This article highlights the centrality of theatrical and carnival performances to the making of the Brazilian abolitionist movement. Based on the case study of Recife, it argues that these cultural manifestations were integral to broadly politicizing the problem of emancipation and to constructing abolitionist public opinion. Important not only for consolidating popular support, abolitionist performances also created new codes for political expression and recast the terms of political belonging, or citizenship. In the wake of the wide disenfranchisement stemming from the 1881 electoral law, the performances portrayed abolition as a national issue and thus legitimized the possibility for collective intervention. The consolidation of an abolitionist movement transformed the workings of the local politics of slavery, forcing the provincial and municipal governments to confront the matter through the adoption of emancipation funds. As abolitionist performances extended the parameters of political participation, however, they also produced narratives of progress that both stigmatized Africanness and elided the place of freed slaves within the newly envisioned body politic. Abolitionist performances, then, challenged the institution of slavery but left unscathed cultural assumptions about racial difference and hierarchies. Abolitionist performances, dynamic and complex, became a crucial vehicle for spurring popular political mobilization in the 1880s, a practice that reverberated nationally.

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