During the last decades of the sixteenth century, enslaved Africans escaping from sugar plantations began to congregate deep in the untracked interior of northeastern Brazil. In the lush uplands of what was then the Captaincy of Pernambuco, they established clusters of villages, fortified them with palisades, created a polity of their own based on African models, and named it Palmares, after the palm trees that grew in profusion there. By the middle of the seventeenth century the population of Palmares is estimated to have exceeded 20,000—at a time when Rio de Janeiro had only 7,000 inhabitants. Throughout the 1600s Portuguese colonial authorities, rightly fearing that Palmares was becoming both a threat to their hegemony and a beacon to those still enslaved, sent one expeditionary force after another to try to eradicate the community, but they succeeded only after more than a century of effort, in 1695.
In longevity combined with size, Palmares is thus probably the most spectacular example in the New World of marronage, the term scholars apply to enslaved people fleeing their servitude and creating their own settlements in isolated or hidden places. Yet the Quilombo dos Palmares, as it is known in Portuguese—the fugitive haven of Palmares—remains largely unknown and understudied in the English-speaking world, despite the increasing attention paid in recent years to similar examples of slave resistance in the southern United States, such as the Great Dismal Swamp maroons, and in the Caribbean. So in writing a novel called Palmares, Gayl Jones, recognized since the 1970s as one of America’s most important black writers, is breaking new literary ground and performing a laudable act of historical redemption.
Palmares is an audacious work, and on multiple levels. The composer Antônio Carlos Jobim was fond of saying that “Brazil is not for beginners,” and there is no denying that something about the place makes it easy for bedazzled foreign newcomers to trip themselves up, as demonstrated by works as different as John Updike’s Brazil (1994) and Stefan Zweig’s Brazil, Land of the Future (1941). But beyond that danger, which Jones largely avoids, lies a larger issue. The Palmares episode is a cornerstone of Afro-Brazilian pride and identity—akin to Masada for Jews or the Battle of Chapultepec for Mexicans—and November 20, the date the last leader of Palmares was killed and his head stuck on a pike to be paraded through the streets of Recife, has since 2011 been a national holiday known as Black Consciousness Day. The Brazilian government has also created the Palmares Foundation, charged with promoting black pride and cultural awareness, and in 2018 the Palmares period figured prominently in an exhibition called “Afro-Atlantic Histories” at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo and the Instituto Tomie Ohtake.*
There exists, in other words, a certain sense of proprietary self-esteem associated with Palmares that could make it risky for a foreigner to take up the story. How might Americans react if a Brazilian were to write a novel about the Underground Railroad? It is yet another variation on a question heard more and more frequently in recent years: To whom does a story belong, and who has the right to tell it? But Jones makes a convincing argument for seeing Palmares as a story to which all descendants of Africans brought forcibly to the Americas through the Middle Passage—and even, by extension, other victims of colonialism and racialized oppression—can lay claim.
Jones’s willingness to move beyond a specifically North American canvas is salutary, for much in Brazil’s experience merits the attention of anyone interested in the history of slavery. The country has the largest population of African descent outside Africa: of its 210 million citizens, more than half claim some degree of African heritage, according to the most recent census. During the three hundred years of the Atlantic slave trade, at least four million people were transported from Africa to the Portuguese colony of Brazil—ten times the number taken to what became the United States.
Slavery began in Brazil nearly a century earlier than in British North America, lasted until 1888, and was not limited to a particular region but was truly national in scope. The color line was not binary: instead of the American “one drop” rule, Brazilian Portuguese developed scores of words to describe skin tones, as whites, blacks, and indigenous people (joined after abolition by Asians and people from the Middle East) commingled to a degree rarely seen elsewhere. Slavery’s impact was thus even more overwhelming than in the US, and Brazilians have had to devise different ways to confront—or not—its legacy.
