BRAZILIAN BLACK FEMINISM: UNDOING RACIAL DEMOCRACY, TOWARDS A WORLD ETHIC WITH ORIXÁS
From the upcoming reader of the 13th Gwangju Biennale "Stronger than Bone", running from February 26 2021 until May 9, 2021.
On a visit to Brazil in 2019, Angela Davis interviewed a mostly white audience, and asked: “Why do you still want me to speak when there were important black intellectuals like Lélia Gonzalez (1935–1994) here who already talked about intersectionality?” The audience applauded, and there was a lot of discussion about Gonzalez on social media. However, after Davis returned to the USA, the white majority stopped talking about Gonzalez. This is a classic example of what happens in Brazil: it takes someone from the outside to appreciate someone from “inside” so that a majority can register it. Even though we recognize the importance of the thinking of Davis and other black American intellectuals, we know that although they are geographically located in the Global North, they produce anti-hegemonic discourses. However, precisely because they are located in the North and speak English, their works have a broader reach and contribute to the predominance of racial studies. In this sense, as much as their works are baselines, in this text I decided to speak politically about Brazilian black feminists who suffer from the erasure of their work and difficulties in translating into other languages. For example, Black feminist women such as Davis have historically recognized the importance of Gonzalez’s work for Brazilian social thought, but it is still not as studied as it should be. Gonzalez was a pioneer in discussing the importance of a transnational struggle in Latin America, defending an Afro Latin American feminism and criticizing the insistence on an analysis grounded in class struggle without taking into account the oppressions of race and gender.
In the 1980s, Gonzalez pointed out that black women in the public sphere in general and in entertainment and leisure in particular, as well in context of carnival were seen as mulattoes, a figure that permeates the Brazilian colonial slavery imaginary, constituting itself in the republican period in which the myth of racial democracy flourishes. However, Gonzalez realizes that there is another perception of the female black body combined with the image of the domestic, drawn on colonial images of the maid, the enslaved woman who works in the slaveholder’s household. Based on feminist scholars, Gonzalez, without mincing her words, interweaves the two images: of the mulatto woman and the woman of care. She gives as an example the carnival: in this period, the mulatto is raised up to a place of deification, but as soon as the carnival is over, that same woman can be a domestic relegated to social invisibility. At the same time that the country denies its black origins, it praises those same origins when it better suits them; Brazil is a country that sells carnival for a profit, but discriminates and keeps the group that created it apart.
Gonzalez conceptualized Brazilian racism as Brazilian cultural neurosis. “Now, we know that the neurotic builds ways to hide the symptom, because it brings certain benefits. This construction frees you from the anguish of facing repression.” (1) Gonzalez also offers us an interesting perspective on this, criticizing modern science as an exclusive standard for the production of knowledge, she sees the hierarchy of knowledge as a product of the racial classification of the population, since the appreciated and universal model is after all white. She further argues that racism was constituted “as the ‘science’ of Euro-Christian superiority (white and patriarchal), insofar as the Aryan model of explanation was structured.” (2) And, within this logic, feminist theory also ends up incorporating this discourse and structuring the discourse of white women as dominant.
Gonzalez proposed the destabilization of the standard language and from this perspective suggested the pretoguês (Black Portuguese) as a way to criticize the academic norm. Gonzalez confronts the dominant paradigm and, in some texts, resorts to a language considered outside the model established for academic textual production—that is, without obeying the requirements and rules of normative grammar and reflecting the linguistic legacy of enslaved cultures. Thus, she sometimes mixes Portuguese with African linguistic elements in a political attempt to highlight the racial prejudice existing in the very definition of the Brazilian mother tongue. As a result of the entanglement, Gonzalez points out:
[...] what I call ‘pretoguês’ and which is nothing more than a mark of Africanization of Portuguese spoken in Brazil [...], it is easily seen especially in Spanish in the Caribbean region. The tonal and rhythmic character of African languages brought to the New World, in addition to the absence of certain consonants (such as l or r, for example), point to a little explored aspect of black influence in the historical and cultural formation of the continent as a whole (not to mention the ‘Creole’ dialects of the Caribbean. (3)
Many Brazilian black thinkers thought of the gender category from other sources, such as from the perspective of female orixás, (4) since in Brazil there are religions of African origin such as Candomblé and Umbanda. (5) There is an attempt to value Brazilian black cultures’ thought by other geographies of reason.
