The Call for African Psychology
By Jean-Baptiste Debret — J.B. Derbet, “Overseers punishing slaves on a rural estate”. (3 vols., Paris, 1834,1835, 1839), Voyage Pittoresque et historique au Bresil. Conrad, Robert. The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery 1850–1888. London, England: University of California Press, Ltd, 1972. Photography Own work, Public Domain
Maafa (Holocaust of Enslavement) is one the most impactful events in the modern era. The effect of the Maafa is seen across the globe in the inequality and poor treatment of those of African descent even in areas where they are the majority of the population. The reasons for this far-reaching impact is due to the fact that, unlike the holocaust of the Jews and other genocides, Maafa lacks acknowledgment. An analysis of the Brazilian slave trade shows how the Maafa spread across the globe and created long reaching negative impacts that continue exerting force today not just in terms of financial inequality but in psychology. The Brazilian Slave Trade provides evidence for the need to study psychology specific to those of African descent and Blacks in relation to Maafa and its traumatic, long term psychological impacts that reinforce poverty and inequality.
The Brazilian Slave Trade
The Trans-Atlantic Slave trade took place from the 16th through the 19th centuries. African Slaves were transported from central and western parts of Africa. The majority of slaves were sold by Africans to European slave traders (Braudel, 1984). These traders then sold these slaves to farmers, manufacturers, but mainly to sugar, coffee, and cotton plantation owners. The need for labor in the New World and mainly in Spanish America (Brazil) drove the demand for slaves. This labor was also impacted because the economies of the North American and South American settlements were driven by making goods and clothing to sell back to Europe. The competitiveness of this market drove the need for decreasing labor prices (Braudel, 1984). A third factor driving the slave trade was the desire of European countries to colonialize different parts of the world.
One of the misconceptions about the slave trade is that it was confined mainly to North America and the British colonies. In reality, only a fraction of the enslaved Africans were brought to North America. It is estimated that only 5% of slaves were sold in North America (Braudel, 1984). The majority of slaves were sold to colonies in Brazil (Spanish America). The slave trade was an intense business in Brazil and in the Caribbean because Africans were thought to have an increased resistance to tropical diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. In reality, the poor working conditions of Brazilian sugar plantations were responsible for the majority of deaths of workers and slaves. Malnutrition, poor housing, inadequate clothing, and being overworked were the factors most responsible for deaths on the plantations. It is estimated that only ¼ of infants born to slaves in the Caribbean and Brazil survived.
In Brazil, the slave population was the largest in the world with estimates between three and five million (Conrad, 1972). Slavery was so culturally accepted in Brazil during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade that Brazilians of all social and economic classes owned slaves (Conrad, 1972).
When slaves were brought to the harbors of Brazil, they would often undergo long dangerous journeys to rural mining and agricultural centers. The conditions of these places were so poor that slaves who did not die making the journey often died when forced to endure the working conditions (Conrad, 1972). Life in urban centers was also harsh with many people enslaved for domestic purposes and they generally had better conditions than the slave working on plantations or in mines (Conrad, 1972). However, slaves in urban centers were often sent to work there for employers who then paid the slave masters. This was referred to as “Negroes de ganho” (Conrad, 1972). These slaves often worked doing tasks such as supplying water for citizens or removing waste. They also worked on the docks unloading shipments and moving goods from the docks to homes and businesses. Slave culture was so intrinsic to Brazil that it was considered a part of life and Brazil resisted ending slavery, making it the last country in the world to officially end slavery in 1888 (Conrad, 1972).
The Impacts of Slavery in Brazil
Unlike the slaves in the US which would attain some level of freedom after the Civil war, Brazilian slaves would not have a defining war that provided independence. In the US, after the war, several Freedmen Associations and figures such as Levi Coffin would provide aid and support for newly freedmen (Yannessa, 2001). In contrast to these efforts in the US, Brazilian slaves would not attain their freedom for almost another decade and when they did, they were left to fend for themselves.
