“Black Brazilian Women: Presence and Power”: From poverty in a Rio suburb to a master’s degree in New York, Sandra Soares Coleman is putting on an exhibition on successful afro-brasileiras


Note from BW of Brazil: And here we have yet another inspiring story of an Afro-Brazilian woman overcoming the odds, racism and the place that Brazilian society reserves for black people to find success. As if her story isn’t inspirational enough, she is now reaching back to highlight the success stories of other black Brazilian women in an exhibit at the State University of New York in the United States! There are a number of stories on this blog featuring the stories of black Brazilian women leaving the country and following their dreams in other countries so, of course, it is an honor to bring you the story of Sandra Regina Barbosa Soares Coleman. 

Sandra Regina Barbosa Soares Coleman

Brazilian master’s student idealizing exhibition in New York that will put black Brazilian women in the spotlight

Courtesy of Amanda Martins Web

Sandra Regina Barbosa Soares Coleman, better known as Sandra Coleman, the rainha negra (black queen). She is fluent in three languages and is studying French. She is in her senior year at SUNY New Paltz, New York.

Mulher negra brasileira (black Brazilian woman), was born in São Gonçalo, in the metropolitan region of the city of Rio de Janeiro. Her family is made up of her younger sister and her mother.

Sandra aims to highlight mulheres negras (black women), and has been causing a notable movement in the Brazilian and American scenarios for being the founder of an exhibition on black Brazilian women in the United States.


Sandra Coleman

Sandra comes from a very poor family, her father worked and received very little, which made it necessary for her mother to also work. The family lived in a single room and life did not smile upon them often.

She was 8 years old when her mother started washing clothes for thirteen families and she helped, it was her first job. On weekends, the family increased their income by making snacks to sell with the remnants of meat their father brought from work. Sandwiches were sold by Sandra in the beauty salons around the house. The time for receiving new clothes was only at Christmas. On other days, she wore clothes borrowed from her amigas brancas (white friends) who lived on her street.

Around 10 or 12, Sandra had the habit of listening to the mothers of her white friends saying that she was the daughter they would like to have, but they did not. And she was filled with pride.

Today, she says she understands why they said that. All of them studied at the same school, but when they arrived, white friends would go to the room to study and she would wash dishes, pick up the cigarettes, play jogo do bicho (numbers game), wax the floor and many other things.

She was seen and treated like a servant and didn’t know it. She did all this to get a piece of cake and a glass of Coke. For in her house the soda only came on Sunday morning and it was a glass for each one and if there were any left, her mother would share, at the next day’s lunch.


The racism

“When I was 19, a white friend got a job at a bank. I went to ask her if she could help me get a job too, and she said no. That what she needed was to get clients for the bank and not a job  for me. Sometime later she got married and didn’t invite me to her wedding, I didn’t understand why. But…. three months later, she invited me to go and clean her house, and I was happy,” says Sandra.

At 19, Sandra had a dream of going to college, but she had lost her father to alcoholism, so there was no one to orient her, she remembers:

“I was completely conformed to the situation that brancos (whites) had imposed on my life. All the whites around me said that university was bullshit, that it was full of engineers cleaning the street. When many years later the “quotas” began in public universities, I was induced to be against quotas. My white friends said that “quotas” were not necessary because “éramos todos iguais” (we were all equal). These same friends who said that university was bullshit, some were from the same family as on Sundays when I arrived at their house, they would say  “escureceu tudo” (everything got dark), or “chegou a macaca” (the monkey’s here). They are my mother’s neighbors to this day. And when I was in Brazil in June 2017, I was invited to go and have lunch at their house, but …. I couldn’t go past the gate of my mother’s house because I remembered what they did to me in the past.”


Mulher negra no mundo (Black woman in the world)

Currently, Sandra lives in New Paltz, a small town that is an hour and a half from New York City, where she lives with her husband.

Still in Brazil, the possessor of a master’s degree worked as a domestic servant, a cleaning lady, waitress of a churrascaria (Brazilian BBQ restaurant), a teacher of primary school in Goiânia and receptionist of a dental office.

