I broke through glass ceilings because I had to. I had to work, which meant working with others. I didn’t go to Versus to champion an ideological debate about gender. I didn’t have the time or the intellectual grounding to start that kind of discourse. I wanted them to give me space because black people needed to speak out. We needed to join the resistance movement that was growing in every sector of Brazilian society.

There was a writer at Versus, Oswaldo de Camargo, who worked in the newsroom along with Marcos Faerman. He said that he felt it was the moment for black people to speak out because, at that moment, every social group was unified in one common goal: to take down the dictatorship, the state of exception. Black people made up the only identity group that hadn’t organized. He talked about this in the newsroom, and thank the orishas, I walked in with my manifesto, my article. After that, I was always in the newsroom because I liked the environment. There was an influx of visual artists, writers, journalists, and musicians that came from all over Brazil. I stayed there, observing that space, and then the editors came to me and said: we want to give you space to work here with us. Do you know any black journalists? We want to give you guys stories. They didn’t know a single black journalist! I was the first black journalist that they had seen.

Versus was an intellectual, Trotskyist paper, so I had to find black writers in line with the publication’s philosophy. I remember going to Hamilton Bernardes Cardoso, a poet who made a living reciting his poetry in bars. I found him at the University of São Paulo and said, “Hamilton, let’s go do this, they’re going to give us space.” And he said, “Ah, Neusa, I’m not going there. With white people, when you get there, you actually can’t do anything.” I managed to convince him: “let’s at least try, these guys are giving us an opportunity. They’re going to give us four pages of the paper, the last four pages for us to talk about our concerns as black people.”

So I called up these friends and they agreed, and that’s how the Afro Latino América supplement was born. We made sure the name would incorporate Africa, Latin America, and North America. We would look at revolutionary movements in Brazil, Latin America, the United States, and Africa from a black perspective. The newspaper approached Latin America as a whole. Eduardo Galeano would frequent the newsroom and all Latin American writers had a voice in the paper. We were Trotskyists and what is Trotsky’s central philosophy? Permanent revolution. Trotsky said that socialism will never succeed unless it spreads globally.

Versus was key to my intellectual and political education. I had access to so many books there. I read Dostoyevsky, The Insulted and Humiliated, which changed the way I thought about the world. I discovered Frantz Fanon, who was maybe the first black psychiatrist who discussed the psychological consequences of racism, not only for black people, but also for white people. It was because of the Black Panthers that I was able to reach the conclusion of my blackness, and my blackness was made up of black literature. I became an urban woman. I had this desire within me to explore the world, to discover the transformative power of human thought, one that sought to change the society in which I found it so hard to circulate, to act in a profession for which I had all of the requirements. When I went to the independent press, my goal wasn’t to start a fight. It was to take a stance, to speak out about what the official press wouldn’t publish. When you want to fight a system, you need to have another one to put in its place, and what did we want to put in its place? Something that we thought was more just, that would give more opportunities to people, that was less racist, that was more tolerant, that understood difference, that would create a new Brazil, that would expand our knowledge on an international scale, that would create an exchange of knowledge. If that’s what socialism means, then I’m a socialist.

Artememoria: You were arguing for all of these changes in the context of a military dictatorship. How did you manage to communicate openly about these issues while the dictatorial regime was in power? 

Pereira: Our goal was to end the dictatorship. We managed to do it, and we were persecuted, but we resisted. What I always say is that if you, in your internal ideology, manage to see and reject the inequality that exists in the world, then you have to act. It can’t just be discourse.

When I started at Versus I almost joined the Liga Operária.2 I was a member of the convergência socialista,3 I was in a cell of the convergência, which is why there was a file on me at the Department of Political and Social Order (DOPS). Beyond working at a leftist newspaper, they followed me because I was part of a cell associated with the socialist party. We were already being watched, but they really started to persecute us after we organized the public demonstration against racial discrimination. The regime said, ‘they’re bringing up an issue that doesn’t exist, they’re trying to disrupt public order.’ We denounced things that had never been openly discussed before.

