Nádia Maria Rodrigues: “Everything changed in my life after I became black”. Teacher reveals how consciousness and bell hooks influenced her identity

Nádia Maria Rodrigues: "Everything changed in my life after I became black"
Nádia Maria Rodrigues: “Everything changed in my life after I became black”

Note from BW of Brazil: Featured today on the blog is yet another deep, revealing piece by a black Brazilian woman who reveals her journey from the humiliation of not fitting into Brazil’s dominant standard of beauty to the self-assurance of a positive black identity. The text touches on many of the topics that have been featured on this blog: “cabelo ruim (bad hair)“, the infamous comparison of afro textured hair with a scouring pad, sexual stereotypes about black women and the acceptance of a black identity

Nádia Maria Rodrigues, 42, a public school teacher in Brazil’s Federal District, single, born in Caxias, Maranhão in Brazil’s northeast. She has lived in Brasília for 39 years and lives in the Águas Claras administrative region of the capital city. In 2008, she won the Prêmio Professores do Brasil (Teachers of Brazil Award) from the Ministry of Education.

“With pain, I became black” by Nádia Maria Rodrigues

When I was 3 years old, my father separated from my mother and moved to Brasília with five children. My father is negro (black). I don’t remember my mother, but they say she wasn’t completely negra (black). She must have been mestiça (mixed). I lived in Ceilândia (administrative region of the capital city, Brasília) almost my whole life. At home I was called cabelo de bombril (steel wool or scouring pad hair). I’m the only one in the family who was born with hair so curly. My colleagues also jokingly called me neguinha de cabelo de bombril (little black girl with the steel wool hair), with the thread hair. That hurt a lot. It was something that I could not change. I had no money to straighten my hair.

When I was little, it was I who picked out my hair lice. I tied a cloth on my head, pulled my hair forward and combed it with a fine tooth comb. It hurt my arm to untangle it. I put cooking oil in it because I didn’t have any money to buy creams, shampoos and stuff. It was I who straightened my hair the first time. I must have been about 12 or 13 years old when I went to work at the Guará fair, selling clothes. I remember I bought an avocado paste. I put here (shows her forehead) and it became a hole. It was very painful. Money was getting better, and from then on I used chemicals my whole life. When I joined the Department of Education, I began to straighten my hair at the beauty salon. Actually, I wanted to hide my cabelo de bombril to alleviate the suffering. My hair was the root of suffering.

In mid-2007, I went through some very difficult times. I had lost a pregnancy and a brother was facing a serious problem. It was very painful. Then a friend invited me to join a study group called the Neafro da Católica (Catholic Neafro) Universidade Católica de Brasília (Catholic University of Brasilia). I went to the meeting. From that day on my life changed. When I arrived, they were discussing a text that talked about women straightening their hair. A black writer named bell hooks, Alisando os nossos cabelos (Straightening Our Hair). It hurt me a lot, I cried a lot when I read that text. It speaks of the importance of the mother braiding her daughter’s hair. I straightened my hair to follow the standard model. Once I understood this, it was so strong that I said, ‘I will let my hair remain crespo (curly/kinky)’.

Author bell hooks and a snippet from  her 1988 text, "Straightening Our Hair"
Author bell hooks and a snippet from her 1988 text, “Straightening Our Hair”

“What kind of hair is this?”

There was a lot of pressure at home. My brother said things like this: ‘What kind of hair is this?’. And my father: ‘Now she’s learned to do these braids and puts this mess in.’ By this time I was stronger. ‘Come here.’ I explained to him racism and said it came with the arrival of slaves, how they were treated, that it perpetuated itself, how we were excluded. I talked, talked, talked. He stopped, thought and said, ‘Oh, man, I didn’t know that.’ For this I say: I changed some people in my life. At school, nobody around me says ‘cabelo ruim (bad hair)’. It’s not cabelo ruim it’s curly/kinky hair. I wear my hair blecão (afro) pinned up, with a hair band, in a turban.

How did they not teach me that? How is it that they didn’t tell me I was black? How is it the school never brought up this subject? I was disgusted with everything that I had discovered, with what society had done to me and my family. I don’t blame my father, he was reproducing something that he learned. Through the pain, I enegreci (became black).

