When participants in the recent Brazilian protests were polled on who would be their choice for the country’s next president, a striking pick was Joaquim Barbosa, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Brazil. A recent New York Times article notes that Barbosa has acted as one of the protesters’ strongest allies: he has been the key force behind recent legal decisions to preserve affirmative action, legalize same-sex marriage and courageously pursue corrupt politicians. What is all the more remarkable is that he is the court’s first and only justice of African descent.

The history of African-Brazilians is one that is rarely discussed in North America. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database tells us that between 1502 and 1866, 11.2 million slaves were brought to the Americas. While 450,000 Africans were taken to the United States, 4.8 million were transported to Brazil, making the country the single largest recipient of slaves in the world. According to Henry Louis Gates’ Black in Latin America (New York University Press 2011), there were obvious geographic and economic reasons for this. Brazilian ports were closer to West Africa than were those of Caribbean and English colonies. The state of Bahia in Brazil possessed soil that was well suited for sugar production, which was slave-driven, and sugar was one of the era’s most important commodities. Not surprisingly, Brazil was the last country in the Western hemisphere to legally abolish slavery, doing so in 1888. Today, over half of Brazil, 97 million Brazilians, have significant African genetic and cultural history. Despite their population, black Brazilians — like those of similar descent in North America and the European Union — are disproportionately poor, uneducated and unemployed. The legacy of slavery continues to deploy its nefarious sorcery not only in North America and Europe but also in South America’s largest country. Against the background of so much lasting injustice, it is all the more inspiring to see one of Africa’s modern descendants in Brazil rise to the most important position on the country’s highest court.

The story of Chief Justice Barbosa is a rags-to-riches tale. The New York Times tells us that as a young man Barbosa worked as a janitor in a courtroom. He eventually pursued a law degree at the University of Brasília and later a doctorate of law at Pantheon-Assas University in Paris. He is now one of the most popular figures in his country: one of this year’s most favoured Carnival masks was his likeness. A question for the idealistic: how did Barbosa learn to transform and transfigure the race, gender and class obstacles that he faced into opportunities for the development of knowledge, skill and a truculent conscience? Oppression does not inevitably make one a better person; it can also make people more bitter, disheartened, self-interested and furious with the world around them. How can Barbosa’s talent be replicated in order to build leadership among society’s various subordinated populations? Hopefully his commitment to excellence and social justice will inspire those outside Brazil as much as those inside the country.

Thomas Ponniah is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.

Photo: Jonas Pereira/Agência Senado/flickr

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Thomas Ponniah

Thomas Ponniah, Ph.D, was a Lecturer on Social Studies, Assistant Director of Studies, and Faculty Associate of the Project on Justice, Welfare and Economics at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He...