The main character in Palmares is Almeyda, whom we first encounter at age seven as a slave girl living on a plantation with her mother and grandmother, a sorceress who still prays in Arabic and clings to remnants of the Islam of her African childhood. The atmosphere is a mixture of fever dream and repressed dread that readers of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea will recognize, but thanks to a relatively progressive priest, Almeyda learns to read and write and is brought into the Big House. When puberty comes, though, she is sold and, after a grotesque sexual encounter with her new owner, rented out to work at a shoe factory, where she first hears rumors of a place where black people can be free. The factory owner’s wife, jealous of Almeyda’s sexual allure, seems intent on making the younger woman’s life hellish, and when warriors from Palmares unexpectedly appear, Almeyda eagerly joins them.
In captivity, Almeyda “dreamed of Palmares, where one’s true place in the world was said to be the same as any free man’s or woman’s.” But when she arrives there, she confronts a more complicated reality. Women, she quickly finds, remain subordinated, and any hope for true racial equality also proves elusive. Different African ethnicities live and work in harmony, as do indigenous people and white deserters from the Portuguese army. But Zumbi, the king of Palmares, has not fully done away with slavery: blacks who do not want to be liberated from plantations are nonetheless forcibly removed and, on arrival in Palmares, subjected to a continuation of their servitude. In addition, there are class distinctions: residents who were born free or made their way to Palmares on their own have a higher standing than those who, like Almeyda, were liberated by a raiding party.
At this point, Palmares acquires the trappings of an epic love story, with echoes of European romances like those of Abelard and Héloïse, Robin Hood and Marian, El Cid and Ximena, or Tristan and Isolde. Anninho, one of the king’s savviest counselors, spots Almeyda in a group of new arrivals, and she also notices him; it is love, or at least mutual enchantment, at first sight, and soon they are a couple. But after a Portuguese attack interrupts their idyll, they become separated and Almeyda is captured by Portuguese scouts, sexually mutilated, and left for dead. The remainder of the novel recounts her struggle to be reunited with Anninho, as she roams northeastern Brazil searching for him, crossing paths with fools and sages of all races, evading danger and temptation, and picking up bits of wisdom from each encounter. It is almost like an Afro-Brazilian Pilgrim’s Progress—Jones mentions John Bunyan’s moral tale early in Palmares—with macumba, the Brazilian counterpart to Santería, taking the place of Christianity.
Palmares is Jones’s first novel in more than twenty years; its immediate predecessor was Mosquito (1999), in which Sojourner Johnson, a black woman truck driver working along the Mexican border, becomes involved in what she calls “the new underground railroad” offering sanctuary to Mexican immigrants. But the origins of Palmares go back more than forty years: in 1981 Jones published a book-length poem called Song for Anninho, in which she introduced her main male character and some of the themes she develops in greater detail in Palmares. That poem, long out of print, has now been paired with a more recent one about the novel’s female protagonist, Song for Almeyda.
Palmares is thus not a work created in isolation but rather the main component of a larger long-term project that also includes The Ancestor: A Street Play (2020). The novel, the poems, and the brief theatrical work are of a piece: even more than actual history, they are interested in what Jones calls “the legend of Palmares” as an eternal symbol of black resistance. The epigraph for the two poems is an excerpt from the report sent to the Portuguese throne by the functionary who finally vanquished Palmares, in which he warns that even though the settlement’s leaders have been killed and the survivors scattered, “one should not therefore think that this war is ended.” That phrase is crucial to understanding Jones’s Palmares project, for she sees the conflict that the Quilombo dos Palmares embodied as one doomed to repetition.
“They destroy one Palmares, we scatter, we form another one,” Anninho tells Almeyda in the novel.
That one is destroyed. We scatter, those who are not captured or killed, we come together again. New fugitives come to us, and free blacks like myself who will risk their own freedom. Generations of destroyed villages, new villages, and new destructions. I know the cycle by heart.
In the poem that bears her name, Almeyda declares, “Destruction of/The old Palmares/Is the spark that builds the/New one,” while in The Ancestor, a character proclaims: “Everything happens again in this world.” This is not literary reverie: quilombos still exist in Brazil today, especially in the northeast and the Amazon: the national government puts their number at 3,524, and their rights were finally guaranteed in the Brazilian constitution of 1988. But Jones is also clearly suggesting that it’s not that far from Palmares to, say, Tulsa’s Black Wall Street massacre in 1921.