From there my Afro-Brazilian history and culture classes began to get richer. It was a natural consequence of my transformations. I was in this process when I found written on the board of my classroom: ‘Negra burra (stupid black girl)’. It was in pretty big letters in the middle of the board. It was not in the letters of a child. I erased it. At the same time, material that I produced for the children began to disappear. Until one day, a huge mural disappeared. We did it on Friday, I put it on the outside of the room and on Monday it wasn’t there. All those of the other teachers were still there, except mine. It was then that I remembered the ‘negra burra’. It could only have been the same person, someone was trying to attack me in some way. I told my sister, who is a civil police officer, and she asked me why I had not photographed it, that that was a crime. And I asked myself: ‘Why did I delete what was written? Why didn’t I photograph it? I’m studying this stuff, seeing these issues, I can’t let this go’.

Rodrigues talks about the project, 'A África que está em nós e nós que estamos na África' (Africa that is in us and we that are in Africa)
Rodrigues talks about the project, ‘A África que está em nós e nós que estamos na África’ (Africa that is in us and we that are in Africa)

One day at recess time, I asked to speak with the principal, teachers, servers. It was the first time I spoke publicly about it. I was crying like hell. I told him that I had seen that writing but I hadn’t realized what it meant, that I would not accept it anymore. Then I wrote a letter, put it on the wall and in some strategic points of the school and sent it to the union. You don’t know how my attitude has strengthened me, given me more strength to work.

A short time later, a colleague told me about a contest of the Ministry of Education for teachers across the country. I made sure that I fulfilled all of the prerequisites and signed up. In 2008, I won the Prêmio Professores do Brasil (Teachers Award of Brazil), on account of my activities in the classroom. After that, I became more respected. On the first day of school last year, I asked the children to draw a picture of their face to put on the badges. I saw black children drawing themselves with blonde hair and blue eyes. In the next lesson, I took a mirror to the classroom, I sat in a circle with them, and asked them to looked at the badges. And they talked how they were drawn and how they were. It was the first reflection of identity. Then I asked them to do the badge again the way they were. But before that, I asked them to look in the mirror; the face, hair, size, texture, color. How different the badge was (then)! Then I told them that we have to like ourselves the way we are.

“I only date black men”

I’ve always attracted white men. I had never dated a black guy. There’s this thing of the white man wanting to date black women because of the myth that they are good in bed, but I know how to identify this and send them running, if this was case [laughs]. I dated sporadically with white boyfriends and two white men were more long-lasting. I remember when my first boyfriend took me to his house, his mother, who was from (the state of Ceará), didn’t hide her astonishment: ‘You’re the who’s Nádia?’. She made it clear, very clear, her displeasure. Today she loves me. I didn’t feel worthy of a boyfriend that valued me, respected me, that loved me. I experiences bad relationships.

After that I went to a study group to discuss gender and race, valuing myself, respect myself, imposing myself, I’ll fight, if necessary. After that I started perceiving myself as black, I find myself beautiful the way I am and the man who wants to be with me will have to appreciate and respect me. After my transformation, I only date black men. I feel comfortable with a black man. He knows he’ll grab my hair and will feel something hard, that’s not straight hair.

I was blind, my rebellion is my blindness. Everything changed in my life after I became black.

Source: Correio Braziliense

About Marques Travae 2897 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

2 Comments

  1. As an educational practitioner, I can appreciate your passage from your classroom influence to socialization (dating, community challenges, self-awareness, etc.). I like how you made students attempt to identify themselves regardless of the reflection seen. Its compelling how I connected it to you appreciating yourself as a black woman when you attempted to date a white man and his mother’s reaction among other myths. Its great that you tried but even more astonishing that other’s perception reaffirmed your identity and self-worth! Its this kind of journey through adversity among others that can help children avoid our uncomfortable experiences so they are positioned for growth regardless of class, race, or gender! So keep doing what you do as this story was refreshing and should be a catalyst for others to be proud of their culture (especially if black)…sorry but I’m partially biased given our history.

  2. A good, thoughtful story. For all of us, of any color or colors, we need to find our backgrounds, live and grow with them. Finally, skin color means nothing, if the person becomes secure in mind and spirit. I happen to be White-European. I feel Nadia has made that climb. Buena Fortuna, Nadia! Christopher. sfgp98@aol.com

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