Note from BW of Brazil: Like other important figures in the modern day black Brazilian movement, such as Abdias do Nascimento and Benedita da Silva, I first became aware of the importance of Lélia Gonzalez in the compendium Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African American Experience. On my first trip to Brazil, in Salvador, Bahia, in September of 2000, I still vividly remember walking into a local restaurant specializing in Afro-Brazilian cuisine and seeing a framed photo of Gonzales on the wall. I remember exclaiming, “That’s Lélia Gonzalez!”, and my two black Brazilian friends looking at me in bewilderment and asking, ”Who is that?” It was the first, nor last time that I perceived that Afro-Brazilians as a whole have been denied knowledge of their own heroes and sheroes.
February 1st, Lélia would have been 85 years old, but just who was she? For Joice Berth, architect, urban planner and a member of the Feminist Press Collective, “She was one of the great revolutionaries of this country. Her criticism showed that black women had a strategic position in both the black movement and the feminist movement.”
Through psychoanalytical thought, Candomblé and an understanding of Brazilian culture, Lélia thoroughly connected with her condition as a black woman. In her militancy and academic studies, she brought reflections on the reality of black and indigenous in Brazil.
“She awakened to the question of physical and urban space, in (the book) Lugar de Negro, she criticizes the racial problem that is impregnated in the surface of the city and in the formation of the periphery,” Berth pointed out. In a country that, even in the 1980s was still proclaiming itself a racial democracy, Gonzalez critiqued the racism and sexism that dominated Brazilian society. Speaking on Lélia’s place in Brazilian history, journalist and member of the March of Black Women, Juliana Gonçalves, tells us that “She is a figure of unparalleled importance for the whole of society, including for white women. She was one of the first black women to have a voice and time in international seminars and meetings of women here in Latin America.”
Long-time African-American activist and scholar, Angela Davis, who has developed quite a following among Afro-Brazilian women over the course of her numerous visits to Brazil, also acknowledged Gonzalez’s importance. On her extended visit in October of last year, Davis emphasized that she doesn’t need to be the reference of black feminism in Brazil, because she herself learned a lot from Brazil’s black feminists. In one her speeches, Davis said: “I feel strange when I feel that I am being chosen to represent black feminism. And why here in Brazil do you need to seek this reference in the United States? I think I learn more from Lélia Gonzales than you could from me.”
Gonzalez made her transition at the age of 59, in Rio de Janeiro, on July 10, 1994, succumbing to cardiorespiratory problems. But in the 85 years since her birth on February 1, 1935, Lélia Gonzalez we continue to honor her memory as one of the great names of Brazil’s Movimento Negro. On her birthday, Google honored her with a Doodle that appeared on its front page of the Brazilian edition of the search engine.
Historian Raquel Barreto, who defended her master’s dissertation, “Blackening feminism or feminizing race: narratives of liberation in Angela Davis and Lélia Gonzalez”, contributed the piece below.
A Brazilian thinker
By Raquel Barreto:
“We are not born black, we become black. It’s a hard, cruel conquest that develops over people’s lives. That’s where the question of identity that you construct comes in. This black identity is not a ready, finished thing. So, for me, a black person who is aware of his or her blackness is in the fight against racism. The others are mulattos, browns, pardos, etc.” This excerpt is in a statement by Lélia de Almeida Gonzalez, published in 1988.
Lélia was a philosopher, anthropologist, professor, writer, intellectual, and militant of the black and feminist movement. In her trajectory – that ended over 25 years ago – theory and practice were organically connected.
Her authorial production is of fundamental importance for Brazilian social thought. The author’s work emphasizes black protagonism, particularly of black women, in the country’s social-cultural formation. However, the thinker is still little read and known.
Born in Belo Horizonte, in 1935, in a family with few economic resources, Lélia was the penultimate of 13 children. In 1942, she moved with her family to Rio de Janeiro, because her brother, futebol (soccer/football) soccer player Jaime de Almeida, was contracted by Flamengo.