Brazil has fascinated—or appalled—Jones since the very beginning of her career. The title character of her first novel, Corregidora, published in 1975 when she was twenty-five, is a Kentucky blues singer whose Brazilian ancestors were slaves repeatedly raped by their Portuguese owner, and the themes of sexual violence, memory, trauma, and female resistance and resilience found in Palmares and much of Jones’s other writing were introduced there. All told, I count a half-dozen of Jones’s works that reference Brazil in some fashion, including Xarque and Other Poems (1985), a collection that takes its title from a type of beef jerky popular in the northeastern region in which Palmares takes place.
“I feel a kinship with Latin American writers,” Jones said in a rare interview in 1978, later republished as a kind of preface to a compendium of her first three novels that Griot issued in the late 1990s. “The Latin Americans have helped me in making movements between different kinds of language and different kinds of reality. They’ve helped to reinforce my own traditions.” In their rebellion against the Spanish and Portuguese spoken in Europe and their “taking in the Indian (Amerindian) and African—the American heritage,” Jones added, she saw mirrored her own struggle to write out of an oral, storytelling tradition. “Their influence has to do with the use of language, the kinds of imagery, the relationship between past and present with landscape.”
In Palmares, Jones demonstrates an especially deep awareness and understanding of Brazilian history and a remarkable ability to synthesize it with her story; the same can be said of her knowledge of Afro-Brazilian and indigenous folklore and mythology. She has clearly done a prodigious amount of reading and research in historical documents and contemporary accounts of life in colonial Brazil, including material that, as far as I know, has never been translated into English.
As an inside joke, she even repurposes the names of authors of renowned travelers’ accounts from that period, bestowing them on white characters in the first of the six sections that make up Palmares. The priest who teaches Almeyda to read, for example, is named Tollinare, which evokes Louis-François de Tollenaere, a French sugar merchant who was so disgusted by the slave trade and the abuses of plantation life in Brazil that he supported a plot to topple Portuguese rule; he wrote a fascinating and disturbing book called Notas Dominicais (Sunday Notes) about what he saw. Similarly, Rugendas, a cartographer who took Almeyda’s grandmother as a concubine, recalls Johann Rugendas, a nineteenth-century German painter who specialized in canvases of slaves and was one of the progenitors of “tropical romanticism,” a style of naive exoticism that is to Latin America what Orientalism is to the Middle East.
Palmares also features an artist named Johann, who appears to be a composite of the Dutch painters Frans Post and Albert Eckhout—both active in Brazil in the 1640s as members of the retinue of Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, governor of Dutch Brazil; and there is a plantation called Marcgraf, seemingly a reference to the German naturalist, astronomer, and cartographer Georg Markgraf, another of Nassau’s auxiliaries. Jones is aware that the Dutch ruled much of northeastern Brazil for a quarter-century beginning in 1630, and astutely works that neglected fact into her plot. She also uses archaic Portuguese spellings appropriate for the time—like Almeyda instead of Almeida—and incorporates Hispanicisms that indicate she is aware that Spain and the Habsburgs ruled Portugal from 1580 to 1640, thus making Brazil the colony of a colony.
Without ever mentioning Gilberto Freyre, the Brazilian sociologist who was his country’s most influential analyst and ideologist of race relations during the twentieth century, Jones challenges—and implicitly rebukes—his rather rosy views on the subject. She has obviously read his Casa-Grande e senzala, literally “Big House and Slave Quarters,” first published in 1933 and eventually translated into English as The Masters and the Slaves, for her novel is full of oblique reflections on Freyre’s work.
Considered revolutionary when first published, The Masters and the Slaves encouraged Brazilians to exalt the widespread miscegenation that until then had been a source of shame and to embrace the African components of their culture and history. But in doing so, Freyre, the descendant of Pernambuco sugar growers, also provided the seed for the myth of a “racial democracy” that came to dominate Brazilian thought. According to this theory, slavery in Brazil involved less segregation and violence than in the United States, resulting in a more mild and charitable form of captivity and, in modern times, an absence of structural, institutionalized discrimination. Or as the novelist Jorge Amado once said to me: “The United States has millions of people who are not racists, but it is a racist country. Brazil has millions of people who are racists, but it is not a racist country.”
