(De)constructing Pelourinho Through Memory: On the Social Construction of a Symbolic Black Place in Brazil (GER)

Pelourinho is the name of a district in the historic centre of Salvador da Bahia that was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985 as a “colonial city par excellence” and enjoys widespread recognition as a symbolic centre of Black empowerment in Brazil and beyond. A closer look reveals a telling contradiction between the literal meaning of the name of the district and its significance as a Symbolic Black Place and is the point of departure of the lecture. Pelourinho is the Portuguese term for the pillory that served as a site for the public punishment of enslaved people in Brazilian colonial cities until the early 19th century. It is a symbol of colonial authority and prosecution that once manifested itself as a structural element in the urban space of Salvador da Bahia and permanently inscribed itself into the local nomenclature. What led to the reinterpretation of the Pelourinho from a symbol of colonial power to a Symbolic Black Place? How can local actors contribute to a (de)construction of the Pelourinho on a symbolic level through spatial practices?

Based on urban anthropological theories on space and place and the findings of ethnographic field research conducted in 2020, the lecture explores these questions and presents how Pelourinho is assigned a site-specific ethnic identity by a variety of actors with partly conflicting interests. Focus is placed on the social construction of spatial meaning as driven by local Black actors. This draws its power from narratives that bring to light both the social production of the built space and particularly memorable moments of Black ‘place-making’ in the historical context of colonialism and (post-)enslavement up to the recent past. The recounted narratives are closely tied to the built urban landscape and depict Black people – African enslaved people as well as their descendants – as protagonists at the centre of a local and national history marked by the dialectic of (colonial) racist oppression and Black resistance. In commemoration of the enslaved people who built it, the Pelourinho is declared a symbolic anchor point of the Black diaspora on Brazilian soil, and in so doing emerges as an urban landscape of memory.