The Afro-American - Afro-Brazilian Connection - A Cultural Analysis
by Mark Wells
Hello David Rambeau and all,
Another eventful day in Sao Paulo. I spoke with another group of great people. I'm developing a quasi-documentary on the concept of "good hair" as approached in a recent documentary by comedian Chris Rock. The length and texture of black folks' hair is controversial in every community where one finds black people and Brazil is no different. Here in Brazil, the texture and length of one's hair can shift a person's racial identity and how they are perceived by others. For example, travelling through Sao Paulo with one of my friends here, we always discuss this concept of who is black and who is white in Brazil. This may seem simple for Americans, but then we must understand that the mixture of blacks, whites and Indians was far more intense in Brazil than in the US; the widespread miscegenation endemic in Brazilian society is a key obstacle when trying to interpret the meaning of race in Brazil specifically and Latin America in general.
Yesterday, we debated who was black and white; as we passed people in the streets, he told me who Brazilians identified as white and I told him who Americans would probably consider to be black. It is the hair that is the "tie-breaker". I remember seeing two women specifically yesterday whose facial features signaled African ancestry (mouth, lips, etc.). But these women were very light-skinned and had straight hair, thus in Brazil, these women most likely identified as white and were probably accepted as white by the majority of Brazilians. My friend even noted the woman's African traits but, as he said, "no Brasil, branca (in Brazil, she's white).
Today I met with the students of another of my friends who teaches a class called "Ebony English". It was a very gratifying encounter! My friend had been telling his students about me for some time and we were finally able to meet. All of the students are black and self-identify as black. They had many questions for the African-American. In preparation of this, my friend and I prepared a Power Point presentation in which I spoke about black identity in the US. I spoke about African-American identity from the perspective of physicality, culture and politics. It is an important discussion in the Obama era.
Many black Brazilians are eager to correspond with black Americans but I had to also share a reality about African-American thought. Although some of us are aware of our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora, many of us have no concept of blacks in other parts of the world. Over the years I've read comments written by Afro-Brazilians who spoke of their excitement of meeting and interacting with their African-American brothers and sisters and then being hit with a cruel reality upon arrival in the US: many African-Americans shun our brothers and sisters from the Diaspora. I've also heard this from various Afro-Brazilians. The reaction of many African-Americans is: "you ain't one of us" or "you ain't a brotha/sista". It's a reality my wife has dealt with since she arrived in the US in 2005.
In some ways, black Brazilians have this sort of hyper-mythical ideal of African-Americans. Kind of like the mythical interpretation many African-Americans have of Africa. Because the struggle of the Civil Rights/Black Power Movements are so prominent in the Brazilian Movimento Negro, it is often shocking when I tell people that African-Americans are in many ways a completely different people than we were 40 years ago. One thing is our interpretation of our history. We live in the US. Another thing is our history being a point of reference for brothers and sisters in other countries who have been denied their own black heroes and thus look to their "mighty, mighty" US brothers and sisters for inspiration. Some students I meet regularly talk about their desire to attend one of our HBCUs where "Black Pride" is supposed to be the norm. But they realize that US "Black Pride" is inherently contradictory. Everyday I meet people who dream of visiting Harlem, their vision of a "Black Mecca". The problem with this is the myth and then the reality.
I must again speak on the language issue. It is SO important to know English here! With knowledge of English, a whole new window of opportunities opens to Brazilians that was previously closed, an advantage that we often take for granted. With the acceptance of a black identity, it is also important to them to be able to speak with a Black American. Speaking of this, I saw another example today of why I speak of the images and visuals that African-Americans transmit to the world. Today I went to one of the many black culture stores in downtown Sao Paulo. Here you find countless black hair salons, black clothing (local and imported) and black music (local and imported). I met this brotha in the streets today who remembered me from last year! He was passing out flyers for other events that are happening in this, the Month of Black Consciousness. He took me and my friend to the store where he worked and introduced me to the store owner and another of the store's employees, all Afro-Brazilian men, aged early to mid to late 20s.
With a Beyonce live DVD playing in the background, these brothas started clowning around tossing around words like "my bitch", "my niggas" and "what'chu talking 'bout". Obviously no big deal to us. But consider this: Afro-Brazilians soak up African-American focused movies and music and often times go through great lengths to translate some of these phrases. Many of them don't know what these phrases mean but they hear them so often and with such style that they like to imitate the words and mannerisms. When I asked one of the guys what he thought some of these things meant, he spoke in Portuguese and he clearly knew what these phrases meant. One of the guys spoke a little English and he would liberally use the term "the niggerz" in his heavy Portuguese accent. "The niggerz" this, "the niggerz" that, he would start off saying. I'm accustomed to it now but it's still a little shocking to see the influence of Black American Culture in a non-Anglo country. This guy could articulate very well the positive as well as negative aspects of Black American Culture on Black Brazilians.
Whenever I speak to a group of Afro-Brazilians, as I did today at "Ebony English", I always make sure to tell people that there are aspects of African-American culture that should not be imitated in Brazil. On another note that speaks to the inferiority complex that I sometimes note amongst not only Afro-Brazilians, but Brazilians in general.
One of the women taking the English classes brought her granddaughter to the class; a beautiful little black girl of about 3 or 4 years. She was shy, clung to her grandmother's leg and would not really look at me. At the end of the class, it appeared that she wanted to say something to me. After much hesitation, her grandmother told me that the little girl just wanted to say hello and look at me because she had never met an American before. I told her and all of the others, I am just human like the rest of you. This is not the first time I've noted how Brazilians have viewed me with an almost awestruck look. It's not something I imagine; others who are aware of this, as well as social scientists have often spoken on the superior/inferior relationship between "developed" and "developing" countries and peoples from these countries. As Americans, I think we all have a choice to make; continue to invest in the myth of American superiority or come off of our high horses and become part of the larger human community.
One last thing, on the question of "American". In the Brazilian academic world, I have read many studies over the years that refer to Americans as North-Americans. They have even created their own term to define Americans of the United States: estadunidense. Google it! The concept is that ALL people born in North, South and Central American and the Caribbean are Americans! Of course this is not new. I've spoken on this on FMP (our For My People television program...see youtube.com projectbaitdet) also. But people in the academic world of Latin America see the term "Americano" being used to define exclusively persons born in the U.S. as another form of U.S. domination and imperialism. One of the sistas I met tonight in the English class told me this also. She said it to me point blank: "I don't like people of the United States calling themselves Americans; we are ALL Americans!" She was right, but at the same time, I told her the term estadunidense may work in Portuguese, but in English the term would probably be translated as "United Statian" which sounds ridiculous to me! But that's just my opinion...
It's late...4.40AM Sao Paulo time so I'll end this here..