Note from BW of Brazil: Today at BW of Brazil, we bring you yet another powerful piece from the ladies over at the great blog Blogueiras Negras. It goes without saying that the Blogueiras Negras blog is a favorite here at BW of Brazil because these women fully explore the meanings and realities of being a black women in Brazilian society. We have featured a number of their pieces here because their thoughts represent voices of resistance, consciousness and the other side of Brazil that the Brazilian mainstream media and society itself like to pretend doesn’t exist. The vast majority of major websites coming out Brazil, while they will touch on the issue of racism occasionally, will never truly give consistent space to the thoughts and opinions of Brazilians of African descent who fully identify with “the struggle” and express the realities that affect this community. From the perspective of Brazil, this actually makes sense, as giving voice to these types of Brazilians would break with the long held promotion of the idea that all Brazilians are equal (as so many seem to believe) even as so many entities continue the systematic exclusion of the very people whose African ancestry is a little too visible in the Brazilian matrix of racial mixture.
Today’s post is a perfect example of why this space is necessary. Today’s piece by Luma de Lima Oliveira paints a very colorful portrait of what it’s like to grow up as a Brazilian whose African ancestry is visible but who is taught to deny this reality. In Brazil’s anti-black ideals, one learns through words, gestures, attitudes and insults that being black is not something to be proud of. It is something to be avoided at all cost. As other posts on the blog have shown, in Brazil, the idea is sort of like, “Well, I see your African traits, and I know you see them, but if you don’t say anything, I won’t either! I won’t call you black and I’ll even persuade you to believe that you’re not black…That is until you step out of ‘your place’, then I’ll let you know that you are in fact black…like a monkey!”
In reality, persons of African descent throughout the world have learned various ways of avoiding what sociologist Erving Goffman defined as a “spoiled identity.” Luma’s piece, like others featured on the blog, takes the reader on a ride through the challenges of the adaption of a black identity that thousands or perhaps millions of Brazilians of African descent endure; many of whom will never make a full transition into blackness as they continue to adhere to the “mulatto escape hatch”, as George Reid Andrews defined it in his classic Blacks and Whites in São Paulo, Brazil, 1888-1988. This is not to say that terms and categories such as “mulato”, “pardo” or “mestiço” don’t exist; but it is saying that a number of Brazilians of African descent are beginning to see them as mythologies that mask their realities.
Paths of Resistance: recognizing one’s self as black
by Luma Oliveira
It’s been a long time that I wanted to share a bit of my story, which is not only mine, but of several other black women. A story whose paths were not easy, but cruel and painful. Often we feel powerless going through it, we wonder whether it will in fact have an end, without the daily worries and marks that racism leaves beyond our skin, I’m talking about a path and a story full of ellipsis for us. Before I begin, I want to ask you, black woman who is reading now: how long did it take for you to recognize yourself as BLACK? Think a little and then we will think together about this issue.
Let’s go to our story. Well, now I’m in my twenties (21), I’m remembering several times how it happened and started the initiating process so that I could shout to the world: I’m black! We know (we, black women) since birth, generally, they always make a point of highlighting in our appearance any trait/ feature that refers to the white, making us hate any feature of Africa that may arise from our eyes to the skin. I am from a family that made a point of exalting the ancestors of all possible nationalities except our black ancestry and even our indigenous ancestry that we have on both sides of the family. I’ve heard various reports, speculation about the European presence, mainly saying “your great-great grandfather was Portuguese”, “your great-grandmother had straight hair”, “so and so was blond”, but I never heard anything about the black and indigenous part of the family. From my father’s side, the family is all black, the little that he knows about it, since my grandparents died when he was a child. My older uncles who came to know them talk about their features, among them, some are keen to talk about my paternal grandmother’s hair, saying that they remember little, but that they are almost sure it was straight. These uncertainties permeated with “certainties” based in the European stereotype is what I carried for a long time in my life, and I carry it to this day, I cannot deny it. So, it would become increasingly difficult to be proud of or even remember where I came from, who I could be – my construction got slower and slower – although these issues and features make themselves present among my family, there are some people who know and emphasize stories and colors about my Africanness, but it took a long time before I could and would tell the world this part of the story.
