Brazil – Discovering My Other Southern Roots

African American, African American, Brazil, Brazil, Culture, History, Race, Race

Brazil – Discovering My Other Southern Roots

Candomblé

I have a distinct passion for learning and documenting the history, implications and lessons of contact and interaction between Afro-Brazilians and African Americans. Growing up in America it is often times perceived that African Americans are the quintessential African community outside of Africa. As a matter of fact, this is the case in terms of economic, political and social status, with African Americans enjoying a special place of prominence within the African Diaspora. This interest was sparked as I matriculated through my undergraduate degree in African American Studies at Morehouse College, where I was stunned to discover that 38% of those enslaved in the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade were exported to Brazil[1]. I took a trip to visit Brazil, in 2004, as a member of a student delegation from Morehouse College and other Atlanta University Center schools to the first Afro-Brazilian University of its kind, Universidade Zumbi Dos Palmares, to highlight the meaning, implication, and importance of the largest African-American population, Afro Brasileiros[2]. Traveling to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil, I was in awe of the numerous shades, faces and infusion of Afro-Brazilian culture within the larger Brazilian society. I was also tremendously shocked that I had been ignorant of this for so long, since I considered myself a student of Africa, African-Americans and the African Diaspora.

In the Brazilian cuisine, Candomblé, Samba, Umbanda, Brazilian Hip-Hop and other cultural expressions, I heard another African-American story. A story not widely disseminated here in the United States among African Americans. This led me to wonder, why? Was I alone in my ignorance? Was there a history of interaction and support and between these two societies of Africans in the Americas? I began to read books like, Brazil: 500 Years of Change by Thomas Skidmore, which floored me when it referred to Brazil as home to the largest population of people of African descent outside of Nigeria[3]. I remembered that Pelé, the soccer great, was Afro Brazilian. Then I remembered the film, Only the Strong starring Jean Claude Van Dame, who played a character who learned Capoeira from an Afro Brazilian Mestre. I realized that there were pieces to the puzzle all around but no one had put them together in a clear and concise manner for my generation. Many of us undergraduate students and our elders as well, looked to the Caribbean, Africa, and the American South to connect with our African “roots.” Never had it dawned on me to look to South America to learn more about the African experience.

As I met more Brazilians and self identified Afro-Brazilians, I would ask them about their struggles against racism and oppression that resulted from the legacy of slavery in Brazil. Time and time again, I was told that Afro-Brazilians looked towards the African-Americans in the United States for inspiration, both culturally and politically. Mala Hutn confirms that, “Brazilian activists were also influenced by non-white Third World nationalist movements and the U.S. civil rights movement.”[4]  There was clearly a great respect for Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., R & B music, Soul music, and Hip-Hop. Despite the admiration for African Americans’ historical movements, figures and cultural manifestations, I found out that in Brazil, “race-based collective action has been relatively rare, but not absent entirely.”[5] It appeared that Afro-Brazilians were entering their own civil rights era, which further sparked my interest, curiosity and desire to get involved.

As our student delegation visited universities and met with Afro Brazilian student delegations, it became clear that the historical inequalities that resulted from slavery in the United States were alive and well in Brazil and markedly pronounced[6]. I wondered as to why Afro-Brazilians were so seemingly far removed from the political, social, and economic advantages and visibility in these arenas that resulted from the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. As Mala Hutn explains, there is an Afro-Brazilian “absence among political, business, and media elites, and cultural practices known to all such as the use of terms like boa aparência to exclude dark-skinned people from employment.”[7]

There were vibrant Afro-Brazilian movements for the establishment of affirmative action in the state university systems of Brazil. The Brazilians involved in these movements expressed that their movements looked to the accomplishment of African-American in the United States with affirmative action as proof that affirmative action policies were a benefit to society. Ironically, these conversations were taking place at the same time that affirmative action policies and quotas were being repealed stateside, which served as fuel for those in Brazil opposed to the establishment of affirmative action policies in Brazil. The passionate Afro-Brazilian voices explained that Brazil is now experiencing the start of its “Afro-Brazilian Civil Rights Movement.” This excited and saddened me simultaneously. On the one hand, I was excited that the struggle to tackle the problems associated with disproportionate socioeconomic circumstances of the Afro-Brazilian community and the legacy of slavery were being addressed on larger scale. On the other hand, I was saddened that these issues were only recently being brought to the attention of the masses in Brazil. There was also a strong push back against these passionate Afro-Brazilian voices by those in who believed that Brazil’s “social democracy” did not need measures used by African-Americans in North America, down in South America. As Mala Hutn highlights opposition movement in Brazil speak of, “fears that quotas are a policy based on U.S. race relations and history and will consequently introduce false racial divisions to Brazil and end up generating greater injustice (Pinto de Góes 2001).”[8] The eroding policies of affirmative action in the United States juxtaposed to the nascent affirmative action movement in Brazil highlighted that there was still fertile grounds where social change was necessary and vulnerable.

