Note from BW of Brazil: In director Spike Lee’s 1992 epic film about the legendary human rights activist Malcolm X, there was an important scene in which the convict then known as Malcolm Little learned how racism could even influence words and terms in the English language. As Malcolm began making his transition to conscious black man, he soon realized how terms such as “blackmail”, “blackballed”, “black sheep” and many others with negative connotations were connected to the term black. He wondered, why did the “white man’s dictionary” associate terms such as ‘evil’, ‘wicked’ and ‘dirty’ to blackness while terms such as ‘pure, ‘honest’, an ‘square-dealing’ were associated with whiteness. Needless, the same associations apply to negritude and branquidade (whiteness) in Brazil.
Later in his years as a leading voice in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X would lead the way in the promotion of the usage of the term ‘black’ instead of the then popular term used to classify Americans of African descent, ‘negro’. For Malcolm,’negro’ referred to “Uncle Toms”, meaning passive people of color who would remain obedient to the rules of white supremacy and thereby helping to keep them “in their place”. Over the course of several decades, Americans of African descent would transition from the terms ‘colored’ to ‘negro’ to ‘black’ and ‘Afro-American’ and finally to the current term ‘African-American’. During the transition from ‘negro’ to ‘black’ there were many within the population who vehemently rejected defining themselves as ‘blacks’. According to some, ‘black’ was synonymous with being a ‘rabble-rouser’ or a ‘troublemaker’, which they didn’t wish to be and, as such, in some ways proved Malcolm X’s point.
In Brazil, there has been a similar evolution, although with subtle differences. As has been discussed in various posts here dealing with racial classification, Brazilians of African descent have long attempted to distance themselves from terms such as ‘preto’ or ‘negro’, both of which mean black. Decades ago, and for some still today, these terms were/are deemed offensive and to be avoided at all cost. Terms such as ‘moreno’ or ‘mulato’ not only signified that one was a product of some degree of racial mixture, but also denoted people who lacked a sense of politicized racial consciousness. Over the course of several decades, this has changed dramatically, as today millions of Brazilians of African descent proudly define themselves as negros and negras, signifying a rising black consciousness movement. But due the official choices of race/color on the official Brazilian census form, it’s difficult to say how many Brazilians really define themselves as negros/negras.
Generally, within Afro-Brazilian activists circles, the terms negro (masculine) and negra (feminine) are the terms that the population of African descent should utilize to define themselves in a racial sense instead of the terms preto or preta, which were thought to define the actual color black as in reference to black and white (preto e branco) films. Within the movement, being black is essentially a political position in which one assumes a black racial identity. But as many Brazilians use the terms interchangeably, is there any difference between the two terms?
University of São Paulo social anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz (2012) provided a clue as to how the terms preto and negro were seen during the slavery era. The term negro made reference to the rebellious, disobedient slave, while preto referred to a loyal captive. This can be noted in a news story featured in the Correio Paulistano (The São Paulo Post) in 1886.
“One particular day, the black João Congo was quietly working on his master’s farm when he noted that two fugitive negros were approaching, who soon said – ‘Leave this life behind, preto velho (old black), it’s not for you’ to which the loyal preto replied – ‘I’m not going to go wandering about here and there like some runaway negro.’ Irritated, the negros retorted – ‘Die, then, you preto covarde (black coward).’”
As we see, in the context of Brazilian terminology and folklore, the ‘preto velho’ refers to the old, docile, submissive folkloric figure somewhat similar to the Uncle Tom that Malcolm X referred to while negro was associated with the runaway, disobedient and possible revolutionary.
The question over which term should be utilized continues today and was recently brought to the forefront after the stir created by a video by a Ghanaian man who has lived in Brazil for 30 years. The Ghanaian man, Nabby Clifford, prefers the term ‘preto’ and he is not the only one. While negro is still the more popular term used to organize and promote specifically black events throughout Brazil, preto still remains quite common. Every year in São Paulo, thousands of Afro-Brazilians flock to the year’s most popular cultural event, Feira PretaFeira Preta. Last week, we featured a story about three black women who provoked controversy for organizing a summer camp for black children. The group calls itself Das Pretas, meaning “of the black women”. We also have the slogan “Poder Para o Povo Preto”, meaning ‘power for the black people’ and various bloggers and vloggers such as Gabi Oliveira (DiPretas) who use the term preta in the names of their groups or monikers.