She was unemployed for almost two years, and it was during this time that she met Ivanir dos Santos, told her story and Ivanir said he would help her and that she would go far. So she went to work at the Instituto Palmares de Direitos Humanos (Palmares Institute of Human Rights), an NGO of the Movimento Negro (black movement).

Through her work at the NGO, she went to Brasília to participate in a seminar on racial inequality in April 2005. At that seminar, she met her husband, “Dr. Major Coleman” lawyer, Ph.D. in social sciences and then professor at Penn State at State College, Pennsylvania.

During the seminar, they only exchanged “hellos” because she didn’t speak English, and he did not speak Portuguese. In October of the same year, the NGO made a newspaper that was sent to all the people she had met at the seminar. Major thought she was a student. The newspaper had a photo of her, and the Major decided to get in touch, which resulted in the beginning of the courtship.

He came to visit her and in May of 2006, she spent a month in the USA, returned to Brazil and in July of 2007 entered the US with the bridal visa. They were married in August 2007 in State College, Pennsylvania, and in July 2008, they moved to New Paltz, NY, where they live today.


“I got married without speaking a word in English, he learned Portuguese speaking to me. In August 2009, I began my English course at SUNY – New Paltz, State University of New York, where I was once voted best student. In May of 2015 I received my baccalaureate in Spanish. In August 2015 I started my master’s degree. Now I’m in the last semester of the Master’s Degree in Humanistic/Multicultural Education. “

The master’s student claims that she has always suffered from racism, and living outside Brazil has learned even more about the proportion of racism in Brazil. However, the scenario was perpetuated at the university in the US and she reports:

“I faced a lot of racism in the classroom, too. An example, once a teacher was explaining the word “extract”, then she presented a PowerPoint with a white woman with a hand on her face and with a toothache. This white woman went to the dentist, the dentist extracted the woman’s tooth. And she turned black, without the front teeth, all dirty. I almost had a heart attack in the classroom. I was the only black student in the classroom, I held back the tears. I cried at home for a week. Then I went to the teacher, and we had a little discussion, and she didn’t understand how racist her PowerPoint was.

With Brazilians, they are surprised when they meet me. Once, in a church, a Brazilian woman said that I spoke Portuguese very well, and asked me where I had learned. Another, thinking that I didn’t speak English, the husband asked where my husband had met me, and she said that my husband had met me “in the night in Copacabana”.

Sandra says she overcomes racism with great determination, strength, love, orgulho de ser negra (pride of being black) and therapy. The work developed by her psychologist, the love of her husband and the support (friendship) of her friends has been fundamental for her to live life.

Challenges of the black community

In the view of the master’s recipient, one of the greatest challenges of the black community is união (unity). Understanding that they are black, understanding that racism exists, practicing sorority and knowing the history of our people not to propagate racist attitudes with our brothers and with us. She said having given immense consideration of a woman … a black lady who repeated a racist speech and she replied: “Did you know that your grandfather was enslaved?” Sandra says that the woman was muted, she was in shock.

 Sandra Coleman and the changes

“Aesthetics – When wearing my natural hair, many women in my church started to leave their hair natural. In 2012, I shaved my head, and to my surprise, five women did the same thing, and let their hair grow natural.

Master’s degree – when I started on the master’s degree, I visited a school in a community in Niterói (a city in Rio de Janeiro state). The teacher had told me about a 14-year-old girl, who said all the time she wanted to be a mom because her friends were. My visit completely changed the idea of the girl,” according to the master’s recipient.

Sandra viewing an image of writer Conceição Evaristo

Exhibition Black Brazilian Women: Presence and Power

 “In July, the university where I studied received an average of 80 white Brazilians. A week before school started, I talked to my teacher Ann Dean, a white porreta (see note one), that I would like to give a presentation on mulheres negras brasileiras. At first, the idea would be about black women in the period of slavery.

The next day I stopped the idea of the time of slavery and decided to do it about contemporary black women. Whites love to talk about slavery. But in the university, we only have 5% of black students, and only white students come from Brazil. So, I decided to do the exhibition on contemporary black women, successful black women and famous. But…. I found it difficult to find their contact.