In their article “The Female Power in the Cult of the Orixás,” Sueli Carneiro and Cristiane Abdon Cury analyze the figure of the woman in African mythology reproduced in the candomblé terreiros (ancestral communities where tradition and Afro-diasporic customs, as well as religious cults, are preserved and where Candomblé is practiced), the archetypes of the orixás and the social differences regarding gender relations. The authors explain the tradition of viewing women as witches, of course in a sense that is completely contrary to the one historically attributed by western civilization.
The great witches are, yes, in the religion, but we can see their representation in grandmothers, in mothers who lived long, whether in a state of anger or in serenity; when they speak, and everyone is silent, leaving injustices structurally exposed. “To discuss, therefore, women’s role in Candomblé takes us immediately to the mythical female figures that compose a conception profile that the mythical system of Candomblé has of the female condition. The Ìyá mi, mythical ancestors, are the ultimate representation of female power. They are also called Ajé, which in Yoruba means witch or sorceress.” (6) Among the Ajés, the most feared is Ìyá mi Oxorongá. From this sorceress, who with a curse word of death, it is possible to understand how this representation distances itself from the western gaze, of victimized identity:
When pronouncing the name of this female orixá, the person who’s sitting must stand up, and who’s standing up must bow down, as she is a ruthless orixá to whom all living beings owe respect. [The] African bird, Oxorongá emits a horrible cry, from where its name comes from. The symbol of this orixá is the owl of omens and portents. Ìyá mi Oxorongá owns the belly, and there is no one who can resist her fatal ebós. (7)
It is worth mentioning that Ìyá mi’s representations occur in her socialized aspects in the worshiped Orixás, such as Oxum, Iansã, Iemanjá, Nanã, Obá, and Ewá. At the head of the terreiros, there are the Yalorixás, who are “depositories and transmitters of the knowledge of the cult, of its mysteries. They know the ways of manipulating nature. They know how to manipulate them to solve the problems of the individuals who are under their care.” (8)
Pombagiras (9) are also worshiped in terreiros all over the country. It is an entity that is called by several names, one of the most common being Maria Padilha. Her representation is of a free, sensual woman, who at the same time conquers and amazes any man. It is to her that offerings are made to get rid of a man who becomes a burden of a burden man (and there are several of those, isn’t it so, my dear?). Whoever sees her perform will hear one of the most well-known songs, “Move away you man, for a woman is coming. Maria Padilha, queen of Candomblé.” And she moves anyone away. African-based witches are the antithesis of any denial of behavioral, political, ethical transcendence that women may represent. From them it is possible to think of a practice that transforms the colonial relations present today.
Beatriz Nascimento, a black historian and researcher, offers us the possibility of strengthening black women, a form of resistance when returning to the meaning of the word quilombo. (10) In June 1977, Nascimento presented her research on quilombos at the Quinzena do Negro (Blacks Fortnight) at the University of São Paulo, (11) gaining greater notoriety. The formation and participation in the Unified Black Movement, (12) formed in 1978, denotes a radical attitude towards the academy (in that time and for today), with criticisms of the academic content of studies on ethnic racial relations, produced mainly by white intellectuals and the denunciation the lack of space for black men and women in this field and for certain themes such as quilombo or black women. She brings this research into light, which was forgotten, and also to remove from the crystallized place of quilombo as a “haven of escaped blacks” or a “place of bandits” without a political character. In the documentary Ôrí (1989) narrated and based on Nascimento’s life, a political and cultural panorama is shown in search of an identity that acknowledges black populations. Candomblé is presented, as well as other manifestations of black origin. Ôrí means head, a term of Yoruba origin, people from West Africa, which, by extension, also designates the black conscience in its relationship with time, history, and memory.
