Djamila Ribeiro

From the Other Side of the South Atlantic

Djamila Ribeiro

I am a black woman in a country where 54% of the population is black, a country that holdsthe largest number of people from the African diaspora outside of Africa. In spite of thenumbers, however, upon arriving in Brazil and going to social spaces in urban centers likerestaurants, shopping malls, tourist beaches, one will hardly notice a black family hanging out;one will see them though, likely performing as babysitters, cleaners, and security guards. Ifind it necessary to describe this daily visual, incorporated into all aspects of Brazilian life, sothat the clear truth of the concept of ‘racial democracy’, this idea that here in Brazil racialconflict was replaced by a harmony between all races—a great nonsense exported worldwide—is shown to be a farce.

The marginalized black population in Brazil has been the topic of discussion in many booksand debates. Just the other day I saw a lecture by my fellow black feminist Joice Berth, whereshe quoted Angela Davis, who said when she came to Brazil and turned on the TV she thought(jokingly) that she was in Finland, such was the amount of Caucasian representation. Forcontext, in Bahia, a Brazilian state with about a 90% black population, the representation inexported television shows to the exterior of the country is almost 100% white. How obviouslyequitable our Brazilian racial democracy is.

Unlike many of my black colleagues, I had a middle-class childhood in a coastal town calledSantos, best known for the fact that Pele had played on the local soccer team, but also knownfor housing one of the largest major ports in Latin America. There, my dad was a docker whocarried bags of sugar on his back to and from various ships all day, a popular profession inwhat is called the Baixada Santista, a geographic area that includes Santos and other coastalcities nearby. Within this region, there was a union, a school for the children of the workers,and a hospital. Since the privatization of the ‘90s, much is gone, but at that time I was amongstone of the last black generations to enjoy such middle-class conditions.

My father, Joaquim Ribeiro dos Santos, was a man who had no formal education, having onlystudied up to the fourth grade. Yet he was a very cultured individual; he loved reading andattended the theater regularly. He was one of the founders of the Communist Party of Santosand often took myself and my brothers to Centro Cultural Brasil União Soviética (the BrazilianSoviet Union Cultural Center) to play chess. There, I learned and took pleasure in being achess player, competing in and winning a few local tournaments, memories that I now keepwith great affection. At the theater, whenever we sat down, we were almost always the onlyblack family present. And so he would ask, “How many black people are here besides us?”We would respond, “None, father,” prompting him to reply, “That is why I tell you to studyhard!” Another memory I have with him was when we went to the beach, and he would point to the sea, saying, “Look at the size of the sea,” implying that our problems were miniscule incomparison to the things we were able to experience.

He was a great father, but not such a good husband. My mother, Erani Ribeiro dos Santos, lefther parents’ home in the countryside of the state to work at the age of nine as a domestic workerin a white family’s home in São Paulo. She was so small that she had to climb on a stool towash the dishes in the house and grew up having to deal with the white ‘family man’ oftenmaking perverted passes at her. Once, towards the end of her adolescence, her employer evenattacked her, the only thing that stopped him from fully having his way with my mother was apan of boiling oil in the kitchen that almost ended up frying his face off. That was when shewent down to Santos to meet her young longshoreman boyfriend, and later they got married.One, two, three, four children, the youngest being myself, all grew up in a two-bedroom groundfloor apartment near the port, where my mother had to manage and take care of us all on herown.

Once, when I was around sixteen years old, while sweeping the house (something I did with illwill), my mother called me into her room. She had a worried look on her face and began totell me how much she loved me, but that she had something to say that she had hidden fromme for a long time. I remember that I sat down and tried to comfort her, but she wasinconsolable. She said that she was desperate when she got pregnant with me and that shedidn’t know how she would pay the bills. She told me that she went to a man who “sold teas”and told him her afflictions for which he gave her one tea to solve “the problem”. She took itand waited for it to take effect. “But you wanted to be born, there was no other way, so todayyou are my baby,” she said jokingly. She apologized to me, told me how guilty she felt duringher pregnancy and that she only relaxed when she saw that her little baby was born with allfive little fingers. She hugged me and cried a lot that day. Not totally understanding thisseemingly random admission, nor the implications and contexts that surrounded it, I did theonly thing I knew how to do: I tried to comfort her and say that I loved her and understood thatshe loved me.