In recent years, though, that position has been attacked by thinkers such as the black feminist philosopher Djamila Ribeiro, who in 2019 wrote that Freyre’s work “romanticizes the violence suffered by the black population” and has been “exported to the global North as if it were sugarcane.” Jones clearly endorses Ribeiro’s view, for Palmares contains scenes of hideous brutality, unbearable suffering, and the inhumane indifference of slave owners toward their chattel: “The final act is always an act of mutilation and blood,” Almeyda’s grandmother declares early on. When Palmares is published in Portuguese, it seems certain to invigorate and expand this debate among Brazilians about their country’s past.
Like many novelists, Jones sometimes bends history to suit her own ends. She presents the European response to Palmares as uniformly hostile, when in reality it was at times more nuanced. The Instituto Ricardo Brennand in Recife, the capital of the modern-day state of Pernambuco, houses the world’s largest repository of material about Dutch Brazil, and documents in the archives there indicate that Nassau, for example, sent multiple missions to Palmares, hoping to establish both a trading relationship and a military alliance against the Portuguese.
Jones seems willing to argue that racial solidarity only goes so far and that the perversions of slavery leave their mark even on those not in bondage. “Do you think that because I’m a colored woman I don’t have the right to give orders or that I won’t punish you if you don’t obey them?” Almeyda is asked after being hired out to a free seamstress of mixed race who is bitter at what she self-loathingly calls her own “defect of blood” and the resulting social restrictions imposed on her. “You think because you’re looking at your same color, there’s no distance between us, and that I’m the same as you and have no right to demand your respectful silence.”
Jones also scrambles the historical timeline. At one point Anninho devises a plan for Palmares to enrich and strengthen itself through coastal trading with other European colonies and mentions the name of a potential ally in New England named Cuffee, a black shipbuilder and businessman. Paul Cuffee was a real figure: the son of a Wampanoag indigenous woman and an African captured in present-day Ghana who was brought to Rhode Island as a slave and eventually manumitted, he was born free in Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts, and became a prosperous farmer, whaler, and shipyard owner who also founded the first racially integrated school in the United States. But the real Cuffee was born in 1759 and died in 1817, more than a century after the events depicted in Palmares.
More curious is Jones’s decision to eliminate Zumbi’s real wife, Dandara, from the story and make the king’s chief consort a white woman. From what little is known of daily life in Palmares, Dandara not only supervised traditionally feminine activities like child care and the cultivation of cassava and other crops but was important in political and military affairs. It was apparently she, for instance, who urged Zumbi to kill his uncle and predecessor, Ganga Zumba, after the older man sought to negotiate a peace treaty with the Portuguese; historians also know that she organized, trained, and led a phalanx of women warriors who fought alongside the men whenever white forces attacked, and they acquitted themselves with distinction.
In one such confrontation in 1694, however, the Portuguese overwhelmed Dandara’s troops and, rather than submit to capture and a return to slavery, she and several of her subalterns are believed to have jumped to their death from a cliff. As a result, Afro-Brazilian feminists today celebrate her as a symbol of resistance, and Dandara has become a fashionable first name for the daughters of such activists. As the Brazilian Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora notes, Dandara’s “actual existence is still shrouded in an aura of legend,” which makes her a blank page on which Jones could have written whatever she wanted. Instead, by inexplicably choosing to erase Dandara altogether, she has squandered an enormous creative opportunity and also undercut her theme of black female agency. Did she perhaps fear that Dandara and her real deeds might outshine the imaginary Almeyda?
In that long-ago interview acknowledging her interest in Latin America and its literature, Jones singled out Gabriel García Márquez for praise, and Palmares certainly has flourishes of magical realism: genitalia that disappear in moments of peril and then reappear, characters who seem able to change their age at will, time collapsing or expanding, and plenty of mysterious potions, herbs, and spells. But overall, Palmares is remarkably consonant in tone and style with Jones’s previous work. She has often been praised for the mixture of incantatory and colloquial speech that infuses her novels, for example, and that is again present here, expanded to speakers of languages other than English. There are occasional errors of gender or spelling in Portuguese phrases inserted here and there, but some of her translations are charming: I especially liked “paining” instead of “hurting” as a closer-to-literal rendering of doendo.
