The murder of nine African American worshippers in a Charleston, South Carolina church on June 17, 2015 reignited a decades-old debate (Leib 1995) about the meaning and place of the Confederate battle flag on the Southern and American memorial landscape when photos surfaced of the killer posing with it online. Black Freedom Fighter Bree Newsome scaled the flagpole on the South Carolina statehouse grounds the following week (Ross 2015), setting off a national wave of protests from #BlackLivesMatter activists and others for whom the flag represents an ugly history of slavery and racism. Monuments and building names that commemorate Confederate generals and slaveowners have since come under renewed fire (Brasher et. al 2017) – being removed, renamed or torn down – sometimes stealthily in the night and sometimes by the force of protestors.
Incidents of white nationalist domestic terrorism have plagued the controversy around Confederate landscape iconography in the four years since, with one of the more well-known instances being the tiki-torch wielding white supremacists defending a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. The “Unite the Right” rally, which made international headlines and culminated in the death of anti-racist protestor Heather Heyer, drew even more attention to the controversy over the existence of Confederate iconography in the memorial landscape. President Trump infamously equivocated that the deadly rally had “very fine people on both sides.” Since then, urban planners, academics, activists and even 2020 presidential candidates have offered their interpretations of Southern history and opinions on how the memorial landscape should – or should not – commemorate the Confederacy.
Despite all of the attention Confederate landscape iconography has gotten, it remains relatively unknown that the Confederate flag flies not just in the South, or in the United States for that matter. Thousands of people gather in a small rural cemetery two hours outside of São Paulo, Brazil each April to celebrate Confederate Heritage Month, proudly waving and ceremonially hoisting the embattled flag and keeping alive the traditions of their ancestors – known as Confederados in Portuguese – who fled the US South after the Civil War (Dawsey and Dawsey 1995; Figure 1). In recent years, the annual festival has received protests from the local chapter of the Movimento Negro (Black Movement) (Figure 2). As a result, the scale of public debate around the history of the Confederacy and the place of its notorious iconography in the memorial landscape has grown to an international level. Confederate memory is on the move.
After the US Civil War formally ended in 1865, ending chattel slavery in the United States, some 8,000 to 10,000 Confederate soldiers and their families left the defeated Confederacy and boarded ships bound for Brazil (Silva 2015), where slavery was still legal and would not be abolished for another 23 years (Heille 2019). The degree to which the existence of slavery motivated the Confederate exodus to Brazil has been the subject of much debate and disagreement within the historical and scholarly literature, with some authors denying that slavery played a strong role and others insisting that it did.
Historians Cyrus and James Dawsey (1995) and Eugene Harter (2006) for example argue that the Confederate migration was motivated by the Brazilian government’s recruitment efforts, especially those of emperor Dom Pedro II, who took an interest in the Southerners’ agricultural expertise and wanted them to bring the plow to Brazil – a technology the country lacked at the time. Silva (2015) and Brito (2015) however, argue that the existence of slavery in Brazil played a central role in motivating the Confederate migration. Silva (2015) analyzes the letters received at the Brazilian consulate and vice-consulates inquiring about immigration to the country and finds that about three-fourths of them were written by slaveowners, even though only about one-fourth of the free Southern population were slaveowners at that time. This suggests the people interested in migrating to Brazil disproportionately represented a small slaveholding part of the free Southern population. According to Silva (2015), at least 54 Confederate families purchased a total of 536 enslaved Africans upon arriving in Brazil.
Brito (2015) too finds evidence that slavery attracted white Southerners to Brazil. She analyzes the journals of Confederate migrants who express various but often related opinions about the state of race relations in the country. One Southerner wrote about his desire to purchase enslaved people in Brazil at a lower price than he could in the United States, another expressed disappointment that he could not bring recently freed people to Brazil, and others expressed fear of an “Africanized government” that could start to form after slavery ended there (Brito 2015: 156). Even Dawsey and Dawsey (1995), while rejecting slavery as a motivating force, documented one Southerner’s fear of having to submit to “n***** rulers” if he had stayed in the South (p. 27).
Either way, thousands of Confederate families settled in the twin towns today known as Americana and Santa Bárbara d’Oeste – the latter the home of the Cemitério do Campo (Country Cemetery; Figure 3 ) and the annual Festa Confederada. They brought with them their language, culture and Southern traditions, continuing to speak English at home for generations and introducing their Protestant faith, the plow, and watermelons to Brazil (Harter 2006). Their influx to the country came on the cusp of Brazil’s formal “whitening” policy, in which the federal government began to recruit migrants considered to be white from Europe, North America and Asia. The abolition of the slave trade by the British in 1850 – though yet to take place in Brazil – “gave rise to the first concern with the labor supply, based on a probable future shortage of hands needed for agricultural work” (Santos and Hallewell 2002: 61). Rather than implement affirmative action policies like the “forty acres and a mule” that freed people were promised – but most never ultimately received – in the United States after abolition, the Brazilian government poured its resources into what it viewed as an effort to “dilute” its African population by “whitening” it with Germans, Swiss, Italians, Japanese and others (Santos and Hallewell 2002).