She died five years later, and today if I could, I would say more. I would say that I understandthe fear of having another daughter one year after the other, that in fact it is dramatic to live ina country where the State controls women’s bodies and prohibits abortion, a criminalizationthat determines which women will die. Privileged women, white in their hegemony, accesssafe procedures—while poor women, mostly black, are exposed to risks, serious damages tohealth, or death. The official data states that 250,000 women are hospitalized each year inBrazil for exposure to unsafe clandestine abortions. It is the State determining once again wholives and who dies. First and foremost, I would hug my mother to try to remove all the fearand anguish that she carried for years, saying, “Mother, there is nothing to be forgiven. TheState knows very well what it does.”

It was my mother who took me to a Terreiro Candomblé (an ancestral community where thetradition and afro diasporic customs, as well as religious cults, are preserved) when I was eightyears old for my initiation. The terreiros seek to reproduce the family and society that colonialviolence took away from the black population. The gods and goddesses are known as Orixásand have a logic completely different from the Euro-Christian. There is no demon, just as thereis no dichotomy between heaven and hell. As a black religion, it has historically been the targetof attacks, which still happen today as quite often people set fire to and vandalize the temples.

From 2018 to 2019, according to official data, the number of attacks on communities ofAfrican-origin religion rose by 47%, a statistic that is only growing. In the Baixada Fluminensealone, a region that includes Rio de Janeiro, 30 attacks were recorded in 2018. The followingyear, the Bonde de Jesus (‘Soldiers of Jesus’, a gang that actually consciously gave themselvessuch a name) was found responsible for the attacks, and some of its members were arrested.Moved by words of neo-Pentecostal evangelists, these gang members are sometimes drugdealers and therefore, preferential targets of the police, who are simultaneously incited andblessed by these same priests. These are complex scenarios in which intersections of identitiesthat cross individuals arise. In this case, most of these individuals are black and poor, but theyare Christians and hate religions of African origin.

The proliferation of neo-Pentecostal churches (a particular evangelical cult that emerged inBrazil after the ‘80s and ‘90s, that created new churches around the country and now havemillions of followers) has been of great concern and a source of reactionary sentiment in Brazil.Evidently, inside these churches there is resistance, with people advocating for women’s rightsand for the black population, for example the Frente Evangélica pelo Estado de Direito(‘Evangelical Front for the Rule of Law’). Or the ‘Faithminists’, Christian feminists whochallenge churches’ narrative, and who face the dilemma of being accepted neither inside thechurches—since these places are, in general, environments constituted by reactionary politicalconvictions—nor inside feminist movements, which usually see these Christian feminists asholding a strict moral sense that goes against the principles of women’s rights. One of thesegroups is the Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir (‘Catholic Women for the Right to Decide’),among many other initiatives. These essential projects deserve all our support. In general,however, the proliferation of these churches led to the forces that currently dominate much ofthe politics and media.

In fact, the Bancada Evangélica (‘Bible Bench’) in Congress includes 38% of parliamentarians,and its agenda is to support the current government, as well as a whole series of reactionaryand precarious agendas. Allied to the Bancada Evangélica is the Bancada da Bala (‘BulletBench’), composed in general by retired and military police, a group from which the Braziliandictatorship emerged in the ‘60s and ‘80s as did the current president. Another one is theBancada do Boi (‘Bull Bench’), composed by landowners, heirs of colonialism. This triad that,in Portuguese, forms the acronym BBB, makes up a large majority in the National Congress,and serves as the basis of political support for the current president.

The extent of evangelical power is national and regional. In Rio de Janeiro, the mayor is abishop of the Igreja Universal (‘Universal Church’), while the governor, linked to the BibleBench, is a former judge who ran for office stating that under his command the police wouldshoot and “aim at the head” of boys from peripheral communities that are considered to becriminal suspects. Under his rule, the police broke all lethal records: according to data fromthe Public Security Institute, by October 2019, more than 1500 people were killed by policerifles in the state of Rio de Janeiro alone. This policy of extermination hits the blackpopulation, an absolute majority among the dead. As main targets of the Bull Bench,indigenous peoples find themselves under an even greater attack than ever in history; thenumber of invaded lands has doubled under the current government, whilst they bitterly sufferfrom the murders of many from their population, including the ‘Guardians of the Forest’.It is necessary to emphasize, however, that it is not only the bullets, neo-Pentecostal churchesand ruralist impulses that are the building blocks of the racial policy of exterminatingvulnerable groups. The government, with faithful support of the reactionary benches, is implementing austerity policies every month in Brazil, such as the Labor Reform, whichrelativizes or extinguishes a large part of the labor rights achieved after centuries of struggle.Not to mention the Pension Reform, which increases the length of service required and at thesame time reduces the benefit for retirees.