Artememoria: Let’s turn to that public demonstration against racial discrimination in 1978. Can you describe how all of these ideas came together in that moment, leading to the formation of the Unified Black Movement in Brazil?

Pereira: The Unified Black Movement started within Versus. Afro Latino América woke young black people up to the fact that they didn’t have a voice, people who wanted the same things that we, young black journalists, wanted at the time. The white people from the paper had never seen so many black people inside the newsroom. It was a constant flux of young black people in and out of the building. There, we had an opening, a space to discuss everything.

Then a policeman killed a black worker, Robson Silveira da Luz. And there were four black athletes who were discriminated against in Clube Tietê. They weren’t allowed to enter the athletic club because of an idea that black people couldn’t go in the pool because their skin would infect the water. Versus was our bunker, and we on the left decided it was time to do something. It wasn’t enough to just write about it, because the paper had a limited circulation. It was sold in newsstands, the audience was white and intellectual. Our black audience was also intellectual. It wasn’t a newspaper of the masses in urban peripheries.

neusa maria pereira municipal theater sp movimento negro 1978
Neusa Maria Pereira speaks on the steps of the Municipal Theater in São Paulo during the public demonstration against racial discrimination in 1978. Photo by Rosa Gauditano. Used with Permission.

I think it was the first public demonstration against racial discrimination in Brazil that had an international response. Why? We were with white people. We were part of a multiracial organization. We were black journalists and white journalists, and the white journalists were from a major paper, Jornal da Tarde, and had international contacts. They told those contacts about the event. More than two thousand people were present at a demonstration on a weekday afternoon. Milton Barbosa, an activist who worked with black communities, Jamu Minka, and I went out onto the streets. In addition to guiding the demonstration intellectually, we had to write the articles that would be published on that day. We were able to get black organizations to support the demonstration, even though they were afraid. Speaking in any way made us a target during the dictatorship. Imagine going out onto the streets in the middle of São Paulo, with the DOPS right there next to Luz Station, where they were arresting people, killing people, and beating everyone up. Even though the black organizations were not leftist organizations, we managed to convince them to support our movement because it would be very important for black people. We printed pamphlets and distributed them at bus stations. We chose a location for the march where black people were used to meeting, in front of the Municipal Theater. There, every Friday, black people would come together there, everyone, the kids who were starting to get information about black music. For them, that place was already known.

It was bombastic. It was historic. The theater was hosting a big opera that day, and perfumed white people were leaving in their fancy cars, stepping on our signs, but it was wonderful because participants in the demonstration came from all over the state. People from the black movement from the entire state of São Paulo found ways to get there that day. Lélia Gonzalez was there, Abdias do Nascimento, Hamilton Bernardes Cardoso, all of the Versus team, international journalists, students, workers, and we spoke for hours, talking about all of the issues that were impeding our social, economic, and psychological process.

Artememoria: If you had to summarize, what was the Unified Black Movement’s goal in that first, incipient moment?

Pereira: To rediscover our true history. To demystify what official history said about us, for us to see ourselves as producers of knowledge, as beings capable of social transformation, and, above all, to expose the fact that Brazil was not a racial democracy. Much to the contrary, it was one of the most racist countries in the world, if not the most racist.

That is why we went out onto the streets. We went to expose the dictatorship, whatever the consequence. We went to question official history. Our liberator is not Princess Isabel because we’ve been fighting for our freedom since the moment we were put onto the first slave ship. We do not compromise. Our liberator is Zumbi, Zumbi dos Palmares! He established Brazil’s first socialist republic where black, white, and indigenous people lived together with common goals. Like us, he rejected the status quo of his moment. We also wanted to reject the status quo of our moment, refuting all that we had been taught in school about how black people are lazy, how black people aren’t smart. What had we done in our pages in Versus? We started to highlight black artists, we started to rediscover and rewrite society, thinking of a new society with participation from black people. We started to value Afro-Brazilian religions, we started to frame Zumbi as our hero, we started to talk about diversity quotas, we started to write about black workers who fought for labor rights. I wrote a story about that, called “Tião Tião.” The working class had so many black people that official history does not show.