Then I thought …. why not do it about my friends. I thought about the criteria for selecting them: to be negra/preta (black women), to have completed higher education and to have suffered racism. But … these criteria did not contemplate many of my friends, because many of them are still in the university, and my intention was to show the world that in Brazil there were negras in the university yes. So I decided to use the following: being black, being or having completed higher education and having undergone racism. Racial awareness was one of the main issues. So, I counted on the help of some friends, whose names I will not mention because I could forget someone, to help me in the research.

To my surprise, many had trouble talking about racism and others said they had never suffered it. I understand perfectly, I only learned about racism at age 35, and it was also at 35 that I discovered that I was beautiful, that was through Daise Rosas, a psychologist who worked at the NGO where I went to work. When I was introduced to Daise, and she said, “muita bonita” (very pretty), I almost had a heart attack. I went to the bathroom and stared at myself in the mirror. Nobody had ever told me I was beautiful.

I didn’t imagine that the exhibit would be embraced by the university. Every moment I meet with a teacher who says that she already knew about the exhibition. One teacher told me that the exhibition goes against all the stereotypes associated with black Brazilian women, and that it is the first time she has heard of an exhibition at that level, showing black Brazilian academic women.

I solicited the library of the university, which is named after a black woman, Sojourner Truth, to buy some books of black Brazilian women authors to be displayed during the exhibition, among them: Conceição Evaristo, Geni Guimarães, and Elisa Lucinda. And I’m going to lend books of black Brazilian women authors to the library,” says Sandra.

The exhibition will be formed with biographies of 52 black Brazilian women from different fields. The same has propagated a very positive result for the elevation of the self-esteem of the black Brazilian woman. Sandra has received several messages and links of congratulations and support. The purpose of the master’s recipient with the exhibition is to break the stereotypes about black women. Evidence of their actions, intelligence, struggles and victories. Give voice to the rainhas negras!

Note of darkening (see note two): The selected women are looking for ways to make the trip possible. Many have the time as a possibility to expand their horizons but do not have the financial resources to do so and do not want to miss this opportunity and recognition. Therefore, whoever can help, collaborate in some way so that these women can be in the event, get in touch with the idealizer of the exhibition.


“I will pay tribute to our griots: Neia Daniel, Ruth Pinheiro, Nanci Rosa, Neusa das Dores Pereira, Creuzelly Ferreira, Vanda Ferreira, Lia Vieira, Catarina de Paula, Rosa Maria de Lima, Helena Theodoro, Edilea Sylverio and Conceição Evaristo.

Also, I want to make a timeline, where I go for important facts of so many other black women starting with Dandara,” says Sandra.

Exhibition: “Mulheres Negras Brasileiras: Presença e Poder” (Black Brazilian Women: Presence and Power)

Location: Sojourner Truth Library, at SUNY New Paltz (New York State University).

When: December 4 to 21. Inauguration on December 6th.


Sandra has as references: Vanda Ferreira, and emphasizes the charisma and affection of the griot. In addition to this, the mastermind mentions Conceição Evaristo, for her determination and termination and conclusion with Harriet Tubman, who said the following sentence: “I have freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed more if they knew they were slaves.”

Sandra Coleman ends the interview saying:

“1 – Uma Rainha pode ter cabelo crespo (A queen can have kinky/curly hair.)

2 – 2 – Meninos, valorizem a mulher negra (Boys, cherish the black woman.)

3 – “As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. I am somebody. I am a person. I am a woman with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history. How painful and exploited this history has been. Yes, I was a slave through my ancestors and I am not ashamed of it. Yes, we should get up and say, “Eu sou preta, eu sou linda” (“I’m black, I’m beautiful”) Translation and adaptation of a passage from a Martin Luther King Jr. speech.

I still believe that one black woman goes up and pulls another. I still believe that together we are stronger.”

Source: Amanda Martins Web


  1. Expression that defines a positive, good person
  2. The term used here was “escurecimento”, which actually means ‘darkening’, but black Brazilians have been using the term as a replacement for “esclarecimento”, meaning ‘clarification’ to flip the script on the positive terms and meanings used for black/white or dark/light.
About Marques Travae 2895 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.