To immerse in this context that I was always full of uncertainties and I only wished to believe in that that would be more pleasant for society, in that that they do every day that black girls believe: we’re “exotic”, “we should be proud of the white features”, “the whiter the features, the more beautiful”, etc. Factors that contributed even more so that I could hide my color and identity. I spoke to the four winds when someone asked about my features, of the European histories they told me, but it was evident that my life was not just a face. I tried to deny until the last consequences any resemblance and black identity that there could be in me, I remember my childhood, early adolescence and they were not very different phases.
A second process was wanting to hide my hair from the world, so I used any process that was necessary to see it straight. Progressiva, straightening, chapinha (flat straightening iron) and they were suffering processes. I’ve had many problems because of this, I came to (the point of) even not leaving the house, in case I couldn’t go out with straight hair because of being too lazy to do some of these processes, didn’t have the money or something that prevented me from straightening. Many people may think that when I cite “hair” I’m talking about something futile and unimportant, but I’m not: I’m talking about “being”, resistance, history and identity. I believe that I never wore my curls before the rupture that I will soon tell you about, I only wore straight hair and the same process trapped all the black women of my family: cousins, aunts, sister, except for my mother who is white. Speaking of her, I should not forget to mention: in the midst of my musings writing this text, I carry in my memory the treatment that they gave me being seen with my mother, a treatment they give me even today. Many people find it strange when I say that she is my biological mother, make racist collocations, collocations that they made since I was a child, but today I know very well how to defend myself and resist, but not at that time. Today I see and I remember the pain it caused me, not only to me but to my sister, who also went through this.
After wanting to camouflage my hair, the other process was wanting to exalt and keep looking in front of the mirror for every white feature that I could try to find, features of which the magazines, television and novelas reminded me of constantly. And each feature I identified was a party, each strategy I used was a victory. Increasingly I ceased to be myself, of being exactly who I was, and came to be what they expected of me, that which was causing me shame had to stay in the drawer. In adolescence, I was never the girl who someone wanted to date, I was never the complimented girl, in my early teens I started wanting to be loved, and I saw who the loved ones were that were in my realm, and in all the differences there was a common point among them: they were all brancas (white). When you are going from one phase to another, especially in this, the mind and body are a whirlwind of sensations. When I stop to think about all that, I see and understand the importance of constructing self-esteem of black children from the cradle, I think that perhaps had this happened, I would have been able to resolve various processes in other ways. Racism would hurt, it always hurts, it nullifies and hurts in some way, I can’t deny it, but the strategies of how we can face it, if crafted upon our self-esteem, they can try, try but they will not destroy us, not really. If one day I ever think about having children, I believe that it is one of the lessons that I learned and I see along with black women that I want to become one of the first lessons of the life of a child.
After annulling myself for years, trying to achieve a standard that was far from mine and denying all my ancestry, it came with more clarity what feminism was. I always had a foundation and female presences in my life, feminine and feminist. But not the feminism that’s in academia and footnotes, but feminism of the knife that cuts the meat, of the northeastern women, black women, the periferia (periphery or the poorer outskirts of the city), those who were unable to attend universities. I’m talking about women not only of my blood, but also those who shared with us the daily life of a hard struggle for a life without violence, a struggle for freedom. I believe that my first contacts with feminism, was the work done at home with the women of their lives that were part of mine, above all, my mother and sister. It was in the middle of narratives, experiences, dialogues, common struggle and this whole process that molded me, we didn’t know for sure at that time what feminism was, although we heard of that name on TV, but we’ve already lived feminism, which years later came to earn a name. The feminist struggle next to these women was liberating, and it was not a personal freedom, it was a collective process of struggle, deconstructions of thoughts, acceptance of ourselves, of a constant struggle by us for us. Amidst this ferment of ideas, identities and experience is what we have been deconstructing and constructing each corner that was necessary. It was through feminism that I first recognized myself as black, that it was not enough anymore that they called me “morena”, “mulata” or “café com leite (coffee with milk)”; it was then that I learned to scream, to live and to resist: SOU PRETA (I AM BLACK)!