The fact is that, as a black woman, we feel the need to deepen our reflection, instead of continuing to repeat and reproduce the models that were offered to us by the social science research effort. The texts only spoke to us about black women from a socio-economic perspective that elucidated a series of problems posed by race relations. But there was (and always will be) a rest that defies prior explanation. (13)
"When we speak of the myth of feminine fragility, which historically justified the paternalistic protection of men over women, what women are we talking about? We black women are part of a contingent of women, probably in the majority, who have never recognized this myth in themselves, because we have never been treated as fragile."
In the 1980s, black women, especially in the North and Northeast regions of Brazil, were forcibly sterilized and this was an important banner of struggle for this movement. This struggle resulted in the creation of the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry (CPI) in 1991. The sterilization CPI, as it became known, found that this practice occurred, whether in the inadequate provision of services offered by private institutions that financed contraceptive methods, especially in the poorest regions of the country, or in irreversible contraceptive measures that were imposed. In our question proposed here, it is important to think about the category of black women, considering that—as argued by Luiza Bairros—this category is built from the experience of being black (lived “through” gender) and being a woman (lived “through” race). (14) Sueli Carneiro in her article “Blackening feminism...” articulates an interesting perspective that is worth quoting here at some length.
When we speak of the myth of feminine fragility, which historically justified the paternalistic protection of men over women, what women are we talking about? We black women are part of a contingent of women, probably in the majority, who have never recognized this myth in themselves, because we have never been treated as fragile. We are part of a contingent of women who worked for centuries as slaves in the fields or on the streets, as salespeople, greengrocers, prostitutes. . . Women who did not understand anything when feminists said that women should take over the streets and work! […]
The historical conditions in the Americas that built the relationship between blacks in general and black women in particular are well known. We also know that in all this context of conquest and domination, the social appropriation of women in the defeated group is one of the emblematic moments of affirmation of the winner's superiority. […]
When we talk about breaking with the myth of the queen of the home, of the idolized muse of poets, what women are we talking about? Black women are part of a contingent of women who are not queens of anything, who are portrayed as anti muses in Brazilian society, because the aesthetic model of women is the white woman. When we talk about guaranteeing the same opportunities for men and women in the labor market, what kind of woman are we guaranteeing employment for? We are part of a contingent of women for whom job ads highlight the phrase: ‘Good looks are required.’
When we say that woman is a by-product of man, since it was made from Adam's rib, what woman are we talking about? We are part of a contingent of women from a culture that does not have Adam. Originating in a violated, folklorized and marginalized culture, treated as a primitive thing, a thing of the devil, this is also alien to our culture. We are part of a contingent of women ignored by the health system in their specialty, because the myth of racial democracy present in all of us makes it unnecessary to register the color of patients on public health forms, information that would be indispensable for assessing health conditions of black women in Brazil, because we know from data from other countries that white and black women have significant differences in terms of health. (15)
Carneiro shows us that racism determines gender hierarchies in our society, so it is necessary that feminism create ways to combat this oppression. Otherwise it will be just another form of oppression, reproducing the hegemonic discourse and maintaining the hierarchized relationships between women. Carneiro’s analysis still allows us to perceive the need to claim the identity of a black woman who constitutes herself as a historical and political subject. However, it is important to emphasize that this identity—even though it does not encompass all the specificity surrounding black women—is relevant to support the political subject that is intended to be highlighted in this text. Building a reflection on the identity of black women has to follow complex paths, since the heterogeneities that surround this category make up a wide range of complexities and diversities. To analyze such a category, which is intersected by numerous markings in a “closed” way, is to run the risk of leaving out the many nuances that are at stake in the definition of identities, especially when it comes to groups that throughout history have been building and reconstructing strategies of struggle and resistance to claim and affirm their social identities, as is the case of black women.
