Black Women of Brazil

The site dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent

“History shows that black women will always be willing to fight against injustice”, says militant Nilma Bentes, an organizer of the Black Women’s March


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Note from BW of Brazil: I know from time to time, newer readers of this blog may scratch their heads and struggle to understand why certain aspects of the black struggle in Brazil seem a little peculiar. Some may wonder why it that this blog features so many articles that discuss the development of identidade negra (black identity), the idea of “tornar-se negra“, or ‘becoming black’, or the transition that many Afro-Brazilian women are going through in accepting their natural hair textures after years of using all sorts of straightening procedures because they were taught to believe that cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair) or natural black hair is ugly or a sign of bad grooming. Often times, besides the society at large, many people are indoctrinated with these values inside of their own homes. Although struggle in the struggle against racism/white supremacy is actually getting the comunidade negra (black community) itself to understand that Brazil is not a ‘racial democracy’, a very clever, sophisticated national myth that has deceived millions of Brazilians for over eight decades. While more and more are waking up to the facts, the denial is still very strong. Below, check out the experiences of a prominent, veteran leader of Brazil’s black movement as she describes the challenges and achievements in the battle for black liberation. 

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Nilma Bentes

Nilma Bentes: “History shows black women will always be willing to fight against injustice,” says long time black leader.

Reality of the black population in the Amazon and facing racism are themes of the interview

By Lilian Campelo – Photos by Karina Ramos, Daiane Coelho and Laís Tavares

The steps in the militancy of Raimunda Nilma de Melo Bentes, better known as Nilma Bentes, come from afar. A paraense (native of the state of Pará) from the neighborhood of Pedreira, she was one of the founders of the Centro de Estudos e Defesa do Negro do Pará (Cedenpa or Center of Black Studies and Defense of Pará) in the 1980s, in Belém, and one of the idealizers of the March of Black Women, held in Brasilia, in 2015.

To Brasil de Fato (website), in an interview that integrates the special dedicated to the International Day of Black and Latin American Black Women, she talks about her trajectory in the militancy of the Movimento Negro (black movement), the reality of the black population in the Amazon, and her confrontation with racism. Check it out!

Brasil de Fato: How did you start in your militancy in the black movement?

Nilma Bentes: You see, the black movement begins in África, when African men and women struggle not to be shipped. But the re-articulation of the black movement here [in Brazil] begins in the process of democratic opening, at the end of the military dictatorship (1964-1985). Although, strictly speaking, each of us, because we have our black veil or almost black, whether we like it or not, we are militants in movement. I can say that I officially entered the black movement when we created the Center for Studies and Defense of the Negro of Pará (Cedenpa) in 1980. It was like this, a sort of ‘exército pretaleone’ (black-leone army) – just to paraphrase the film and also not to be so serious, hard. Each black person reacts differently to the manifestations of racism, but most still swallow it dryly. Unfortunately, we still have to try to persuade many of us blacks to engage in the struggle.

I’m used to saying that there are steps. First, sometimes we have to tell people that they are black – many don’t like the news – and that they are not being discriminated against just because they are in poverty, the condition of most of us, but because of racism … and machismo-sexism when we speak of a black woman. Secondly, he/she must like being a black person, to be proud and not to be ashamed, for those who should be ashamed are the brancos escravizadores, opressores (white enslavers, oppressors). Third, they must fight racism and preferably collectively. It has not been an easy task because the media, the school, churches – hegemonized by white men and women linked to structural, institutional, environmental, religious and other adjectival racists – do not collaborate to broaden and accelerate the process that seeks to construct social, racial and gender equity.

Racism has benefited all pessoas brancas (white people) – high, middle and low income; children, adolescents, young people, adults, elderly people; disabled or not; homo-bi-transsexuals. The basis of discrimination is ‘ser pessoa negra’ (being a black person), the other discrimination is ‘aggravating’ for us.

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Brasil de Fato: The Black Women’s March was a great demonstration. In your assessment, what legacy does the march leave for women and the black movement in the country?

Nilma Bentes: It is not easy to say something about it, but it is possible to say that, in some way, there is a legacy both individually and collectively. Although we were suspicious, it turned out that black women care – and a lot – about other black women. Although we distrusted, we did not know how much we had strength and how important it is to assemble people. Even if the visibility, including the media, was not what we wanted – it would be a miracle if we had the support of the racist-macho media – it was a great journey and I believe it is still pushing the organization of black women groups in many states of Brazil despite the political moment we are going through.

Can you tell us a little about how the March went?