It was a rupture that opened up a world, no less painful – however with more force so that I could see and understand the true meaning of resistance. I no longer accepted words used to deny our color and identity, I no longer accepted when they would try to order directly or indirectly how my hair should be: it is, and I decided to release them and free them along with myself. Today I “ostento (flaunt it),” I go around rocking it without fear and am adept of the phrase “the more volume, the more power.” I no longer want to know only one side of the coin, I no longer want my image to be erased, my described and written history for the side that society accepted, I want it written it with all the black ink it deserves. Before releasing my hair, other women came who were also doing it, and little by little I began to understand, feeling and saying NO to all racist society that for years tried to kill me. It was a process that I lived experienced with my sister, one of the people that most taught me and I learned, like the phrase from the song “1 de julho” that says: I see that I learned, how much I taught you. Today I march with my color in the middle of racism that tried so many times to erase me. I am proud of my story, my struggle… in fact, OUR history and struggle. I don’t let anyone else use “euphemisms” to talk about my color, my black skin is my essence, my poem.
It hurt so much to hide for so long, not having enough strength to try to fight. The fight against racism and its roots in society are daily, it continues to hurt. First they try to annul you, even with you trying to do you to what they expect of you, it’s not that that will give you any point of peace. Then, if you try and exist and resist, they will try to take down in the worst possible ways. The pain doesn’t pass, it doesn’t diminish the pain – you feel and see racism the whole time. From the time that you wake up until the time that you can lay your head on the pillow. For many, our struggle, our history and resistance are exaggerated, for many it doesn’t pass from the category of just “any ole thing” – now, for whoever feels from birth the currents of racism, we’re not talking about (just) any ole thing – we’re talking about right to live. Returning to the initial question, do you know how long it took me to recognize myself as black? 18 years of my life! Do you know what that means to me? Years trying to search, understand who I was, who I wanted to be. Years without being able to get out of bed and feel happy being who I was, immersed in ghosts and badly told histories. They were difficult years, not that now everything is easier, because it’s not. It continues hurting, still cutting me day after day. I see more clearly what I used to closed my eyes to in order not to believe, I see and feel every corner the weight of sexism and racism on me, but what have I learned along the way? On the way I met people, strengthened my bonds, I saw from what side I want to dance the samba, on which side that I will fight. I learned that listening is one of the most precious weapons of struggle, recognizing myself as black is a revolutionary weapon. And we have to dream, struggle and try every day to exist – fight for a black world. I want that one day the black girls don’t take as much time as I did, I want for black girls to see themselves in color, loves and poetry. I want black women in the struggle, and looking at their reflection and saying, SOU PRETA (I AM BLACK)! There was nothing more liberating in my life than to feel and recognize myself, neither as morena nor mulata: SOU NEGRA (I AM BLACK)! In spite of every struggle and thorns along these paths of resistance, that we still have each other to strengthen ourselves, being in the blood to poetry:
“They told you yesterday, menina preta (black girl)
That you’re not for marrying
Saying that your hips are only good for dancing samba
They taught you, menina preta
From the cradle,
To despise your hair
Use progressiva, chapinha and straighten your afro
You never had, menina preta
They said that the blonde doll was the only one
That deserved your love
I made these verses, menina preta
For your black to liberate (itself)
That from the loneliness of this city, you no longer be a hostage
That your hips dance when you want them to
Not to please the tourist, carrying the label of passista (Carnaval dancer)
The poetry for a menina preta
It has your sound, your color
Strength and vigor, liberating you from the shackles
And showing how beautiful you are
Never feeling embarrassed of your history
Know that in these verses
Are struggle, freedom and love
Fly, dream, step on the floor, terreiro, on the street and achieve,
Make these letters from your pen with black ink
Get inspired in these crooked lines,
And now write your own history…”
– Luma de Oliveira Lima
Luma de Lima Oliveira, feminist, black woman, poet, socialist, periphery resident, popular educator, a student of Letters and blogger at Entre Luma e Frida.