Taking an unusual route for black women in the 1950s, she managed to get into college. She studied History and Geography (1958) and Philosophy (1962) at the former State University of Guanabara (current State University of Rio de Janeiro).
Lélia had a pioneering and leadership role in the black Brazilian movement. She participated in the Instituto de Pesquisa das Culturas Negras (Research Institute of Black Cultures), IPCN, one of the first organizations of the contemporary black movement. She was also one of the founders of the Movimento Negro Unificado (Unified Black Movement), the MNU, having participated in the historic act of the movement, on the steps of the Municipal Theater of São Paulo, on July 7, 1978. In 1983, she formed with other black women Nzinga – Collective of Black Women, in Rio de Janeiro. In addition, she was the first black woman to leave the country as a representative of the black movement in 1979.
In her view, politics comprised both collective militancy at the grassroots in social movements and in the institutional dimension. For that reason, on two occasions, she tried to get elected to legislative positions. In 1982, she ran for federal deputy for the Partido dos Trabalhadores, the Workers’ Party or simply as the PT. Later, in 1986, the state deputy for the Partido Democrático Trabalhista. She was not elected in any of her attempts, however, she had an expressive vote in the first election, becoming the first substitute of the bench. She also integrated the original formation of the National Council for the Rights of Women (CNDM), created in 1985.
For her performance and projection, Lélia was “observed” on some occasions by the Department of Political and Social Order, DOPS, the Brazilian government’s intelligence agency. References to it are found in some documents. However, she was never interrogated, arrested or tortured.
The most intense moment of her activism was during the Military Dictatorship (1964-1985), which prohibited, among other things, the political organization of civil society. The National Security Law of September 1967, in its Article 39, paragraph VI, defined that: it was a crime “to publicly incite hate or racial discrimination”, with detention of 1 to 3 years. Which, in fact, could be used against the black movement, since denouncing racism, exposing the myth of racial democracy, could be considered a threat to social order, a stimulus to antagonism and incitement to prejudice.
It is important to reiterate that both Lélia and the black movement categorically attacked the myth of racial democracy, which was based on the idea of “harmonic contact” between Portuguese, Africans and Indians, erasing the violence in these relations and denied the existence of racism. The myth was a symbol of national identity, based on a harmonious vision of the nation, adopted by the military in charge of the country, but also idealized by Brazilians themselves.
When activism began in the black movement, in the mid-1970s, Lélia already had a career as a professor, researcher and a good circulation in Rio’s intellectual and cultural circles. In 1975, she participated in the foundation of the Colégio Freudiano in Rio de Janeiro, one of the first institutions to disseminate Lacanian thinking in Brazil, and taught at several higher education institutions in Rio de Janeiro. She created the first institutional course on Black Culture at the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage, in 1976, in Rio de Janeiro, a meeting place for artists and intellectuals, who produced a critical view of the Brazilian reality.
She wrote a considerable number of articles and essays. She published two books: O lugar de negro (The place of the black), from 1982 (co-authored with the Argentine sociologist Carlos Hasenbalg) and Festas populares (Popular celebrations), from 1989. Among her other publications there are texts and reflections that are essential and fundamental for the consolidation of a theory of Brazilian black feminism and Brazilian social thought.
Over almost three decades, Lélia covered a significant number of themes, drawing on the matrixes of Western and African thought. She explored different theories like Afrocentrism, Marxism, Existentialism. She dialogued with areas of knowledge such as anthropology, sociology, history and philosophy. She developed an original thought about Brazilian social-cultural formation, based on the centrality of black subjects, especially black women.
It was imperative for her and the other black intellectuals of her generation to create a thought of the black Brazilian. From her propositions, she showed how traditional social science theories were not able to explain the black Brazilian experience. Thus, she developed her own categories/concepts of analysis.
Lélia’s ideas were related to social movements, the historical context, the places she visited and the people with whom she dialogued. Her thought was not removed from the moment in which she lived.