Since the day before, when the delegations began to arrive at the Ginásio Nilson Nelson  (Nilson Nelson Gymnasium), an accumulation began, an inflation of emotion. I am very emotional, but I try not to show it and then I tried to take shelter in the organizing activities of our delegation from Pará: to make sure that the banners were visible, that nobody was lost or things of that type. But deep down, at times, my chest came just short of exploding but I tried to ‘guarantee myself emotionally’. I was getting ready to make a speech in the car sound system, but when the fascist-launched bomb problem occurred, I missed the chance. It was not necessary. There I lay on the lawn and I think that I felt a kind of catharsis.

Some people who approach me I say what I really think, about having been the proposer of the March: I was certainly chosen to be a channel of communication. Proposing does not mean to carry out, put into effect and many people made the Black Women March against Racism, Violence and Well-Being happen the way it happened: beautiful! Our report book (from Pará) shows a little of what was, in our view, the building process of March 2015.

Is there a black Amazon that Brazil knows little about? What type of black Amazon is this that the country does not know?

The Brazilian Amazon is huge. They are more than 5 million square kilometers, about ten times the size of Spain and about sixty times the size of Portugal, but there is enormous difficulty in physical access. Yes, the black population of the Amazon reaches about 11.6 million people, but it is invisible. In fact, the black Brazilian population (54% of the total), is also made invisible. Many people don’t know, but, proportionally, according to the 2010 Census, the black population of Pará is the largest in Brazil (76.76% of the total population of the State.) In absolute numbers, it is in São Paulo that has the majority of the black population (14.2 million), followed by (the states of ) Bahia, Minas and Rio de Janeiro.

We, from Cedenpa and Imena [Instituto de Mulheres Negras do Amapá meaning Institute of Black Women of Amapá] have created the Rede Fulanas NAB (NAB – Negras da Amazônia Brasileira/Black Women of the Brazilian Amazon) and we have tried to strengthen to the extent that possibilities emerge. I often record that there is a potential for collective self-rejection in the Amazon by virtue of the dual subordinations of the black and indigenous populations; so I believe that the difficulties of mobilization are greater since much of both have introjected an inexistent racial inferiority. But it is possible that for many black men and women it is ‘less worse’ to be indigenous. In the book I wrote in 1993, Negritando (black screaming), I affirm that every white person is racist and every black person rejects himself and that question is only of percentage.

Was there a fact of racism that marked you?

Since I was a child I felt the weight of racism and it is almost certain that if I became a somewhat antisocial and even aggressive person, it is because of it. My degree of self-rejection is a bit high, by the way. One of the manifestations of racism that marked me was being rejected to take a course in Ceará for my photography. Every year a person from my job was recommended and that year they did not accept my application. I cite this because it hurt me professionally, because I graduated in Agronomy. But I could register several other situations.

Given your experience and years of militancy in what way have we advanced in relation to the struggle for racial and gender equality?

If we think about what our ancestors went through in the time of slavery we are a little better. But slaughters, preventable deaths, including women in maternity wards, femicides, etc.; are revolting, and we must not cease being indignant. When we started here in 1980 one shouldn’t have spoken about racism, just about preconceito de cor (color prejudice). One should not have spoken of black man or black woman. It was Afro-Brazilian. Talking about racism and saying pessoa negra (black person) was very aggressive. In fact, whites always want us to fight them, with weapons they themselves choose. I often say that there is no possibility of fighting against racism without displeasing the racists, of course.

In any case, we have made progress in undermining, cracking or bruising the myth of racial democracy, as Florestan Fernandes said: “The myth of racial democracy prevents racial democracy.” Progress has been made in the issues of quotas, although there have been setbacks in many places, ranging from racial to social quotas. It was not easy to get some consensus to seek this. Some people feel sorry for the ‘Fernando Holiday da vida’ (Fernando Holiday of life). I’m not from this wing. I find them similar to blacks who betray blacks; spit upwards. Malcolm X was murdered by a black man; here we had Henrique Dias, a negro who imprisoned blacks and Indians in the time of slavery. I am from the wing that thinks that one should not defend the black man from the black man; the woman from the woman, etc.

It is also important to record how to advance the action, in the last Constituent Assembly, with the criminalization of racism and some progress towards quilombolas, which today exist in some states, including Pará, vacancies for entry of quilombolas into universities. The Racial Equality Statute is another example. Admittedly, we could never advance in the way and size we wanted. Everything has remained in the field of the possible, in the conjuncture of the time. It seems that, in fact, we have to ‘make reality’ since it is not given.

History shows that black women will always be willing to fight against injustice, for equity. Yes, we must do it because we deserve it – to be alive – and to continue the struggle of our ancestors as highlighted in the March of 2015: “our footsteps come from afar.”

Editing: Simone Freire

Source: Brasil de Fato

One comment on ““History shows that black women will always be willing to fight against injustice”, says militant Nilma Bentes, an organizer of the Black Women’s March

  1. revclgreen
    August 2, 2017

    Reblogged this on Rivers of Life.

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