We ask: Who is more affected by these reforms? In Brazil, the base of the social pyramid iscomposed of black populations who have been subjected to the process of enslavement formore than three centuries. Abolition of slavery—Brazil being the last country in the Americasto do this—was only formal, and did not establish any mechanism for social integration forthose previously enslaved. In São Paulo, the largest city in the country, there is theneighborhood of Jardins, which is inhabited by white people with high economic standards. Aresident in Jardins lives an average of 79.4 years, while in Jardim Angela, composed of blackpeople living with extreme vulnerability, that same life expectancy is only 55.7 years,according to the Map of Inequality. So, when the government sets the minimum retirementage at 70, which social group is condemned to work until they die?

A final issue that I would like to discuss in this panorama of Brazil is that none of these policiesfor regressing human rights, austerity and attacks on social rights would have made sense ifthere was not neocolonialism at play. The current government, so austere with the vulnerableBrazilians, is the same one that privatizes national energy, oil, aviation companies, airports,road networks, ports, and everything else sellable. All of it is up for sale, at prices that wouldbe regarded in the global north as very questionable. Who is buying? Precisely that samehemisphere that is horrified by the current state of affairs in Brazil. When the scenes of aburning Amazon shock the global north—which, in fact, are images that tear at the hearts ofthe Brazilians, especially those linked to traditional communities that treat nature with adifferent view than the group in power—would it not be better to delve into the political rootsbehind these bushfires?

However, not all is necessarily lost. As this power instituted in the country gains strength, sodo groups and forms of resistance. The work of black feminists stood out in the constructionof new milestones for civilization and in the dissemination of instruments for the struggle ofoppressed peoples, as taught by the Brazilian black feminist Lélia Gonzalez. Already in the‘80s she wrote about the need for the feminist struggle to be transnational. If, in fact, the globalsouth was studied for its epistemologies and artistic production, surely an immeasurableadvance would take place. Dialoguing with Angela Davis’ famous quote, “When the blackwoman moves, the whole society moves with her,” I believe that holds true further south in theworld. As change and progress is continually pushed forth by black women at the bottom, themore the top will shake.

In Brazil, scenes of resistance have multiplied. Just one example, there are thousands of peoplein the country attending book launch events of analytical works written by black people—in acountry with a low reading comprehension and where, in the last 70 years, more than 90% ofthe works published by major publishers were written by white people. The racial literacy ofthe Brazilian population has produced real changes in society with unpredictable consequences.It is a continuation of the ground beaten by our ancestors, such as Sueli Carneiro, Zélia Amador,Luiza Bairros, Carolina de Jesus, Conceição Evaristo, Abdias do Nascimento and many otherblack Brazilian intellectuals who made windmills catalyzing their lives amongst the winds ofrevolution.

These winds refresh my spirit as I read those brilliants writers. Carolina de Jesus, a blackwoman from Favela of Canindé, wrote a diary of her life, among others, where through herhistory we can get a dimension of the potential of black women, but at the same time the unjustsystem which denied us possibilities of existence. Conceição Evaristo, PhD in LiteratureTheory and great Brazilian writer, only got public recognition a few years ago, when she was71 years old. She has a phrase she says often: “For a black woman, publishing is harder thanwriting.” This is exactly why I find great honor in coordinating a book series titled SueliCarneiro Seal (in honor of the great Brazilian black feminist Sueli Carneiro). The aim is topublish black women and men about concepts under a critical racial lens. Until now, over100.000 books have already been sold, and translations into three languages took place. In acountry with so many inequalities and with our knowledges, culture, and life under attack,these voices are a windmill.Let us continue to build these mills, and push ever forward.