Note from BW of Brazil: The question of hair is a topic that is often discussed here on the blog. As Brazil has always been and continues to be dominated by a European aesthetic, even when the majority of its 200 million people would never be accepted as white in Brazil or in the world, it has been a long struggle for persons of visible African ancestry to develop a sense of pride in the texture of their hair. In the 21st century, it could said that there is a kind of black hair revolution going on in Brazil as it is more and more common to Afro-Brazilian men and women rockin’ 70’s influenced afros. This was clearly not the case in the 1970s. In this piece, a long time activist from the 76% Afro-Brazilian state of Maranhão describes her experience of accepting her natural hair and the inspiration she took in two well-known African-American iconic figures. (Also read actress Zezé Motta’s memories of the influence of that the black pride movement had on her acceptance of her hair here)
Interview with Mundinha Araújo
by Amilcar Pereira Araújo (excerpt taken from the 2013 book, O Mundo Negro: relações raciais e a constituição do movimento negro contemporâneo no Brasil)
The Centro de Cultura Negra (CCN or Center of Black Culture) in the northeastern state of Maranhão is still today one of the main organizations of the Movimento Negro outside of the Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo axis. Its creation is emblematic because it is also directly connected to the construction of a network of black organizations in the north and northeast of the country that had great importance in the national realm. The main leadership in the process of the creation of the CCN was Maria Raimunda Araújo, better known as Mundinha Araújo, born in São Luís in 1943 and possessing a degree in social communication from the Federação das Escolas Superiores do Maranhão (Federation of Superior Schools of Maranhão) in 1975. One of the siblings of Mundinha that had gone to study in Rio de Janeiro had returned to Maranhão on vacation at the end of the 1960s with the “black power (afro)” hairstyle and with a discourse about the existence of racism that, according to Mundinha, was not common in Maranhão. At the same time, Mundinha said in an interview that Angela Davis was her reference:
“Angela Davis (1) will be my inspiration. When I saw that woman with the huge natural hair and the Jackson 5, that whole family, I was enchanted. I said: ‘Ah, I’m going to let my hair get like that.’ And I stopped putting pasta (hair straightening chemical) in my hair. That was 1967, 68, I was already in the teaching profession and everything.”
Mundinha Araújo ended up becoming the first black woman in São Luís, Maranhão, to wear natural hair, the famous afro that was known as the “black power” hairstyle in Brazil. Everything that she experienced in terms of discrimination, for choosing this aesthetic and political option, according to her, was important to strengthen her desire to create a black organization in São Luís. Here is how she remembers that era.
“In 1967, I was going to Rio for the first time. I stayed there where my uncle lived, in Parada de Lucas, but I went downtown. The hippie movement was already there, those people with the tunics, long dresses, and there were already blacks also wearing the “black power (afro)”. I said: ‘My God!’ I was tending to the brain washing that I had for the better, in order to assume myself as a black woman. (…) And there the people gave me strength. Because it was also a novelty you letting your hair go natural. It was in the end of the 1960s, when there was already the Black Rio movement, in the north zone, and they already had that enormous hair, they passed near me and they greeted me. That was it, and then I started to see that it was in fact related to the community. And thinking that was beautiful.
“I went to Rio and spent three months, because teachers had some three months of vacation. When I returned, my hair was already pretty kinky. That was a shock. I ended up being the first black woman to wear my hair natural like this in São Luís. I attracted the attention of the entire street and I got insulted, they booed me in the street: “Hey, woman, where did this come from?” “Are you Tony Tornado?” I need to know the year that Tony Tornado appeared in the (music) festival with the afro hairstyle (2), because they called me like this: “Tony Tornado, you will straighten that hair!” And I was shy. The teachers had already freed me because of the fact of (helping me) to communicate with more agility, but I was shy. I said: “Wow, now what?” But I never thought, in any moment in straightening my hair. I studied at the Aliança França, that was in Gonçalves Dias, here in São Luís. It was enough to have a student in the window or in the gate, see me from away, that they would come to the gate or the window. When I had to pass in front of the high school, there was already that crowd only there to see me and boo me: “Hey, devil, you will straighten that hair!” “What is that?” “Is it a dog?” And I have to face this, I don’t know how many days during the week, but I never changed streets. I could have gone to another street not to pass in front of the gate of the high school. I said: “No. It’s my hair. I am not going to let these boys weaken me. But that bothered me.
“Nowadays everybody does the permanente afro (3), but in the 1970s, 1980s, no one faced this. In 1973, I joined the university choir. And there were many black women. There were a few of them leaving their hair natural but three months passed and they came with the straightened hair. I understood, it was really difficult to assume this black appearance; because blacks themselves didn’t have strength. My mother also said: ‘You also want what? You don’t want to get booed? Going out with that big hair like that and you don’t want (to get booed)?’ It was as if people wanted to insult me. Once I went down a street and there was a little boy: ‘Mom, come quick, quick.’ Then I saw that it was to look at me. When his mother came, she got uncomfortable because the boy had called her to look at me.
“Until then, I was an anonymous person, no one looked at me. Suddenly, the whole city looked at me. I would go to the movies – I was still from the generation in which everybody would go to the movies – and I started to really impose myself: I went between the rows and even up front. Because, when I saw that everybody would start to turn at the moment that I disappeared into the theater I said: ‘Let me march like I’m in a parade so that they look at me.’ Then I went there, as if I was looking for a place, until I found a place and sat down. If I went to Comércio street, went in a store, whoever was selling something stopped selling, whoever was buying something too. Horrible! And since this era there are people that say: ‘You passed by us and I didn’t even look.’ I say: ‘Since the time that they booed me in street I learned to go along looking straight ahead.’ Camelô, which is what vendors they were called at that time, these street vendors, everybody saw themselves as having the right to boo me: ‘Are you a hippie?!’
“But then I went to the university, in the field of social communication, in 1971, I participated ina theatre group, that was Laborarte and I would have more strength than these people: ‘How cool! You look like Angela Davis.’ These people that had access to information already saw my appearance connected to the black American movement. It’s quite true, I thought: ‘I was making, in the meantime, ‘my movement’’. I was isolated. But then I started to think: ‘I have to do something. This is more serious that they think.”
The passage above is interesting in many senses not only for articulating the various influences that lead Mundinha to first construct what she called “my movement”, but mainly in respect to the political and aesthetic impact that as simple hairstyle could generate, even in a relatively large city such as São Luís at the end of the 1960s. In 1978 Mundinha Araújo became part of a political committee in São Luís that had the objective of introducing candidates that were in opposition to the military dictatorship (1964-1985). She said that she always tried to raise the discussion about the racial question to this committee but there the class question was considered much more important, and she, in general, was accused of importing a problem from the US since racism didn’t exist in Brazil.
1. In recent years, Davis has also connected with the Afro-Brazilian population, meeting with activists and giving lectures in the state of Bahia. For more see here
2. Many Afro-Brazilians have referred to the appearance and performance of singer (and actor) Tony Tornado in the 1970 V Festival Internacional da Canção in Rio. Tornado’s afro, musical style with lyrics that preached black pride and his signature dancing were in many ways revolutionary for black Brazilians. Because Brazil’s military dictatorship saw Tornado as a figure that could awaken the black masses and incite activism, his career as a singer was cut short after consistent harassment by Brazil’s intelligence agencies eventually led him to leave the country for several years. He would later return and resume his public career as an actor.
3. A style somewhat reminiscent of the jheri curl style once popular in black American communities of the 1980s
Source: Pereira, Amilcar Araújo. O Mundo Negro: relações raciais e a constituição do movimento negro contemporâneo no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Pallas, 2013