Before delving into the question more in terms of Nabby Clifford’s opinion on the topic, I consulted with the historian Kwame Asafo Nyansafo Atunda, administrator of the black men’s group/social network Homens Pretos (black men). Asked why he named the group Homens Pretos instead of Homens Negros, Atunda responded:
“The term ‘negro’ beyond all the negative and pejorative content is not and never was a classification that Africans gave themselves; Kemet (Antigo Egito/Ancient Egypt) denominated themselves as pretos and also the Anunnakis called themselves cabeças pretas (black heads), that is, we have to self-define ourselves and terms that have no racist, derogatory origins. Because of this we are homens pretos and mulheres pretas (black women).”
With that said, let’s take a look at a few comments from the video that stirred up the debate once again…If you understand Portuguese check out the full video and the bottom of this article.
“Preto” or “negro”? The viral video that raised a semantic debate
By Marcos Sacramento with additional information courtesy of Hypeness
What is the correct word to refer to, say, afrodescendentes (African descendants) in Brazil, “preto” or “negro”? While the former is used routinely, including on official and academic documents, for musician and Ghanaian activist living in Brazil, Nabby Clifford “preto” is the only acceptable term.
Clifford is known as an ambassador of reggae in Brazil. Born in Ghana, the musician arrived here in 1983, and since then has become one of the leading names in the divulging of Reggae in Brazilian lands and ears.
In a recent video, however, Nabby decided to speak not just about this rhythm, but about something that is not only directly linked to the profound questions of reggae, but also to its cultural identity itself: Nabby recognizes himself not as ‘negro’ but as ‘preto’.
“One country, Brazil, uses words such as lista negra (blacklist), dia negro (black day), magic negra (black magic), câmbio negro (black trade), vala negra (black grave), mercado negro (black market), peste negra (black plague), buraco negro (black hole), ovelha negra (black sheep), fome negra (black hunger), humor negro (black humor), seu passado negro (his dark past), future negro (black future). You shouldn’t call a child negro (…). Get the Portuguese language dictionary, it is written, negro means unhappy, damned. When valuing something the Brazilian doesn’t say negro, he says preto.”
“He doesn’t eat feijão negro (black beans), he eats feijão preto, his car is not a carro negro, his car is carro preto, he doesn’t drink café negro, he drinks café preto (black coffee), hunger is negra, when you win the lottery, you win nota preta (big bucks/lot of money). If branco (white) is not negative, preto is also not negative (1).
But negro no, negro is a 100% negative word, and puts you back, it causes death, causes misery, diseases. Since the world has changed, let’s change our language too,” says Clifford, in a video that has nearly six million views on the TupiVox Facebook page.
The impact of the video sparked compliments but also questions about which word would be more appropriate.
A quick search on racial militancy illustrates permits one to see that the term “negro” is widely used. Collectives and organized groups use the word in their names and in texts. On the other hand, the use of “preto” is increasing, although the word sounds strange to those outside of militancy.
In search of more consistent answers, I turned to my friend and activist Mirtes Santos, of the Coletivo Negrada (Blackened Collective). “Negros who are not in the movement and don’t understand what Clifford said repudiate ‘preto’ because the word has always been used as a way to attack identidade negra (black identity). The term preto is being reframed,” explains Mirtes.
However, this process doesn’t imply the repulsion to the word “negro” in the way that the Americans did with “nigger”. The “n-word” as they call it, was used routinely, but with the progress of the struggles of the civil rights movement it was deconstructed to the point of becoming taboo.
Maybe this didn’t happen in Brazil, to the chagrin of Clifford. The most likely is that the two words co-exist, but without the negative meaning that structural racism incrusted upon it.
Even expressions like “dia de preto” (black day), “coisa de preto” (black thing) or “a coisa está preta” (the thing/situation is black) show that the word “preto” can indeed be used to perpetuate racist concepts.
And while the word is reframed and has its empowering sense, it will depend on the context in order to convey the full message, as shown by these two tweets that I found will thinking about the text and seeing Lewis Hamilton win the GP da Alemanha (German Grand Prix).
“And another story of a preto who wins! Parabéns Lewis Hamilton (Congratulations Lewis Hamilton)… “; “Sincerely I’ve never seen such a charming preto, you must be the only one also, right .. Lewis Hamilton”
The first is an example of the inoffensive and empowering use of “preto”. The second didn’t even need pejorative terms to overflow with racism (2).
- Although Clifford’s opinion is well-taken, we must also recognize when the terms preto/preta are used in the context of the racial insult as seen here or here.
- This point once again shows that a term can be used in an affectionate, non-offensive manner as well as in a very offensive manner depending on how the word is verbalized and the context of the situation. We’ve previously explored this topic in reference to the term ‘neguinha’.See here and here.