Lélia Gonzalez: A Brazilian Thinker

Raquel Barreto looks back on Lélia Gonzalez’s contributions to Black women’s struggles
Lélia Gonzalez, Rio de Janeiro (1980). Foto: Januário Garcia

By Raquel Barreto
From the Capire

We are not born, but rather become, Black. This is a tough, cruel undertaking that continues to develop throughout our lives. This is where the matter of identity that you continuously build comes into play. This Black identity is not something that is done, completed. So, to me, a Black person who is aware of their Blackness is struggling against racism. The others are mulatas, marrons, pardos*, etc. 

This is an excerpt from a statement by Lélia de Almeida Gonzalez published in 1988.

Lélia Gonzalez was a philosopher, an anthropologist, a professor, a writer, an intellectual, a Black and feminist activist. Throughout her life, theory and practice were always organically connected.

Her original work has been of critical importance for Brazilian social thought. Her writings emphasize how Black people, especially Black women, have been at the forefront of Brazil’s social and cultural formation. But despite her contributions, not a lot of people read or know about her.

Born in Belo Horizonte in 1935 to a low-income family, Lélia was the second to youngest of 13 siblings. In 1942, she moved with her family to Rio de Janeiro, because her brother, the soccer player Jaime de Almeida, was hired by the Brazilian soccer club Flamengo.

Following an unusual path for Black women in the 1950s, she was able to enter university. She studied History and Geography (1958) and Philosophy (1962) at the old University of the State of Guanabara (now University of the State of Rio de Janeiro).

Rio de Janeiro, 1983. Foto: Januário Garcia

Political Activism

Lélia played a trailblazing and leading role in the Brazilian Black movement. She took part in the Research Institute for Black Cultures (Instituto de Pesquisa das Culturas Negras — IPCN), one of the first organizations established by the contemporary Black movement in the country. She was also one of the founders of the Unified Black Movement (Movimento Negro Unificado — MNU) and she took part of a historic demonstration held by the movement on the stairs outside the São Paulo Municipal Theater on July 7th, 1978. In 1983, along with other Black women, she created the Nzinga — Black Women’s Collective (Nzinga — Coletivo de Mulheres Negras) in Rio de Janeiro. She was also the first Black woman to represent Brazil’s Black movement abroad, in 1979.

Lélia understood that politics was about conducting collective, grassroots activism in social movements, while also looking at its institutional dimension. This is why she ran for legislative office on two separate occasions. In 1982, she ran for Brazil’s lower house as a Workers’ Party candidate. Later, in 1986, she ran for the Rio de Janeiro state legislature as a Democratic Labor Party candidate. She was not elected on either occasion, but she did receive a very significant number of votes in the first race and became a deputy representative. She was also one of the original members of Brazil’s National Council of Women’s Rights (Conselho Nacional dos Direitos da Mulher — CNDM), created in 1985.

Because of her work and prominence, Lélia was occasionally “watched” by the Department of Political and Social Order, one of the repressive agencies operating during Brazil’s dictatorship. But she was never taken to questioning, arrested, or tortured.

She was most active as a political militant during the Military Dictatorship (1964–1985), a regime that, among other things, banned civil society from politically organizing. The National Security Act enacted in September 1967 in Brazil established in its Article 39, paragraph 6, that it was illegal to “publically incite hatred or racial discrimination,” carrying the possibility of a prison sentence ranging from one to three years. But that could be used against the country’s Black movement, becausethey could be considered a threat to social order and be accused of antagonizing and inciting discrimination for exposing racism and the myth of racial democracy in Brazil.

We must reiterate that both Lélia and the Black movement fiercely opposed the myth of racial democracy, which was based on the idea that the contact between the Portuguese colonizers, Africans, and indigenous peoples in Brazil was “harmonious,” thus erasing the brutality that permeated these relationships and denying the existence of racism. The myth was a symbol of national identity in Brazil, based on a harmonious view of the nation, and it was adopted by the military ruling the country at the time, but it was also idealized by Brazilians.

Lélia Gonzalez Archive. Rio de Janeiro, 1980.


When Lélia Gonzalez first started organizing with the Black movement, in the mid-1970s, she already had a career as a professor and researcher and moved well in the intellectual and cultural circles of Rio de Janeiro. In 1975, she took part in the establishment of the Freudian School of Rio de Janeiro, one of the first institutions to promote Lacanian thought in Brazil, and she also taught at several higher-education institutions in Rio de Janeiro. Lélia created the first institutional course of Black Culture at the School of Visual Arts Parque Lage, in 1976, in Rio de Janeiro, a meeting space for artists and intellectuals who were producing a critical view on Brazilian reality.

Lélia Gonzalez wrote a substantial number of articles and essays and published two books: O lugar de negro, published in 1982 (co-authored with the Argentinian sociologist Carlos Hasenbalg), and the 1989 Popular Festivals in Brazil. Other works include essential texts and reflections which are fundamental to solidify a Black Brazilian feminist theory and the Brazilian social thought.

Over the course of nearly three decades, Lélia has addressed a significant number of topics, drawing from Western and African thought. She explored different theories such as Afrocentrism, Marxism, Existentialism. Her conversation converged on areas such as anthropology, sociology, history, and philosophy. She formulated an original thought on the Brazilian social and cultural formation from the centrality of Black people, especially Black women.

She and other Black intellectuals of her generation considered that creating a Black Brazilian thought was an imperative. From her propositions, she demonstrated how traditional social science theories were unable to explain the experience of Black Brazilians, therefore developing specific categories/concepts for analysis.

Lélia’s ideas were related to social movements, historical context, the places where she moved in, and the people with which she engaged. Her thought was not apart from the moment in which she lived.