In general the African-American community has largely conceded that affirmative action is waning in political feasibility, despite continued many who continue to advocate for it. Many arguments have been made that affirmative action in the United States has served its purpose and is no longer necessary, as minorities have entered the higher realms of society in education, politics, business and the media. America is moving away from the “one-drop rule” with many people who previously would have exclusively considered themselves as black or African-American, opting to identify themselves by their many ancestries. In Brazil an opposite trend is developing. As Hutn notes, “at the same time that the United States seems to be moving away from its historic “one-drop” policy and toward a recognition of mixity, evinced by the ability of residents to identify with multiple racial categories in the 2000 census, Brazilian quota advocates seem to be pushing Brazil in the direction of greater fixity in identities.”[9]

Ironically, as a minority student in high school, I was witness to one of America’s largest debates about affirmative action and quotas in particular, the case of racial quotas at Boston Latin School. This case was filed by the parents of Julia McLaughlin, who was denied admission to Boston Latin School despite scoring higher than dozens of minority students on the schools entrance exam. This case reverberated around the nation, Boston and the lives of students, minorities and non-minorities alike.  The federal appeals court decided to rule in the favor of admitting this young student, despite the city of Boston’s policy of racial quotas at the prestigious Boston Latin School.

It is my desire to further study and analyze the linkages, struggles and approaches of Afro Brazilian experience and the African American experience. It is my belief that there much benefit in this discourse for all parties privy to it. I look forward to making major contributions to the struggles for improvement of African descendants in both Brazil and the United States. The writing above is only the beginning of my scholarly work.


[1] Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and David Eltis, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American ResearchHarvard University. Based on “records for 27,233 voyages that set out to obtain slaves for the Americas”. Stephen Behrendt (1999). “Transatlantic Slave Trade”. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. New York: Basic Civitas Books. ISBN 0-465-00071-1.

[2] Skidmore, Thomas. Brazil. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Htun, Mala. “From “Racial Democracy” to Affirmative Action: Changing State Policy on Race in Brazil.” Latin American Research Review. 39.1 (2004): 60-89. Print.

[5] Htun, Mala. “From “Racial Democracy” to Affirmative Action: Changing State Policy on Race in Brazil.” Latin American Research Review. 39.1 (2004): 60-89. Print.

[6] “African descendants make up 33.7 million of 53 million poor Brazilians. Of 22 million indigents, African descendants are 15.1 million. Among the 76 million African descendant Brazilians, 48.8 million of them live in subhuman conditions of poverty and indigence” Beato, Lucila. “Inequality and Human Rights of African Descendants in Brazil.” Journal of Black Studies. 34.6 (2004): 766-786. Print.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid.

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9 thoughts on “Brazil – Discovering My Other Southern Roots

  1. I came over to your blog because you left a comment on mine (thank you!), and I’m glad I did. My MA thesis was on women’s African-American literature. Your experience reminds me of the surprising things I learned in my research. So much I had never known, never been taught in school about the slave trade and all that sprung from it.

    Now I teach ESL to students from all over the world–including Brazil–and I’ve learned a lot about the diversity and complicated cultures/histories of other places and their connections to America.

    There is always more to learn. Good luck with your dissertation. It is such hard work! But you’ll feel so awesome when you get through it.

    1. Thanks Tiffany, I’m glad that you enjoyed the blog posting! I am just getting started so the support means a lot. I also appreciate the link and I read the article you mentioned and you are right it is ‘gritty’. She doesn’t hold any punches but I can agree with her about this imperial and superior mindset many Americans have when abroad. I try to monitor myself for this but its so ingrained in us its hard to recognize when we do it. I am going to post a comment on her blog and hopefully she’ll read my post and enjoy it. I don’t think I’m one of the Americans she’s talking about. Nonetheless, thanks for the link, the comment, your visit and the dialogue! Hope to see you around on the blogosphere.

      1. Thanks for the reply, I have heard of the stereotypes of Americans when abroad myself and found it was interesting to see a perspective about it from a Afro Brazilian point of view. I never thought about what other black people in the diaspora thought of black Americans, (which never crossed my mind before). I do however have family from Africa on my dad’s side (hes from Eritrea, moved the the states in the early 80s) but they never said anything about how black Americans are perceived by other black people outside of the states.

        I found it a bit saddening when she was generalizing black Americans almost as a whole as if we are all disrespectful and ignorant, but it is her personal opinion in the end, hopefully she will change her mind and meet some Americans that aren’t the people she describes.

  2. I see you really took heed to the videos you showed us.. I have yet to talk to my family deeply about my history but I know my basic background.. Although I was really interested when I watched the videos.. Makes me mentally flustered thinking about things all races had to go through to make it.. Big shout outs to all my family members whether we know each other or not! This whole article makes me curious so I’m going to invest some time in learning my history!

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