How I Found Black Consciousness in Brazil

by Veronica Maria Brown-Comegys

About thirty years ago, I was walking down posh Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana, where I lived with my white Brazilian “family.” The crown that Mother Africa had given me was evident. In other words, all traces of my perm had vanished. Suddenly an Afro-Brazilian man stopped me. He pointed at my head, and said in English, “Black Power,” then he cackled for so long that I thought he would become breathless.

Such was the degree of black pride and consciousness at that time. Furthermore, accompanying this mindset was denial of the existence of racism, repudiation of black ancestry, and denigration of the entire race.

Furthermore, many black Brazilians were not self-confident or very aggressive, according to Sherrilyn VanDyke, a New Yorker. When she encouraged them they said, “You have to be light-complected.” Ms. VanDyke speculated that they saw so many black domestics, that they could not imagine doing anything else. During my visits, I never saw a street cleaner who was not black. “It is the black doormen who usher me to the service elevator,” Ms. VanDyke said. “No matter how well you dress, they still believe you are somebody’s domestic.” Moreover, the New Yorker said that it seemed like happy hour on the street when she drove. She said, “They laugh at me. They probably think I’m a successful hooker.”

In spite of appearances black pride existed to some degree. However, there were factors that warred against the powerful expression that exists today. First, the military dictatorship, from the early 1960s to 1985, dampened the spirits of all Brazilians. According to African American Reflections on Brazil’s Racial Paradise, black Brazilians and others were prohibited from speaking out about racial discrimination or any government policies. Under the National Security Law of 1969 an individual could receive a one to three-year prison sentence. Furthermore, one-half of the original sentence could be added on, if the statements were made before a group and/or ended up in the media. In the 1980s, all groups began demanding full respect and participation in the nation. Moreover, around the 1960s and 1970s events in Africa intervened. Black self-esteem increased due to the elevation of Africa’s image. Searching for Africa in Brazil: Power and Tradition in Candomblé details revisions caused by decolonization and African nations’ acting in the international political and economic arena. Consequently, the old negative black image waned. My contacts indicate long-held reverence for African culture, especially the religions, African and black Brazilian historical figures, along with African-American revolutionaries, writers and leaders, played an important role.

Lately, many Afro-Brazilians became acquainted with American afro-centric educators such as Dr. Wade Nobles. In Psychological Terrorism, Mental Illness and Genocide, he wrote, “The desire for ‘closeness to whiteness’ is a debilitating mental illness for Africans. It should be classified a pathology. When Africans in Brazil exhibit the uncontrollable desire to be white, or suffer the delusion that they are not black; they should be clinically diagnosed as suffering from a trauma caused by prolonged and constant psychological terrorism.”

However, in 1981 I could not imagine this upending of the mindset of my acquaintances. In the United Press International Office, there was an employee, who insisted that he was not black. He had dark brown skin, straight hair and Caucasian features. He became enraged when a much lighter-complexioned coworker, addressed him saying, “Hey, mulato.” The employee snapped, “Mulato, no, never. I’m a moreno.” In common use, the term includes brunette and/or tanned Caucasians, light-complexioned blacks, dark persons who have white features, and even prosperous blacks, celebrities, and foreigners. Last year a magazine listed nineteen varieties of moreno. They include, swarthy, sunburnt, chestnut-colored, half dark-skinned, somewhat cinnamon-colored, and very nearly moreno. However, an acquaintance revealed the fundamental meaning of the term. Michigan resident, Ivone Ferreira’s mother is Portuguese, and her father is a Brazilian Indian. Ms. Ferreira said, “I am a morena. Morena/moreno has nothing to do with blackness.”

In 1976, the Census Board sent researchers out to ask people to identify their color. People volunteered more than 130 terms. Obviously, there is a multitude of labels to camouflage the truth. Also thrown into the mix is the Brazilian expression: “Money whitens the skin.” In the 1970s, an American researcher told of a black man who became white after he left a working-class job and became mayor of his town. One white resident explained the transformation by stating, “We would never have a black mayor.”

Several people insisted that I not say that I am black. Carlos Marques, 56, a white historian, explained that, “They don’t like to say ‘negra’ about black women who have light skin or a lot of money; instead they say morena.” Often my white landlady, who was a psychiatrist, said, “Look Veroni, you are a journalist; cultured and refined. You are a morena.” A recent acquaintance, Carlos Santos, 30, said, “White people become irritable when we are proud of being black; when we are proud of our kinky hair and full lips. It makes whites disagreeable when we are gratified by our black characteristics.”

Ultimately, the moreno employee at UPI decided he had the paramount proof of my “non-blackness.” When he questioned me about my ancestry, I said that my grandmother’s father was a Native American, and my grandfather’s father was white. He said, “By the time you were born all the black blood in your family had disappeared. It is all gone.” At that time, blacks preened when white persons addressed them as “moreno.” Even now, some white Brazilians think it is polite to refer to certain persons as morenos. However, now many black Brazilians are vigorously repudiating the classification. Never the less, some white Brazilians are diehards. A white man wrote the following endorsement of coffee-complexioned political candidate, Dr. Josefina Serra, an attorney. “This morena has my support.” Marlene Nunes P. Neves said, “Some people still refer to numerous euphemisms, when they think it is very vulgar to say that a person is, in fact, black.”

In Brazil, denial of blackness has a historical foundation. In 1938 Brazilian anthropologist, Gilberto Freyre wrote, “Mulatto or touched with Negro blood is what no one cares to be when he is in the alturas’ (higher social levels). Extremely rare are the exceptions.” Denial of blackness has been prevalent in Latin America. When I was an adolescent in Detroit, I befriended a student from Panama. She insisted that she was Spanish, not black. She said, “The one who made me (father) was white.”

Last year William Reis, 27, a handsome community activist, reported an epiphany. On Facebook, he calls himself William X Luther King. He said the writings of Malcolm X changed his thinking. Reis said, “I am embarrassed that in the past I rejected my black and indigenous roots. I was ashamed of my hair, nose, and full lips. It is disgraceful, but this is what happens to many blacks. We undergo a mental scolding in which we tell ourselves that only white people are good-looking. Shameful, but I awoke. I will sustain my renovated pride.”

White supremacy has distorted the thinking, values and history of all members of the African Diaspora. It has operated as a cancer destroying everything in which it comes in contact. The debilitation is most evident when we identify ourselves in a way that severs us from who we really are.

Photo: Shutterstock

Veronica Maria Brown-Comegys is a recipient of an Inter-American Press Association Scholarship, which funded one year of study in Rio de Janeiro. Veronica has been to Brazil three times. She wrote freelance articles for United Press International in Brazil.

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