She criticized the efforts to automatically import US Black discourse and theory, in order to prevent repeating a logic of cultural domination, considering how different the Brazilian experience was. For Lélia, Black Brazilians needed to look within themselves, to their own experiences and cultural reality, not abroad.

According to Lélia, the model for Black Brazilians was not in Africa or in the United States, but in our own historical, local experiences, in our own political, cultural resistance, in the memory of Quilombo dos Palmares**. The author did not deny how important Africa was to us, but she considered that it was possibly a recreation. “Africa is a very different thing from what we imagine. It’s especially different from what Black Americans imagine. One thing that I would always just fiercely argue with them was this: ‘Your Africa is a dream, it doesn’t exist. Here in Brazil, we have an Africa with us, in our daily lives. In our sambas, in the structure of a candomblé, of macumba…” [references to Afro-Brazilian musical and religious expressions].

Her work critically reflected on the place of Black people in Brazilian culture, as traditionally seen as the place of folklore, of madmen, of children, of the primitive. As Africans who were “brought” to the New World were treated like an anonymous mass of cultureless people, they were treated as if they only had one capacity: their labor power.

With innovative perspectives, the author produced an interpretation for Brazilian culture that broke the colonizer v. colonized dichotomy, putting the colonized at the forefront of the transmission of civilization values to our cultural formation.

On the folklorized image of the Black Mother, she conferred the role of motherhood in Brazilian culture, passing on African values to Brazilians. “The Black woman is responsible for the development of a Black Brazilian cultural unconscious. She passed on Black cultural values; Brazilian culture is eminently Black—that was her main role from the beginning.”

The author introduced relevant elements to characterize racism in Brazil, which consists of “the ‘science’ of Euro-Christian (white and patriarchal) superiority, forasmuch as it structured the Arian model of explanation (…) and leads the eye of Western academic production.”

Lélia Gonzalez is famous for her trailblazing role in creating a Black Brazilian feminist theory, rooted in historical references and experiences, in exchanges with other Black women, articulating it with race, gender, and class. Supported by both theory and practice, she was concerned about connecting (collective) life experiences with observation and theory.

“By reclaiming our difference as Black women, as Amefricans***, we know very well how much we bear the marks of economic exploitation and racial and sexual subordination. And this is exactly why we bear the mark of everyone’s liberation. Therefore, our motto must be: organizing now!”

Lélia Gonzalez, Angela Davis. Baltimore, 1985.


In July 1994, 26 years ago, Lélia left to Orun, the spiritual world in Yoruba tradition (while Ayé is the physical realm).

Despite her incredible intellectual and political relevance, she is still reticently referenced. The importance of her authorial production has yet to be acknowledged. No wonder, considering that academic referencing in the fields of Humanities remains deeply ingrained in an Eurocentric logic that sets hierarchies of knowledge and privileges only one strand of thought: Western thought.

It should be noted that there is a duality that is constantly operating between erasing or whitewashing Black presence in Brazil, both authorial and intellectual. Author Machado de Assis is the most notorious case of whitewashing. Meanwhile, many others have been erased as a consequence of the politics of oblivion, which, according to sociologist Angela Paiva, is “a mechanism through which we erase the academic contributions of Black authors from the memory of new generations.”

In this sense, one can see why the work of Lélia Gonzalez and so many other thinkers are so rarely referenced, including Beatriz Nascimento, Clóvis Moura, Eduardo de Oliveira e Oliveira, Guerreiro Ramos, Virgínia Bicudo, and many others.

One of the likely reasons for why these thinkers are erased is the fact that they are accused of producing a situated knowledge, that is, committed to politically articulating from the place where knowledge is produced. According to Lélia, “It’s important to underscore that emotion, subjectivity, and other elements attributed to our discourse do not mean renouncing reason—quite the opposite, it means making it more concrete, more human, less abstract and/or metaphysical. In our case, it is about a different reason.”

On the day of her birthday, the best way to celebrate her is to acknowledge her epistemological contribution to decolonizing the Eurocentric framework in the production of knowledge. And more importantly, to read Lélia Gonzalez.

*Words historically used to classify light-skinned Black people, in a complex and racist construct that aimed both at erasing Black identities and promoting notions of miscegenation in the Brazilian population. While marrom (literally brown) and mulato are not used in institutions today, pardo is still a word officially used for statistics and the Brazilian census, constituting, along with pretos, Brazil’s Black population.

**Quilombos are communities originally established as a place of resistance and refuge for Black people who were enslaved during Brazil’s slavery period. Palmares is an icon of that resistance as one of the most important quilombos in Brazilian history. It is estimated that it reached 20,000 people in its community during its heyday, in the late 17th Century.

***Amefricanidade, or Amefricanity, is a category developed by Lélia Gonzalez for conceptuation of race on a continental level, articulating the voices, forms of resistance, language, political experiences, and narratives of Black and Indigenous peoples in the Americas. “The category of amefricanity incorporates a whole historical process of immense cultural dynamics (…) that is Afrocentric,” Lélia wrote in the 1988 A categoria político-cultural de amefricanidade.

This article was originally published on Brazilian magazine Revista CULT on July 3rd, 2019, marking 25 years of Lélia Gonzalez’s death. The original text was slightly edited for Capire to celebrate her birthday. Lélia Gonzalez would turn 86 years on this February 1st, 2021.


Raquel Barreto is a historian. In 2005, she wrote the first master’s thesis on Lélia Gonzalez. She took part in a collective project to independently publish Lélia’s first posthumous authorial work, Primavera para as Rosas Negras (Spring for Black Roses, published by UCPA, 2017). She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in history and conducting research on the Black Panther Party and the Relationship between Visuality, Politics, and Power (1966–1974).

Translated from Portuguese by Aline Scátola