This continuity is thematic as well. When, in his poem, Anninho says to Almeyda that the most difficult question they face as a couple is “how we could sustain our love/at a time of cruelty,” he is succinctly restating the problem that preoccupies the twentieth-century black American characters of both sexes who drive Corregidora and Eva’s Man (1976), Jones’s second novel. Similarly, the witches and conjurers who guide Almeyda on her journey can be seen as ancestors of the itinerant faith-healer who is the main character in The Healing, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award in 1998. So while Palmares may offer more historical sweep and take place in a very different time and place than its antecedents, its kinship with Jones’s previous novels is unmistakable: once again black lives and bodies are presented as vessels of trauma.
Jones has led a turbulent life herself, and articles about her that preceded the publication of Palmares tended to focus on that as much as—if not more than—her literary achievements. Born in Kentucky in 1949, she attended a segregated elementary school and then helped integrate Henry Clay High School in Lexington, where she distinguished herself academically. With the support of Elizabeth Hardwick, also a Lexington native, Jones was admitted to Connecticut College, where her mentors included the poets William Meredith and Robert Hayden. She then moved on to earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in creative writing at Brown, where her adviser was the poet Michael Harper.
Harper saw such great promise in Jones’s early writings that he called them to the attention of Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random House. Morrison was also impressed: she edited Corregidora and wrote that “no novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this.” James Baldwin shared that opinion, writing in 1975 that Corregidora “is the most brutally honest and painful revelation of what has occurred, and is occurring, in the souls of black men and women.” Eva’s Man (1976) and a collection of short stories, White Rat (1977), followed in quick succession. Jones seemed well on her way to a distinguished literary career, an impression cemented when she won literary prizes and became a tenured professor at the University of Michigan.
Things began to unravel, though, after she married the political activist Robert Higgins. At a gay rights event in Ann Arbor in 1983, he was reported to have harangued marchers with claims that he was God and that AIDS was divine punishment; struck in a scuffle, he left and then returned with a shotgun and was arrested. Faced with the prospect of a four-year prison sentence, he fled the United States and Jones accompanied him, resigning her job and sending a note of protest to Ronald Reagan. “I reject your lying, racist shit, and I call upon God,” she wrote. “Do what you want. God is with Bob and I’m with him.” With Higgins convicted in absentia of “assault with intent to frighten,” the couple settled in Europe, where in 1986 Jones published a novel in German, Die Vogelfängerin, which will be issued this fall in English as The Birdcatcher; around 1988, they returned to the United States, where he lived under an assumed name.
In the 1990s Jones published her only book of literary criticism, Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature (1991), and a pair of novels, The Healing and Mosquito. By then, she and Higgins were living in Lexington and caring for her mother, who had cancer. The death of Lucille Jones in 1997 provoked more outbursts from Higgins, who began sending letters to hospitals, doctors, and politicians that the police deemed threatening, and early in 1998, just as The Healing was coming out, they attempted to serve a warrant to extradite him to Michigan. With Jones in the house, he resisted; a SWAT team was called, he committed suicide, and she was hospitalized and put on suicide watch. Until the publication of Palmares, Jones had remained silent and consistently declined interviews, including for this essay.
Even more than most writers of fiction, Jones thus seems fated to have to endure readers and critics combing through her work looking for congruences with her own biography. But to do that would be a particular disservice to Palmares, which is a work of great imagination and remarkable depth and richness. In writing this novel, Jones, like Dandara and other inhabitants of Palmares, took a courageous leap into a void, not knowing how she would land. “The metaphor here…is that rather than jumping to their deaths,” she says of them in her stage directions to The Ancestor, “they sprouted wings, became birds, and flew away.” Jones can’t quite pull off that feat, but her prose soars, and this book with it.
A scaled-down version of the exhibition, with the same title, is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through July 17, after which it will travel to Los Angeles and Dallas. A majestic adaptation of the Brazilian catalog has been published by DelMonico Books/MASP in English as Afro-Atlantic Histories. ↩