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As an American Council of Learned Scholars (ACLS) postdoc research fellow at the Center for Social Solutions, Marcos Leitão De Almeida brings his knowledge of historical slavery practices to the Center’s Third Slavery Project - an effort to combat involuntary servitude today. History, and the study of slaving practices have, in fact, long intrigued Marcos, stemming from an upbringing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
As a teenager, Marcos often scavenged through his grandfather’s archives in an effort to learn more about his family history. In his pursuits, he came across a series of family connections to Brazil’s past, discovering that his ancestors “were everywhere in Brazilian history, whether as slavers or abolitionists, revolutionaries, reformers or supporters of the dictatorship, or even as military officers or intellectuals.”
Marcos attributes his interests in historical research to these early experiences. “I realized through this exercise that archives are important resources, and history is not something to take lightly; on the contrary, it is crucial to make you think about and understand the social world we all live in.”
Brazil’s geopolitical landscape further shaped Marcos’s interests in history, and African history in particular, during his undergraduate years. In the early 2000’s—a time which Marcos describes as a “new, vibrant period of democracy in Brazil,”—Marcos was pursuing an undergraduate major in history at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. In 2003, Brazil passed a law requiring the history of Africa and African diasporas to be taught in high schools and universities across the country, in response to long-standing demands of Afro-Brazilian social movements.
“Like other historians, I understood that the moment was not so much about fighting for the democratic regime; it was about fighting for social inclusion and full citizenship for all Brazilians,” Marcos explained. “In Brazil, an industrialized and socially unequal country, this means confronting the racial and social legacy of slavery.”
Wanting to learn more about African history, Marcos completed an M.A. in Social History at the State University of Campinas in São Paulo. In 2013, his M.A. thesis won a national Palmares Foundation Award for best research in Afro-Brazilian history.
“I wanted to study African history because I knew about its importance in fighting against structural racism in Brazil, but also because it offers a lot of challenges for historians. For example, how can we study the past of ancient societies that did not use written records? This is a crucial question not only for historians interested in African history but also for those studying subaltern groups or ancient societies in other parts of the world.”
Understanding slavery as a historical phenomenon and fighting its contemporary forms have become central points in my career.
Marcos’ work has continued to bring new insight to the study of African history and ancient societies throughout his academic career. In 2020, he completed his P.h.D dissertation “Speaking of Slavery: Slaving Strategies and Moral Imaginations in the Lower Congo (ca. 1000 BCE–ca. 1850)” at Northwestern University, winning the Harold Perkin Prize for best dissertation in the department of history.
“In my work, I neither intend to discover the ‘origins’ of slavery in Africa nor to associate myself with political movements that naturalize slavery or romanticize Africa’s ancient societies.” Marcos explained. “Ancient Africans made history, sometimes resorting to slaving, and historians must responsibly think about these moments to address important issues today, such as issues of development, ethnicity, and the consequences of the trans-Atlantic slave trade on the continent.”
At the Center for Social Solutions, Marcos will look at connections between historical and modern slavery through the Center’s Third Slavery project which aims to addresses the gaps in our awareness of and current redresses to slavery practices around the world.
“The Center for Social Solutions has the capacity to use the knowledge and resources of humanists to deal with problems of the contemporary world, and this is something that I am eager to learn more about.”
When not at work, Marcos enjoys playing with his sons Arthur and Gael, spending time with his wife Natalia, and taking his boxer Argos (named after Odysseus’s dog!) on daily walks.
He hopes to continue researching and finding ways to combat forms of involuntary servitude going forward in his career as well, with a new book about slavery in the Lower Congo on its way.
“Understanding slavery as a historical phenomenon and fighting its contemporary forms have become central points in my career. I want to continue researching, writing, and teaching about these issues, and I want to learn more about how this knowledge can help end or at least mitigate the effects of slaving strategies today.”