After the abolition of slavery in Brazil, the impact on Brazilian society and culture would be permanently altered. The ending of slavery in many ways did not benefit most of the former slaves in Brazil. Millions of former slaves were left “uneducated, landless, homeless, illiterate and directionless” (“The Economist,” 2000). Currently, most of Brazil’s poverty is a direct result of the former slaves being left to fend for themselves. In northeastern Brazil, many decedents of slaves live in cardboard boxes made from trash. In cities, these individuals follow industrial trends and migrate with businesses, living in extreme poverty and high crime (“The Economist,” 2000).
By Alicia Nijdam — Flickr: Rocinha Favela, CC BY 2.0 This is one of the largest shantytowns in South America with over 200,000 inhabitants. (See Artist)
The impact of slavery was significant because the population of slaves in Brazil was tremendous. Millions of people without education and without a means of living were forced into poverty. In Brazil, blacks are considered the lowest of people on the social chain and are the poorest of citizens. Many still suffer illiteracy, homelessness, and starvation. The impact of slavery has made Brazil a nation with the highest poverty in South America (“The Economist,” 2000).
Brazil persists with a nation of poverty-stricken people of African descent. The effects to slavery in this region can be juxtaposed with the affects the African Americans experienced. While there is room for a great deal of study in the US, the impacts of slavery on African psychology has at least been studied to some degree. Research continues to move African Americans further from poorly constructed theories of race to more complex understandings of the African psyche.
Brazil persists in its ignorance of the ex-slave populations with little done to understand their plight. In the US, concepts such as “stereotype threats” have evolved out of research which confirms the fact that there are serious psychological issues connected with generations of slavery and discrimination. To understand this one must understand the difference in conceptual thought concerning African American psychology in the US. For example, according to Gladstone (2000), research, where students were equal in ability African American students, performed worse than white American students. When the same test was administered but the students were told that it was a laboratory tool without significance; the results showed no difference in the scoring between races (Gladwell, 2000). This research points to the fact that there is something else taking place indicative of poor performance on tests resulting from the pressure of having to disprove the stereotypes that blacks are less intelligent than whites. The same situation is reflected when women take mathematics tests because they are faced with having to overcome that stereotype that men are better at math than women (Gladwell, 2000).
There is a disturbing thought that is produced from this line of reasoning in that Africans impacted by the slave trade in countries such as Brazil have no concept of these types of problems. Countries such as Brazil overlook the need for African Psychology. Part of the problem may rest in the disambiguation of African Psychology. The defining of African Psychology may be the factor that causes countries like Brazil to overlook the study of slave issues. There is a tendency to view African Psychology in terms of being solely associated with a race which overlooks the impacts of slavery. For example:
Baldwin similarly makes a distinction between Black psychology and African psychology (Baldwin, 1991). According to Baldwin, Black psychology was formed as a reactionary to Western psychology. The Black psychological approach concerns itself with the psychological consequence of being Black in America. However, Baldwin argues that because African people preexisted European people as a distinct cultural group, it follows that a distinct African psychology existed, irrespective of when and how it was articulated by social scientists. Baldwin makes the point that indeed Black psychology is African psychology (Belgrave, 2005).
Understanding that there is an ongoing psychological problem associated with Maafa is vital to achieving equality. Not understanding these issues will mean that the impacts of Maafa will continue to exert a negative force over black populations. It is clear that research is needed on a more global level when trying to combat the impacts of Maafa.
Braudel, Fernand, The Perspective of the World, vol. III of Civilization and Capitalism 1984
Robert Edgar Conrad, Children of God’s fire: A documentary history of Black Slavery in Brazil, pp. 3–28; Zinn, 1972 chapter 3
Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Bogle-L’Ouverture, London, 1972.
The Economist, Brazil’s Unfinished Battle For Racial Democracy, (April 20, 2000) Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/node/303745
Gladwell , M. (2000, August 24). The art of failure. The New Yorker, 23
Yannessa, Mary Ann. Levi Coffin, Quaker: Breaking the Bonds of Slavery in Ohio and Indiana. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 2001.
Belgrave (2005) Introduction to African American Psychology http://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm — binaries/6230_Chapter_1_Belgrave_I_Proof_pdf.pdf
Vincent Triola. Tue, Feb 16, 2021. Brazil Slave Trade & Psychological Impacts Retrieved from https://vincenttriola.com/blogs/ten-years-of-academic-writing/brazil-slave-trade-psychological-impacts