Raymundo de Souza Dantas Overcame Illiteracy to Become Brazil’s First Black Ambassador

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Brazil’s first Black ambassador, Raymundo de Souza Dantas, was born in Estância, in the state of Sergipe, on January 11, 1923. The writer and journalist was appointed to be a diplomat by Jânio Quadros ambassador to Ghana.

His parents, Reis Café Souza Dantas, a painter, and Porfiria Conceição Dantas, a laundress, were both illiterate. As a boy, Raymundo was only able to attend school periodically because of the financial strain on his family which included two other siblings. 

He began working at the age of ten doing various trades including apprenticeship in blacksmithing and carpentry. At age 16, he began working as a typographer in Aracaju, at the newspaper, Jornal de Sergipe. It was here when he realized the great limitation illiteracy would have on his future. 

In his biography, Um Começo de Vida (The Beginning of Life, 1949), he wrote about this moment: 

-“I need a job, doctor – I dared to confess. I don't have a nickel, or a place to sleep (...).

-“Do you know how to read?

-”...How to respond, how? (...) I saw myself exposed to general curiosity, humiliated, debased in my human condition. It was one of those present who came to my rescue – to whom years later I became one of the closest: Graciliano Ramos [who said] 

-“... If you can't read, it won't be new. Many who are famous today arrived illiterate. Some even continue... So who can throw the first stone at you?”

At the age of eighteen, Dantas moved to Rio de Janeiro, where he initially tried to work at a fruit stand but was fired because he didn’t know how to do math.

This failure may have been a blessing for him. He became determined to educate himself. In 1942  he began working entry-level jobs at several book and magazine publishers where he could also practice his reading. By 1944, he was working as a proofreader and published his first book, Sete Palmos de Terra (Seven Land Palms). The novel fictionalizes memories of his childhood and adolescence in his hometown.

Dantas went on to become a successful journalist working for several periodicals including A Noite, Jornal do Brasil, O Estado de São Paulo, Dom Casmurro, Leia, Brasil Sugar, among others.

Later, he worked at the Radio Journalism Department Secretariat at Rádio Nacional, as well as at the Centro Brasileiro de TV Educativa Foundation, as a special advisor.

He ascended into federal work as an Educational Affairs Technician, organizing, in 1968, the Ministry’s Public Relations Section, where he also headed the Press and Outreach sectors. He was also a member of the National Council of Cinema, and, later, of the State Council of Culture of Rio de Janeiro.

He went on to write more books,  Agonia (compilation of short stories published in 1945), “Solidão nos Campos” (1949 novel), of the novels “Vigília da noite” (1949) and “Lado da Sombra.” His book, “África Difícil: mission condemned” (1965), recounts his experience at the Ghanain Embassy and how its culture influenced Brazilian society. The book contains a record of his research and contact with the descendants of repatriated slaves in Brazil, as well as describing the difficulties of diplomatic life. This work was responsible for launching sociological research on a community founded by Brazilians in Accra and in-depth research on Afro-Brazilian diasporic history.

Raymundo was awarded the Official Peacemaker Medal by the  National Order of Senegal, Silvio Romero Medal, and Santos Dumont Medal. He died on March 8, 2002, in Rio de Janeiro, aged 79.

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