Exploring Black Brazil

two women walking down a street in Salvador

by Katrina Spencer

Days before thousands of Brazilians stormed the National Congress in the capital of Brasília, protesting the beginning of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s third yet non-consecutive term, an event closely mirroring the January 6, 2021 insurrection in the United States, I was in Brazil having a look around. I was doing a little tourism. Having spent almost 10 years studying Portuguese, I figured it was time to test and see if I could survive an experience in a real Lusophone context. I made it through, and, like Prometheus toting fire, I’ve brought knowledge back just for you. In a brief phrasing, the election of Lula represents a point of friction for significant portions of the Brazilian populace and a rejection of stagnant ways, values, paradigms, and hierarchies. Let me give you a tiny primer that speaks specifically to the Black history of this Portuguese-speaking nation in case you’re interested in making a visit and can benefit from some concrete and historical entry points. The figures and institutions I foreground will reveal some of the identifying structures that speak to the shape of Brazil’s history and what may be destabilized with Lula’s arrival anew to power.

statue of Zumbi dos Palmares

A statue of historic Brazilian figure Zumbi dos Palmares by Márcia Magno in the Museu Afro Brasil in São Paulo

 The first stop I made was to São Paulo, the most populous city in the Southern hemisphere with 12.5 million people. And following that, I went up to Salvador, a beach city with a large Black population. Like the United States, the vast majority of Black  Brazilians tie their ancestry back to the Transatlantic Slave Trade which forcibly brought millions of Africans to the New World in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. While millions of the African peoples were distributed to the United States and the Caribbean, some estimate that 40% of Africans were transported to Brazil. As was the case in the U.S.’ colonial times, these African peoples brought with them rich histories of agriculture, craftsmanship, culinary practices, faith, language, professional skills, and style. And upon contact with local cultures in the Americas, new, hybrid cultures emerged. Moreover, historic figures, descendants of the enslaved, came to be known. Like Nat Turner of Virginia or Toussaint Louverture of Haiti whose names go down in history as enslaved men who resisted oppression, Zumbi dos Palmares from Brazil is another historical figure who refused subordination.  In the 17th century, Zumbi lived in a community known as a “quilombo,” a community of people who lived independently having escaped enslavement on Brazilian plantations, and resisted the Portuguese’s assaults and attempts to subjugate the free Black community. 

an image of a Black enslaved woman and the white child she presumably cared for

A picture of an enlarged photograph taken at the Museu Afro Brasil in São Paulo of a Black enslaved woman and the white child she presumably cared for

The statue pictured above by Márcia Magno is found at the Museu Afro Brasil (Afro-Brazilian Museum) in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park where visitors can see a variety of works that hold Black Brazilian history in contemporary light. The exhibits, artifacts, and art reveal the intimate bonds between the enslaved Black Brazilians and their enslavers, as seen in the second image of a mammy-like figure and her charge. The two people depicted were close enough to embrace with some degree of affection in the child’s youth. But they were worlds apart in terms of freedom, privilege, and class hierarchy. Brazil remains a society today with a very staunch resistance to class mobility, and the former president, Jair Bolsonaro, appeared to adhere to an older world structure that resisted diversity and upheld long-outdated, damaging, and discriminatory supremacies. 

a photograph of an exhibit dedicated to Carolina Maria De Jesus

A photograph of an exhibit dedicated to Carolina Maria De Jesus at the Museu Afro Brasil in São Paulo

Amongst the museum’s exhibits is a tribute to a Black Brazilian woman who rose to fame in the mid and late 1950s, Carolina Maria de Jesus, an author and memoirist who lived in a São Paulo community formerly known as a “favela.” Across the world, translations of “favela” include “slum” or “shantytown” and refer to residential communities where many impoverished people live within close proximity to one another and lack public services like indoor plumbing and sewage maintenance. These communities remain throughout Brazil today. De Jesus earned a living by trading in recyclable materials for money and distinguished herself by using her literacy– a rare skill in her neighborhood– to document the culture and lifestyle surrounding her. Through her autobiographical recounting in Quarto de Despejo, or Child of the Dark in its English translation, countless Brazilians and global citizens all over the world came to learn about housing inequity and the precarity poverty imposed on people as her work was translated into several languages worldwide. The enduring prevalence and ubiquity of these communities underscore a certain rigidity of class structures throughout Brazil. 