For Carneiro, black women have engaged in a double path of struggle, one to “blacken” the agenda of the feminist movement and another to “sexualize” the agenda of the black movement, giving rise to a diversity of perceptions and political practices in these segments, which crossed and crosses a double perspective, both in the affirmation of others as new political subjects and in the demand for a recognition of the differences and inequalities between these subjects.
In this sense, it is possible to affirm that a black feminism, built in the context of multiracial, pluricultural and racist societies—as are Latin American societies—has racism and its impact on gender relations as its main articulating axis, since that it determines the gender hierarchy itself in our societies. (16)
The concept presented by Carneiro brings to the fore the understanding that racism also determines gender relations and that calls into question the objective of black feminist struggle in the social arena. It is also important to highlight Ana Angélica Sebastião’s concept, which that references black feminism in Brazil as being the political, intellectual, and theoretical construction movement of black women committed to social change and active in an ideological field in which they are inserted. Black feminism is a concept that has been forged in the struggle of the black women’s movement for the recognition of the specificities of the group in the context of the feminist struggle and the fight against racism. (17)
In this sense, it is important to see racism and sexism as a series of effects that have no single cause. The perspective of new looks and new “places of speech” thus initiate different constructions in the game instituted by scientific knowledge. Such constructions challenge academic canons and reveal theoretical constructions capable of handling other forms of identity in addition to those that already exist. To analyze the production of contemporary identities in light of subordinated studies, based on issues that demarcate social hierarchies, is to revisit old themes with new perspectives and other views and places of speech, covering paths that may actually contribute to the production of a theory that encompasses a greater number of multiple subjects. Belonging to different social categories that often express several axes of subordination makes these women social agents capable of producing political movements that act in the direct nexus of different discriminations, as well as building their own theoretical instruments that support their struggles. This process of construction and reconstruction in manifesting their identities makes black women promote theoretical discussions around racial and gender issues, while at the same time taking care that one process is not more or less hierarchical than the other. (18)
This new feminist and anti-racist view, by integrating both the black movement’s traditions of struggle and the tradition of struggle of the women’s movement, affirms this new political identity arising from the specific condition of being a black woman. The current movement led by black women brings to the political scene the contradictions resulting from the articulation of the variables of race, class, and gender, and promotes the synthesis of the flags of struggle historically raised by the black movement and women of the country, blackening on one side the demands of women, thus making them more representative of the group of Brazilian women, and, on the other hand, promoting the feminization of the proposals and demands of the black movement. (19)
Luiza Bairros also uses as a paradigm the image of the domestic worker as an element of analysis of the condition of marginalization of black women and, based on it, seeks to find specificities capable of rearticulating the points raised by American feminists. She concludes, then, that “this peculiar marginality is what stimulates a special point of view of black women, (allowing) a different view of the contradictions in the actions and ideology of the dominant group. The great task is to enhance it affirmatively through reflection and political action.” (20)
The propositions of black feminism and black feminist thought have forced feminist theory to deepen its analysis of racial discussion and other modes of differences in relation to its theoretical and practical production. Feminist research is not only aimed at introducing women into the sciences, but also has the role of tensioning and questioning the traditional way of doing science, proposing new models, but mainly, having an epistemological and political disposition to review the attitude towards research. Assuming the instability of scientific practice, “subverting matrices of thought, embracing fluidity, in an area that traditionally tried to establish lasting truths.” (21)
Translated from the Portuguese by Walter Paim.
‘We, COVID Ticks’ was first published in the reader of the 13th Gwangju Biennale "Stronger than Bone" and reprinted in the 14th issue of Arts of the Working Class "The Landlord is Coming".