The thinker was critical of the mechanical import of the black American discourse and theory, so that a logic of cultural domination would not be reproduced, since the Brazilian experience was different. For Lélia, it was necessary for black Brazilians to look inside themselves, at their experience and cultural reality and not abroad.
According to her, the model of the black Brazilian was neither in Africa nor in the United States, but in their own historical, local experience, in political, cultural resistance, in the memory of Quilombo dos Palmares. The author didn’t deny the importance of Africa for us, but considered it a possible recreation. “Africa is very different from what we imagine, mainly different from what black Americans imagine. One of the things I used to beat up on them about is this: the Africa of you all is a dream, it doesn’t exist. We here in Brazil have an Africa with us, in our daily lives. In our sambas, in the structure of a candomblé, the macumba… ”
Her production reflected critically on the place of blacks in Brazilian culture, traditionally seen as the place of folklore, the madman, the child, the primitive. Since the African subjects “brought” to the New World were treated as an anonymous mass of people without culture, who possessed only one capacity: the labor force.
Under innovative perspectives, the author produced an interpretation for Brazilian culture that broke with the colonizer vs colonized dichotomy. And she gave protagonism to the colonized in the transmission of civilizing values for our cultural formation.
She conferred to the mãe preta, the black mother, the folklorized, the maternal function of the Brazilian culture, transmitting African values to the Brazilians. “The black woman is responsible for the formation of a black Brazilian cultural unconscious. She passed black cultural values, Brazilian culture is eminently black, that was her main role from the beginning.”
The author introduced elements relevant to the characterization of racism in Brazil, which constituted itself “as the ‘science’ of Euro-Christian (white and patriarchal) superiority, as it structured the Aryan model of explanation (…) and directs the gaze of Western academic production”.
Lélia is best known for her pioneering role in creating a theory of black Brazilian feminism, rooted in historical references and experiences, in exchanges with other black women, articulating race, gender and class. Based on theory and practice, concerned with linking the experience of the lived (collectively) to the observation and theory.
“In claiming our difference as black women, as amefricans, we know well how much we bear the marks of economic exploitation and racial and sexual subordination. For this very reason, we carry the mark of liberation of all. Therefore, our motto must be: organization now!”
25 years ago, in July 1994, Lélia left for Orun, a place that according to the Yoruba tradition corresponds to the spiritual world (Ayé is what corresponds to the physical world).
Despite her intellectual and political relevance, she remains timidly cited. The importance of her authorial production has not yet been recognized. This is not surprising, since the academic references of the Humanities remain deeply marked by a Eurocentric logic that hierarchizes knowledge and privileges only one aspect of thought, the Western.
It is noteworthy that in Brazil the black presence, whether authorial or intellectual, has been marked by a constant duality between erasure and embranquecimento (whitening). The writer Machado de Assis is the most notorious case of whitening. The erasures, on the other hand, were innumerable, resulting from a policy of forgetfulness which, according to sociologist Angela Paiva, is a “mechanism by which we erase from the memory of the new generations the academic contribution of black authors.”
In this sense, we understand the reason for the absence of references to the production of Lélia and other thinkers such as Beatriz Nascimento, Clóvis Moura, Eduardo de Oliveira e Oliveira, Guerreiro Ramos, Virgínia Bicudo and many others.
One of the probable reasons for the erasure is that these thinkers are accused of producing positioned knowledge, that is, compromised as a political enunciation of the place where the knowledge is produced. According to Lélia, “It is important to emphasize that emotion, subjectivity and other attributions given to our discourse do not imply the renunciation of reason, but rather a way of making it more concrete, more human and less abstract and/or metaphysical. In our case, this is another reason.”
In these 25 years of her passage, the best way to pay homage to her is to recognize her epistemological contribution to decolonize the Eurocentric assumptions in the production of knowledge. And especially reading Lélia Gonzalez.
With information courtesy of Revista Cult and Brasil de Fato