The Confederate migration from south of the Mason-Dixon Line to south of the equator happened in the context of political destabilization as the South lost the Civil War and white Southerners feared the Reconstruction of society, especially the prospect of integrating freed Black people into white society. Drawing on news reports, interviews, participant-observation and ethnographic methods from the nine months I spent in Americana, this article explores how Confederate memory has moved and continues to circulate from one South to another. At a time of extreme political polarization in both the United States and Brazil, of resurgence of racial violence and the far-right, it is important to understand how the Confederate memorial landscape and myths about the Old South circulate not only within the southern United States but also across national and cultural boundaries. Finally, creative forms of resistance and protest at the festival lend insight into Black Geographies (McKittrick and Woods 2007; Bledsoe, Eaves and Williams 2017) – the creative place-making practices Black people employ in the struggle for equality, recognition and self-determination.
The first Confederate party – at the time called the Festa Country – happened in 1980. According to leaders of the Fraternity of American Descendants (FDA) with whom I spoke, the event was created to bring descendants and their families together and to keep alive Southern culinary, musical and cultural traditions. Eventually, the party expanded into a local cultural event that attracts thousands of visitors and whose funds contribute to the maintenance and upkeep of the cemetery. Fried chicken and biscuits, square dancing couples clad in Confederate uniforms and Antebellum-style bell hoop skirts represent some of these traditions the party celebrates ( Figure 4 ).
Neither the country sounds of Johnny Cash, Allisson Krauss and Alan Jackson nor the Dukes of Hazzard regalia would have been around the Old South in the Antebellum period but are featured here as southern kitsch. Mouse pads, miniature flags, flip flops and stickers with the Confederate emblem and phrases like “The South Will Rise Again” are available for purchase ( Figure 5 ).
I even saw someone wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. The yellow Gadsden flag with a coiled snake ready to strike and the words “Don’t Tread on Me” – a recognizable symbol of the American Tea Party – hangs alongside the entrance to the party and is available for purchase ( Figure 6 ).
A banner explaining “What the Confederate Flag Really Means” in both Portuguese and English also greets visitors at the entrance ( Figure 7 ). For a Southerner like myself it was both a stunningly strange and an oddly familiar sight.
In the time I spent searching the internet and getting to know members of the FDA, of the Black resistance movement, and of the general public, I have found no evidence of protest, debate, or public pushback of any kind surrounding the use of the Confederate flag during the three decades of the Festa Confederada before 2017. Soon after the Charlottesville tragedy happened in August of that year, members of the local chapter of UNEGRO (The Union of Black People for Equality) in Americana called for and held a public debate with the FDA over the history and meaning of the Confederate symbol. Representatives from the FDA, UNEGRO, and other social movement groups discussed the history of the US Civil War, the Confederate migration, and the social uses of the flag.
In the 2017 debate, which was filmed and posted to Youtube , the opposing sides found very little common ground. The following year, a small group of activists from UNEGRO protested outside the party, emphasizing that they are not against the party itself, just against the use of the Confederate flag, a “symbol of oppression” and under which “a lot of Black peoples’ blood” (Rossi 2019) was shed. FDA representatives for their part have continued to rely on the Lost Cause version of Civil War history to justify their continued use of the flag, saying slavery was neither the cause of the Civil War nor the migration. The discredited Lost Cause interpretation of the war asserts that slavery was not the primary cause of the war, that enslaved Africans were faithful and loyal to their masters and the Confederate cause of “states’ rights” (Janney 2016). Letters and brochures exchanged between the FDA and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) – the heritage preservation organizations known for inventing the Lost Cause – suggests transnational pathways of memory ( Figure 8 ). Their exchange of information, money, and people – even in the form of exchange programs in which Brazilian descendants travel to the US to participate in Civil War battlefield tours – shows how Lost Cause memory is circulated from one South to another.
Black resistance groups, with UNEGRO at the helm, led a more organized effort in 2019 to protest the use of the Confederate flag. They published a manifesto that explains in great detail their historic and contemporary reasons for being against its use, citing the romanticization of a brutal, racist history as the primary reason. Members circulated the manifesto to other civil society groups throughout the region and eventually received over one hundred signatures. Parts of the manifesto made it into the local newspapers, which publicized the protests and highlighted the festival. The manifesto highlighted that the use of the Confederate flag in Brazil happens within a current social and political context in which deeply rooted structural racism persists – something reflected in the country’s 2018 presidential elections that saw the rise of far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro to power. Bolsonaro’s campaign centered on reaffirming anti-Blackness and drawing “lines of enmity” around Black Brazilian populations, marking them as an internal threat to national stability (Bledsoe 2019: 1).
UNEGRO’s manifesto against the use of Confederate symbols highlights racist epithets that protestors suffered at the Festa in 2018 and draws a comparison between the atmosphere of the Festa and the atmosphere of the Big House and slave quarters:
“In our observations we registered what we usually see in Brazilian society: white people in their luxurious cars and Black people working security. Even though we were treated politely by the party organizers and observed with attention by the police officers, it is impossible not to recognize there the permanence of the relationship between the Big House and slave quarters.”