Racism is a psychological and educational issue. Changing a political system will not end racism. But, at the time, we needed change to an open government in which you could say that racism exists, in which the state will revisit education. You have to show people that the black person is someone who thinks, who contributes to the social development of humanity. You need an education that revises the way in which history is told, that revises our values.

Artememoria: How do you see recent political events in Brazil in light of the history that you just laid out?

Pereira: In the 1970s, we went onto the streets because one black person was killed. How many are killed today? So many, because it is a way to end the black male population, to kill black men or put them in jail. Mass incarceration mostly affects black and mixed race people in Brazil, and society will not accept you if you are an ex-con. If people with PhDs can’t find jobs in Brazil, imagine someone who just got out of jail, with all of the stigma tied to that condition.

The shift to the far right in Brazil happened just when we started to see changes. Where did those changes come from? From social movements that began to make demands. They wanted a more equal society with more opportunities for education and work, with quality universal health care. They started to recognize the importance of environmental preservation in a still non-industrial, developing world context in which we still depend on the environment so heavily.

Artememoria: What does your activism look like in this new context? Do you have any advice to pass along to someone who is in social movements in the current moment, struggling against the immense challenges that Brazil faces?

Pereira: Something I always say is that the revolution starts within you. What I demand is education. I demand schools that are open the entire day, where materials, food, and extra curricular programming are provided. I demand that businesses provide language study to their employees and leave a few spots open for those who are not in their company. I demand universal health care.

Right now, I organize a publication called Escrita Feminina. We’ve only published one issue of this paper for women who are in Class C and nearly Class B4 and who live in the periphery. We talk about the needs of these women. I also give lectures and work with neighborhoods to make demands. For example, in the neighborhood where I live, we need more doctors to work in the clinics. We need our bus stations to be covered for the rain, because when you live in that part of the periphery, they put a covered bus station on one side of the street and not the other. I’ve worked on education at the CASA Foundation,5 where I taught classes that value our culture and show students the racism that they didn’t even realize was happening, because it happened inside of them.

escrita feminina neusa maria pereira
Neusa Maria Pereira holds a copy of the initiative Escrita Feminina, a publication for and about black women published by Abayomi Communications.

Under the dictatorship, we came to the conclusion that we needed to be out on the streets. Writing isn’t enough. As a friend of mine once said, everyone writes. I want you up in arms, I want you organizing a protest, I want to see you occupying space. We came together and, in addition to our intellectualized motives, we made sure to have a concrete reason to do so. For us, that reason was the death of the black worker and discrimination against the athletes. So we came together with core demands because things like killing young boys will only change if society changes. These were our concrete reasons for going to the streets.

When I was brought up, black people were made out to be victims, but they were also made to feel guilty for being black. We showed our pride. We do not have any shame in saying that we have suffered from racism and that we are discriminated against. And today, our struggle continues.

Neusa Maria Pereira is a Brazilian journalist and educator. After graduating from the Cásper Líbero University in São Paulo, she worked as a journalist for major media outlets as well as for the newspaper Versus, an important publication in the alternative press under Brazil’s military dictatorship. She was part of the circle that founded the country’s Unified Black Movement and has also mobilized black women through various other groups. Currently, Neusa Maria Pereira directs the publisher Abayomi Communications, which she founded, and continues to fight for the rights of black Brazilians through educational initiatives.

  1. Machadiano: a scholar of the works of famed black Brazilian author Machado de Assis. See:
  2. Liga Operária: a socialist and Trotskyist worker’s organization that existed in Brazil from 1972-1978.
  3. Convergência socialista: a Trotsykist organization that existed in Brazil from 1978 to 1992.
  4. Class C and B are categories in Brazil’s socioeconomic class system defined by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. In terms of access to education, members of Class C have generally finished high school and even some technical training; members of Class B have attended university. For more, see:
  5. CASA Foundation: refers to the Centro de Atendimento Socioeducativo ao Adolescente. For more, see: