The Black Women of Brazil blog first appeared on the web on November 18, 2011. So it’s been five years now! Wow! I guess you say it’s kind of a milestone. And along with this milestone, for the first time, officially, the blog’s creator and editor (myself), Marques Travae, am introducing myself to my readers. Due to the blog’s success over the past few years, I would like to thank the hundreds of thousands of internet surfers whose interest in black women, black issues, the African Diaspora and Brazil have taken a few minutes out of their day to read some of the material on this blog. It all started with a relatively simple goal: sharing the images and experiences of black Brazilian women with a global, English-speaking audience, although that original goal would later evolve. I will explain a little more about this in a Q & A session below in which I respond to a number of common questions I have received over the past few years in the blog’s comments section, e-mails and the Facebook page. So let’s get to it!
What was the inspiration for the blog?
Marques Travae: Well, I guess there’s it’s been a number of things over the years that told me I needed to create such a platform. But I would narrow down the most important factors to just a few. Number one, after I got into studies of race in Brazil back in the early 2000’s, I began to share some of the vast research I had done on the topic, basing my views not only on academic studies, but my own experiences when I first began visiting Brazil back in the year 2000. When I began writing my opinions on racial issues in Brazil, I would often read the comments that readers would make about my work. It always seemed relatively easy to separate when Brazilians were making comments from when non-Brazilians would post their comments, even being written on English language sites. As my articles became pretty popular on one site in particular, I began to notice that when Brazilians disagreed with things I wrote in my articles, I would always see the same basic arguments/accusations: 1) Racism doesn’t exist in Brazil, 2) Racism exists in Brazil but it’s nowhere near as bad as it is in the United States, 3) In the United States, you guys don’t mix (races) while most Brazilians are of mixed race which (for many) means racism cannot exist in Brazil, 4) Race in Brazil is completely different than in the US, which is why Americans don’t understand Brazil.
These are just a few of the most common comments my articles would receive. People outside of Brazil, perhaps not being as familiar with racial issues in Brazil, tended to look at my material from a more objective perspective, perhaps to ascertain the facts based upon experiences from their own countries. My question at that point was, ‘how is it that people are in such denial on this issue?’ I mean, international and Brazillian-based reports about racism in Brazil have been coming out for more than six decades. In reality, it shouldn’t have been surprising; the denial of the existence of racism has been well-documented also.
What was the objective of the blog?
MT: In the beginning, I began the blog with an idea of just posting photos of various Afro-Brazilian women, women who I considered to be black, which is to say, they have salient features denoting African ancestry. If you go back to the beginnings of the blog, you will note that the first posts were just photos of various women. From there, I started including short bios about some prominent black Brazilian women, professors, politicians, athletes, etc. At that point, I decided that I could be doing much more with the blog. At that point, 2011, I had been following issues of race in Brazil for about 11 years so I decided, there were plenty of blogs and sites about race, racial identity and racism in Brazil written in Portuguese, but there were no blogs or sites that specifically spoke about the race issue in Brazil written in English. I also decided that, as Brazilians often express the opinion that non-Brazilians don’t understand race in Brazil or that the “Yankee perspective” on Brazilian racial matters were completely biased based on the North American perspective, I wanted to provide space for Brazilians themselves to speak on these issues. As I had participated in online social media sites such as the defunct Orkut and later Facebook, I knew that there were literally tens of thousands of black Brazilians who saw race in a manner that was similar to my own. This is not to say that the majority of non-white Brazilians see race and racial issues in this manner, in fact, I would argue that most probably still don’t see things the way that I see them, but the fact that there are so many who often express opinions similar to my own show that there has been a shift in the way non-white Brazilians see race in the past few decades.
With this in mind, I wanted to share the question of race as experienced in Brazil with an English-speaking market that was becoming more and more interested in Brazil. So I went from just posting photos, to writing short bios, to simply translating material that was already available in Portuguese, to translating the material and including my own opinion on the material. The blog is presented in the following manner. The article usually begins with a “Note from BW of Brazil” introduction. This section representes my own opinion on the material that I present which I translated from Portuguese. After the “note” comes the material I translated from another source. And after I finally developed this format for the blog, I began to include the sources of the material that I translated at the bottom of the page so that anyone visiting the site that doesn’t read English can access the material in Portuguese. The only thing then is that then they won’t be able to read my own comments which are only in English and on the BW of Brazil blog. Several years ago, I had in fact created a bi-ligual blog but it was simply too time consuming so I decided to create a blog only in English.
Why do you call the blog “Black Women of Brazil”?
MT: This is a common question I get from people who have interviewed me or with whom I’ve conversed over the past few years in reference to the blog. I decided to call the blog BW of Brazil because over the years I noticed that black Brazilian women seemed to be leading the charge in the demand for putting the racial discussion on the list of social issues in Brazil. This is not to say that black Brazilian men are not involved because they clearly are and have always been. My first introduction into Brazilian racial politics was through the work of the late, great activist/scholar Abdias do Nascimento, who was one of the only black Brazilians to have a few of his books available in English. But what I noted is that there were numerous black women’s organizations throughout the country that were highly organized and leading a sort of revolution on the internet. These groups were discussing issues that affected millions of black women who often face three different forms of discrimination: race, gender and often class. With the rise of social media, personal blogs and more access to high education on the parto f Afro-Brazilians, one can find numerous thought-provoking articles online that speak specifically of black women’s issues that I thought would resonate with other black women around the world who are experiencing similar issues and that probably didn’t know that these issues even existed in Brazil. I get these sort of comments on the blog and the Facebook page all the time.
The blog is called “Black Women of Brazil” because the vast majority of personal reflections about being black in Brazil on the blog come from the black women writers. But I felt that in order for a non-Brazilian to understand why these women are writing such material in the first place, it would be important to include general articles that expose racial issues that affect black Brazilians as a whole. As such, the blog includes all sorts of material: reports, interviews, studies, etc.
What have been some of your best experiences in hosting the blog?
MT: There have been many. What I really appreciate is that so many people outside of Brazil are reading the blog. The majority of my audience resides in the United States but the blog attracts readers from Europe, Latin America, Africa and Australia and numerous other countries as well. The internet is truly a global platform! But again, in order to reach this global audience, it was necessary to write the blog in the most global language that, nowadays and for several decades now, is English. What I really like seeing is how the blog has grown since 2011. I started off using blogspot and watched as the the site was getting only a few hundred page views a day for the first few months. But I began to understand how great the internet can be for breaking stories and making things go viral when I posted my first story that blew up. That was the story about a singer whose offensive song lyrics in reference to black women lead to his record label having to pay a seven figure sum in damages. The story was picked up and referenced by the Curly Nikki website. Because of this link, I saw my pageviews for one day pass the number of views I was getting for an entire week at the time. The story would later be featured in Huffington Post and although I didn’t receive any credit for sharing the story, I think the story ended up at Huff Post because of what I had written and posted and that another popular website had picked up on.
Since then, I’ve had several highlights. A representative of a hair company in France contacted me to talk about what types of hair products that might work for black women’s hair in Brazil. Several African-American journalists have contacted me and a US-based hair product compnay interested in knowing the best way to market to black Brazilian consumers. One of my best experiences was with a New York-based real estate agent and entrepreneur named Mable Ivory who was instrumental in bringing actress Tichina Arnold to Brazil! Arnold became very popular in recent years in Brazil because of her role in the TV program Everybody Hates Chris, which was dubbed in Portuguese and became a HUGE success in Brazil. Ivory was also the driving force behind a number of Afro-Brazilian organizations getting funding for their endeavors in 2014.
I’ve been contacted by and spoken to people from TheRoot.com, TheGrio.com, both popular African-American-based websites, as well as a number of contacts from other bloggers. And then, last year, journalist Bruce Douglas from the British site/newspaper The Guardian contacted me to discuss the ordeal of Nayara Justino, a black woman who had won a contest to become the Globeleza girl for Globo TV’s popular Carnaval commercials. After the commercials featuring her began airing, Globo TV quickly pulled them because it seems her skin was “too dark” for Brazilians to be the Globeleza. The story was horrific but I’m very happy to know that Nayara landed on her feet and is doing well these days. Snippets of the interview I recorded with The Guardian appeared in a short documentary they produced about Nayara’s story. It was the first time I had “come out” to my audience.
Similar interests in the African Disapora also brought me in contact with Kumi Rauf, a brotha from the Bay area in California who just happens to have the most popular black-oriented page on Facebook, I Love Being Black! This brotha is truly global and it would be impossible to know how many countries he’s visited over the past few years! And then due to her coverage of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing journalist Kiratiana Freelon, who has written a number good articles on the issue of race in Brazil for well-known African-American-oriented websites. While on this topic, I would also like to thank University of Southern Florida professor Dr. Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman, who so generously mailed me a free copy of her 2015 book The Color of Love: Racial Features, Stigma, and Socialization in Black Brazilian Families. This book is essential reading for anyone who has an interest in the topics I cover on the BW of Brazil blog. The last person who I’d like to mention that the blog has put in contact with is Ibrahim Waziri. He and his brother are the driving forces behind the Nigerian cartoon Bino and Fino which was overdubbed in Portuguese in a special push to try introduce the series to a Brazilian market that, besides lacking black representation in so many other areas, also lacks black cartoon characters.
There have been several other highlights as well. The blog’s coverage of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil as well as the 2016 Olympics in Rio brought incredible traffic to the blog that once again showed the power of the internet. BW of Brazil has put me in contact with a number of great people, with the people I mentioned above being only a few of them.
Why have you never spoken about yourself or shared your identity with readers?
MT: I always thought it was more important to get the information out there rather than having my name plastered all over the blog. I wanted to let black Brazilians tell their story and present material that shows what the black experience in Brazil is about. Formatting the blog in this way, one part my own opinion, another part material from Brazilian sources, is a win-win situation, plus, from my perspective, it shows that the racial situation in Brazil is quite similar to that of other countries and as I use Brazilian material, no one can say it’s simply a non-Brazilian who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Yes, my opinion on the matters is there, but so are the original sources. I present the material, share my opinion and let the reader draw their own conclusions.
Where are you from and what provoked your interest in Brazil?
MT: I’m from Detroit, Michigan, in the United States. And I remember quite well what sparked my interest in Brazil. Since the early to mid-90s I had become interested understanding why the black community in the US was underdeveloped in comparison to non-black communities. As I lived in Detroit, one of the most important American cities before and shortly after World War II, I could feel a drastic difference whenever I would leave Detroit, a city that was more than 80% black, and travel to the surrounding suburbs that were primarily white and rich. My search for answers would lead me to a number of books that would talk about the situation of African-Americans in not only Detroit, but also Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and the southern states of the US. From there, I became intrigued with the situation of Africa and why everytime I saw images of the continente, the people were always presented as poor, living in huts, hungry and raveaged by disease.
As my book collection grew, on Christmas Eve of 1999, I visited one my favorite bookstores in the Detroit: The Shrine of the Black Madonna (which recently closed its doors). The book and cultural store was full of books on Black History and visiting it over the years would help me mount quite an impressive book collection. On that day, I had a chance to purchase a reference book called Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience, an encyclopedia of more than 2,000 that covered so many topics on the history of Africa, its people and its descendants in the Diaspora. When I got the book home, and began flipping through the pages, I noted how many articles there were in the book about Brazil and Afro-Brazilians. There were articles about slavery in Brazil, capoeira, Candomblé, samba, the Movimento Negro and countless Afro-Brazilian personalities in music, sports, politics, etc. Then I came across one piece that really struck me. One article read that Brazil is home to somewhere between 68-120 million persons of African descent. At that moment I was shocked. At the time, the African-American population in the US stood at about 35 million people. I thought, “how could there be that many black people in Brazil and I never knew this?” In the US, the black person most black Americans were familiar with was the soccer great, Pelé. Of course, some who were into international music also knew people like Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento, but in a general sense, I wasn’t the only person that thought of Brazil as a Latin American country full of people who look, well, Hispanic. A sort of mixture between Native Americans and Europeans that most Americans associate with people from Mexico or Peru.
After reading almost everything in the book about Brazil and Afro-Brazilians, I became fascinated with the activist Abdias do Nascimento (1914-2011). Africana defined Nascimento as the “most complete African intelectual of the 20th century” or something to that effect. After having been exposed to people MLK, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Marcus Garvey, Nelson Mandela, WEB DuBois, Julius Nyerere, Walter Rodney and others, I had to know more about this man. As it turned out, Nascimento was one of the very few Afro-Brazilian intellectuals/activists whose work was available in English, as I had yet to know any Portuguese. After reading two of his books Africans in Brazil and Mixture or Massacre?, both available at The Shrine, both in a few days, I was absolutely hooked on this history. Another people of African descent whose experiences in their country are so very similar to that of Africa’s descendants in the United States. The arrival by means of slavery, institutional racism, cultural importance, struggle for equality and colorism were all issues that I noted existed in Brazil as they existed in the US. After buying a few Portuguese language books and scouring the internet for everything I could find on Afro-Brazilians in English, I decided to get a passport and by the end of August of 2000, I arrived in Salvador, Bahia for the first time. Over the next several years I would visit Brazil every year, a couple of times of which I actually went twice in a year. Over the years I’ve learned much about Brazil and its people and I continue the learn about the jeito brasileiro.
What do you think is greatest misunderstanding about the BW of Brazil blog?
MT: There are two things.
1) People assume because the title of the blog is titled “Black Women of Brazil” that the blog must be authored by a woman. I don’t seek to speak or try to speak for black Brazilian women. Black Brazilian women speak very well for themselves so when I come across material that I think would be relevent to my readers, I translate it and post it offering my opinion on the topic before presenting the material.
2) As Brazil is believed to have some of the world’s most beautiful women, I often receive messages from men outside of Brazil looking to hook up with, date or marry a Brazilian woman. Although there are probably thousands of photos of Afro-Brazilian women on the blog, I have to consistently inform blog visitors that BW of Brazil is not an international dating site.
Speaking of photos, are black Brazilian women allowed to send the site photos?
MT: Sure and many do! I like to present photos of everyday black Brazilian women because in my dealings with many people from the US, they tend to see Brazilian women, not just black Brazilian women, in a very sexualized/sensualized manner. I accept and sometimes post photos that I receive but some photos I have to reject as I make it clear that I won’t post nude or overtly sexual photos.
Why do you feel the need to present yourself now after five years?
MT: I thought the time was right. People appreciate the material, which often lead to some very spirited debates/conversations online and I have developed a pretty loyal following. So many of the people I have either exchanged e-mails with or met in person after they read some of the material on the blog and then came to Brazil, wanted to get more insight into specifically black Brazilians and the person who was responsible for the blog that I thought the time had come. I also wanted people to understand how the blog was formatted if they hadn’t already noted. Again, I present material from Brazilian sources, translate it into English and then I present my own personal opinion on the topic in the introduction, in the body of the article or at the conclusion. My whole point here is that Brazilians cannot continue to deny racial issues in their country simply because they believe that “real racism” only exists in the United States or that only an American can have such views about Brazil. Many of the articles are simply news items but a large percentage of the pieces on the blog are personal opinion pieces written by black Brazilian women or, occasionally, black Brazilian men. As such, no one can legitimately say that “you Americans don’t understand Brazil” because 99% of the translated material is written by Brazilians themselves.
Are there any articles that you’ve posted that are your favorites? Which are they and why?
MT: There are so many to choose from. I think there are probably between 1,500-2,000 articles on BW of Brazil. And all of them provide vital information about the reality according to race in Brazil. If I were to give this more thought I’m sure I’d think of many more…it’s difficult to even remember with so many posts. But off the top of my head, if I had to choose a few I would say…in no particular order:
The article about funk singer Ludmilla’s vídeo in which she sought to create the perfect (white) man with a machine.
My analysis of futebol star Neymar, his image, success and marketability and what it says about race.
The article showing how black Brazilian women were mobilizing to shut sown the controversial TV series Sexo e as Negas. Black women were saying “We’ve had enough with Brazil’s stereotyping of black women’s sexuality” and their activism without a doubt led to Globo TV’s discontinuing the show’s production. People are still talking about that series now, a few years after it aired. To get a full feel of the controversy, one should read the whole series of articles.
Black people are savagely murdered all over Brazil everyday and these deaths are generally treated like the deaths of ants or something. There’s kind of a feeling like, “oh well, what else is new?” among a certain segment of the society. Every murder hurts, especially when young children die from stray bullets in conflicts they had nothing to do with, but the murder of Cláudia Ferreira da Silva hit me perhaps harder than others because of the way she died. I mean, she was killed by a stray police bullet. They picked up her body and threw her in the police truck like she was a piece of cattle and then dragged her body on the ground dangling from the back of the police truck. There aren’t any words to describe the emotion I felt seeing that vídeo. I was simply infuriated! But then when I saw the photos from the funeral and one of her children with his hands over his face as he screamed out in pain…A deep sadness gripped me at that moment. It was like…our (black) lives really don’t matter.
