Carnival is one of the most powerful images of Brazil in the contemporary world, a party marketed by tourism agencies as a unique spectacle, filled with rhythm, humor, fun, and free spirits that brings the entire population together, marked by infectious joy, sensuality, and irresistible samba. This perception of the party, however, is far from its history since colonial times. While Carnival has always been present in large cities and small towns from one end of Brazil to the other, it has taken many forms and included many sounds, meanings, traditions, and social subjects. To understand the history of Carnival in Brazil, one must take another approach: the celebration of Carnival as an expression of many differences, a variety of forms, and numerous conflicts.
For many years, interpretations viewed Carnival as a space in which Brazilians come together to celebrate commonly held cultural traditions or as an effective escape valve allowing common people to forget the woes of everyday life. More recently, historians and anthropologists have studied Carnival celebrations as windows that offer a glimpse of the tensions, rivalries, and alliances of an entire year, brought to the fore, magnified and played out in public on the festival days. Whether through masks, costumes, and individual hijinks or through Carnival associations, various social groups have taken advantage of Carnival in various historical contexts of Brazilian society to assert their identity and take action on various political projects that aim to transform (or subvert) current reality and debate the very history of Brazil.
The study of the history of Brazilian Carnival, or rather Carnivals, thus provides an innovative and original epistemological approach to understanding social transformations and the meanings of Carnival revelers’ political actions at various times in history, whether they be members of the economic and intellectual elite or urban workers, enslaved people, freed people, and free people.
The article prioritizes the period between the late 19th century and the early 20th century, when Carnivals came to more closely resemble their modern form through intense disputes between those who sought to civilize the festivities and revelers who sought to act out their traditions and customs. The history of Carnival the article intends to tell engages in intense dialogue with struggles for black people’s citizenship before and after the abolition of slavery, stretching into the second half of the 20th century, when Samba Schools emerged as one of the principal features of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and, by extension, throughout Brazil.