a picture at dusk of the Pelourinho neighborhood

A picture taken at dusk of the Pelourinho neighborhood

After I left São Paulo, I took a short flight northeast to Salvador and stayed in an area known as Pelourinho. The term “pelourinho” refers to a pillory or a public space with stocks where violent and humiliating punishment was meted out to enslaved Black people. Now, the pillory, of course, is inactive, since slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, but somehow the name still remains. The region’s brightly colored colonial façades, numerous tourism vendors, and literal dancing in the streets belie a bloody past. Today in Pelourinho, you can walk the steep, cobble stone

a screenshot from Michael Jackson's music video "They Don't Care About Us" as he performed with Olodum

A screenshot taken from Michael Jackson’s music video “They Don’t Care About Us” as he performs with Bahian musical group Olodum

landscape to visit the church where enslaved Africans and their descendants were allowed to worship, Igreja da Ordem Terceira de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos (Church of the Third Order of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People), taste foods prepared with palm oil, locally known as azeite de dendê, or visit with local artists whose vibrant productions bring new interpretations to a historic city. It was here that Michael Jackson filmed portions of his music video for “They Don’t Care About Us,” a song of political resistance, with hundreds of members of the local musical, largely percussionist, and Bahian group Olodum in the late 1990s. While Brazil’s history recounts a strict and normalized segregation of classes, as noted in places of worship in Pelourinho, President Lula’s inauguration made overt and intentional gestures towards inclusion, signaling that Brazil’s identity and aspirations towards equality went beyond the longstanding chromatocracy and overwhelming whiteness represented in its seats of power.

a photograph of Pelé

Afro-Brazilian soccer superstar Pelé

And this article would not justly represent Brazil if it didn’t mention, in some way, futebol and Afro-Brazilian soccer god Edson Arantes do Nascimento, otherwise and popularly known as “Pelé.” Often considered the best soccer player to walk the Earth, Pelé wowed crowds by winning three World Cups in the mid-20th century. His sports career was followed by political appointment and ambassadorship, and there is no proper history of soccer without the inclusion of Pelé. He was what our Michael Jordan has been to basketball, what our Tiger Woods has been to golf, and what our Serena Williams has been to tennis. At the end of the year on December 29, 2022, Pelé breathed his last. While some issues are more divisive than others, Pelé’s extraordinary athletic performance has often unified the Brazilian people and one of Jair Bolsonaro’s last directives as the sun set on his term was the declaration of three days of national mourning as Brazilians lamented the loss of one of its heroes.

You now have a handful of entry points for learning about Black Brazil and why President Lula’s rejection of old ways may be unsettling for practitioners of old paradigms. If you decide to venture south following the beats of bossa nova and samba or the calls of caipirinhas and cachaça, carry these useful phrases, pronunciations, and tips below with you as they are certain to open new doors for you as the new presidency will for its people.

Useful phrases (pronunciations) and translations

  • Bom dia! (bohm- jee-uh) Good morning!
  • Boa tarde! (bo-ah tah-jee) Good afternoon!
  • Boa noite! (bo-ah noy-chee) Good night!
  • Tudo bem? (too-doh behm) How’s it going?
  • O meu nome é… (o may-oo noh-mee eh) My name is…
  • Quanto custa? (kwan-toh kooshta) How much does this cost?
  • Estou perdido (eh-stow pehr-jee-doh) I’m lost (for men)
  • Estou perdida (eh-stow pehr-jee-dah) I’m lost (for women)
  • Disculpe (jee-skool-pee) Excuse me/ Sorry 
  • Pode me ajudar? (poh-jee mee ah-zhoo-dahr) Can you help me?
  • Obrigado (oh-bree-gah-doh) Thank you (for men)
  • Obrigada (oh-bree-gah-dah) Thank you (for women)

Top Travel Tips

  • Pack a change of clothes, including a few pairs of underwear, in your carry-on just in case the arrival of your luggage is delayed.
  • Make copies of your passport to carry with you wherever you go.
  • Secure your international calling plan for roaming and wifi in advance of your departure and download the Citymapper app, which is of great aid!
  • Purchase appropriate voltage converters for your electronics well in advance. They are a worthwhile investment for a lifetime. And remember your charging cables!
  • Be certain you have access to enough funds to purchase a new flight home in the event that you miss your originally planned itinerary.

 

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