Additionally, Black activists invoked the legacy of Zumbi dos Palmares – icon of the Black resistance movement in Brazil and quilombola leader – in one of the banners they hoisted at the protest that said: “For Zumbi, for Dandara, for us – Long live Black consciousness!” (Figure 9). Quilombos (also called Maroons) are communities in Brazil founded by individuals of African descent who escaped enslavement and founded separate settlements, creatively surviving in a society built on their dehumanization (Bledsoe 2017). When I asked a UNEGRO member why they invoked the legacies of Zumbi and his partner Dandara, she said that the legacy continues to strengthen the movement for the recovery of Black history and memory today.
“This is the motto of our struggle, the essence of our struggle. For freedom, freedom to tell our history, to have our history, that our children and our youth can know this history … history books do not treat the history of these people.”
One prominent sign read “Abaixo a Bandeira Confederada” [Take Down the Confederate Flag], a slogan taken directly from the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States ( Figure 10 ). At one UNEGRO meeting, activists strategizing for the protest looked to me as an American to share information with them about the way African Americans had approached protesting the use of the Confederate flag in the United States. After sharing photos and images of protests and learning together about the #TakeDowntheFlag motto used by Black Lives Matter, UNEGRO members decided to translate into Portuguese and adopt the same motto for their protest. In this way, the Black Brazilian group’s strategy of resistance has roots in the Black freedom struggle in the United States.
Additionally, at the Festa protestors beat traditional African drums and practiced capoeira ( Figure 11 ). Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian dance and martial art form with a long history of practice as a form of protest (Talmer-Chvaicer 2008). Prohibited from celebrating their cultural customs or practicing any martial arts, enslaved Africans in Brazil developed capoeira as a way to disguise forceful kicks as passionate dance moves, emerging as a tool of survival, self-defense and cultural identity. Practicing capoeira requires excellent spatial awareness skills, great strength and body control. As such, its practice outside the Festa Confederada as a form of protest can be seen as a form of place-making that claims a Black sense of place.
In this way, the Black resistance movement’s occupation of space outside the Festa Confederada – in chant, battle dance, and martial arts as protest – transformed a memorial landscape characterized by white domination into a place for reclaiming the legacy of Dandara and Zumbi dos Palmares and asserting the right of Black Brazilians to belong and resist the romanticization and erasure of history and memory. This creative place-making practice, rooted in the embodied practices, memories and traditions of African descendants, and hoisting the motto of “Abaixo a Bandeira Confederada”, created new space – Black Geographies – for both resistance and recovery of memory.
The festival in rural São Paulo state that celebrates Southern cultural traditions was mostly uncontroversial for its first three decades of existence, isolated far from the political controversy around Confederate iconography in the United States. With the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, its focus on removing public symbols of racism from the memorial landscape, especially in response to the domestic terrorist attacks in Charleston and Charlottesville, the scale of public debate became international. But the transmission of Lost Cause memory from the Confederate heritage defenders in the US to Brazil had been underway for generations since the formation of the FDA in 1954. The Charleston and Charlottesville tragedies simply provided the catalyst for increased recognition and provoked further public debate.
Members of UNEGRO in Americana called a public debate on the history and meaning of Confederate symbols and began building grassroots momentum amongst other civil society groups to combat the romanticization of the history of enslavement. Black activists drew on the memory of quilombo communities’ resistance to slavery in Brazil to take a stand against the use of the Confederate flag, invoking mottos of both American and Brazilian Black freedom fighters and leveraging the rich history of capoeira as place-making and protest. As the FDA continues to deny any connections between its organization, the Festa Confederada, and racism and enslavement, it appears the celebrations will continue in April 2020. The local chapter of the Movimento Negro will likely continue its protests as well, hoping to leverage the momentum and awareness they have been building since 2017.
Critical to understanding how memory moves and takes shape across national and cultural boundaries is an analysis of how Black people creatively survive through creating a sense of place – or Black Geographies – that values and centers their lived experience and understanding of the past. The practice of Afro-Brazilian cultural traditions like capoeira as protest of the use of the Confederate flag signals just that.
This research was funded by the National Security Education Program’s David L. Boren Fellowship, the University of Tennessee’s Thomas Fellowship, the W.K. McClure Scholarship for the Study of World Affairs, and the Stewart K. McCroskey Memorial Fund.
I would like to thank Cláudia Monteiro of UNEGRO for her contributions of time, energy, photos, and countless insights. Thank you to faculty, fellow graduate students and peers at the Department of Geography at the University of Tennessee for the generous mentorship, encouragement, advice and support. Special thanks to my advisor Derek Alderman for keeping my chin up.
The opinions, findings, conclusions and recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any agencies funding this research or the Department of Geography at the University of Tennessee. All translations from Portuguese to English were done by the author.
This paper won the John Fraser Hart Award at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Division of the American Association of Geographers (SEDAAG) in Wilmington, North Carolina. Special thanks to Matt Cook, Ronald Schumann, Anzhelika Antipova, Eric Spears, and Sarah Praskievicz for their service on the SEDAAG Honors Committee and for selecting this paper for the award.