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Wake for Brazil's 'greatest black activist' do Nascimento highlights racial progress

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As scores gathered in downtown Rio for the public wake for Abdias do Nascimento, Brazil’s “greatest black activist," the crowd was a reminder that alongside Brazil’s stubborn legacy of racial inequality, there’s a diversity of actors fighting for change.

Among those gathered to pay their respects to Mr. do Nascimento, I spotted Brazilian families of all shades – a monk, men in prayer caps, representatives from quilomobos (historic runaway slave colonies), and women dressed in the breezy white dresses and turbans characteristic of afro-Brazilians in the country’s arid northeast. The crowd pressed in most excitedly for the two political guests, Rio de Janeiro Gov. Sérgio Cabral and iconic ex-President Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, neither of whom are black. Do Nascimento’s widow, who led the procession and shouted “Axé!” – an exclamation in the afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé – is a white American.

The artist, professor, and former senator do Nascimento passed away Tuesday after leading black rights movements for three-quarters of a century. He was “Brazil’s greatest black activist and intellectual,” in the words of the recent PBS production “Black in Latin America” by Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates. (Watch the interview of do Nascimento here, beginning at 44 minutes.)

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