The next story that sticks out in my mind was about entrepreneur Zica Assis. I admire what Zica has been able to do as a black woman in mounting a business worth hundreds of millions of reais. But when you really think about, her product sells because it plays on the insecurities Brazilian society has imbedded in the minds of black Brazilians about black hair. And when a writer pointed out her antics at a presentation basically ridiculing natural black hair while making it seem like a joke to emphasize the “miracle” of her product, I was more than a little appalled.
Another memorable piece involved black women’s internet activism in shutting down a hair product’s campaign that used women wearing huge afro wigs as if to say, “this is why you need our products.”
Another favorite was my discussion of the Globo TV variety show Esquenta. Most people will love the show simply because it has a high number of Afro-Brazilians on it, but what is the overall message of this show and how does it really present black people?
Then there was a relatively recent post in which this white woman verbally assaulted a black woman on a Rio beach and screamed at her, “next time be born white!” Brazil’s image would have us believe that this sort of racista sentiment doesn’t exist. But how many articles of this sort do we need to read before we retire this myth for good?
Another intriguing piece, although very short, features a black man coming to realize how his blackness is a fetish for some white women and the how being with a white woman is a very real fanstasy of black men. Necessary reading among a black Brazilian male population who insists that “love has no color”.
Globo TV is such an all-powerful media conglomerate in Brazil that it’s manipulative presentations are often the final word on how Brazil sees itself. But when the network stooped to using the emotions of children to speak on racist sentiments that it, on the whole, is partially responsible for the manner in which Brazilians can’t be honest about the issue, showed once again that the channel has no regrets about what it will do stay number one.
What would you like non-Brazilians to know about Brazil and Brazilians to know about the United States?
MT: I always tell people that both the United States as well as Brazil are not exactly what they are stereotyped/imagined to be. The United States is not the paradise that everyone thinks it is. I remember on my first trip to Salvador, one of the guys I got to know very well wanted me to help him get to the US where he thought he could get rich. His case was kind of extreme as he literally knew nothing about the US beyond what he saw in Hip Hop music vídeos and the movies. He could barely speak Portuguese, let alone English, had little education and at the time was earning about R$150 per month, which, at that time, I think was worth about US$80. I also have a lot of solidly middle class Brazilian friends who want to experience life in the United States, for various reasons. Of course, anything is possible, but many Brazilians have the idea that the United States is this huge Disneyland where anyone can make it and it’s not quite like that. It gets to the point where they don’t believe what I tell them and I have to literally print articles from the internet to present the reality about life in US that they are often unifamiliar with. Of course, life in the US is generally better than that in Brazil, but it’s not this “pie in the sky” image that most Brazilians have of it.
Speaking of Americans, as I’m from the US, I also think people shouldn’t come to Brazil believing in all the stereotypes they hear. I know Americans who are completely disgusted by Brazil and would never consider visiting. Others only know about the women they see on some Carnaval vídeo. People will come to Brazil for their own reasons, but speaking of Brazilian women, people, particlarly men, should understand that there are ALL sorts of women here. Tall, short, thin, overweight, various skin tones and hair textures, and women who, according to most standards, would be considered extremely attractive, some average and some not so attractive, again, that depending on personal tastes. Also, PLEASE don’t come to Brazil and complain that people don’t speak English. This is Brazil, not Canada or even Jamaica. Portuguese is spoken here. Learn at least basic Portuguese before deciding to make the trip. The other thing is, a lot of people ask advice on living in Brazil and I usually ask, if they work, what their career is or if they are retired. Depending on where one lives, Brazil can be pretty expensive. Visiting is one thing, but once you realize the reality of income and cost of living, it’s something one should think about before making the transition.
What can we expect from the BW of Brazil blog in coming years?
MT: More of the same info that has been featured since 2011. But I am also considering making some changes and trying some new things. I’m always looking for thought-provoking material as well as like-minded people for which partnerships that may benefit both parties may be possible. To readers of BW of Brazil, stay tuned for more and keep those comments, messages and e-mails coming!