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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.

  • Jan 27 2021
  • Djamila Ribeiro
    Djamila Taís Ribeiro dos Santos is a Brazilian Black feminist philosopher and journalist.

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".

 



  • FOOTNOTES
    (1) Lélia Gonzalez, Revista Ciências Sociais Hoje [Social Science Today Review] (Brasília: Anpocs, 1984), 224. 

    (2) Gonzalez.  

    (3) Gonzalez, 70. 

    (4) Dieties of Yoruban influence that typically act as intermediaries between humans and the supreme being.

    (5) In the simplest terms, Candomblé was brought to Brazil through enslaved black Africans. The religion has  undergone adaptations and is considered an Afro-Brazilian religion. Umbanda, on the other hand, is a properly  Brazilian religion, in which one finds the syncretism of Candomblé with Catholicism and Spiritism.

    (6) Sueli Carneiro and Cristiane Abdon Cury, “O Poder Feminino no Culto aos Orixás” [The female power in  the cult of the Orixás], Caldernos Geledés 4: Mulher Negra (November 1993): 17–32.

    (7) Carneiro and Cury.  

    (8) Carneiro and Cury. 

    (9) Pombagira in the translation of Canbomblé is an orixá of communication, of the crossroads.

    (10) Quilombos are communities formed by the progeny of enslaved people who fled the plantations and settled  in those communities. Historically, they were persecuted and still fight the Brazilian state for the title to their  lands. The most notorious of the quilombos was the Quilombo dos Palmares, which had tens of thousands  of people and was a strong force of resistance against the Portuguese crown for almost a hundred years  (1605–94). 

    (11) The Quinzena do Negro was an influential conference organized by researcher Eduardo Oliveira e Oliveria  that promoted discussions, reflections, and debates at a large meeting of black researchers.

    (12) The Black militancy movement (Movimento Negro Unificado (MNU)).

    (13) Gonzalez, Revista Ciências Sociais Hoje, 225. 

    (14) Luiza Bairros,“Nossos Feminismos Revisitados. Revista Estudos Feministas” [Our feminisms revisited. In  Feminist Studies review], Florianópolis, 3, no. 2 (1995): 458–463, here 461. Luiza Bairros, who held a Master in  Social Sciences from the Federal University of Bahia and a PhD in Sociology from the University of  Michigan, was a historic black Brazilian feminist and public policy maker who transformed the lives of many  people as Chief Minister of the Brazilian Secretariat for Policies to Promote Racial Equality between 2011 and  2014. She passed away in July 2016 at the age of 63.

    (15) Sueli Carneiro, “Enegrecer o feminismo: a situação da mulher negra na América Latina a partir de uma  perspectiva de gênero” [Blackening feminism: The situation of black women in Latin America from a gender  perspective], in Racismos contemporâneos [Contemporary racisms], ed. Ashoka Social Entrepreneurship and  Takano Citizenship (Rio de Janeiro: Takano Editora, 2003), 50–51.

    (16) Carneiro, “Enegrecer o feminism,” 50.

    (17) Ana Angélica Sebastião, “Feminismo negro e suas práticas no campo da cultura” [Black feminism and its  practices in the cultural field], Revista da Associação Brasileira de Pesquisadores/as Negros/as (ABPN), 1, no. 1,  (Mar/Jun. 2010): 64–77, here 66.  

    (18) Here we define militant black women as representing the intersectionality of gender and race in the  production of contemporary identities.

    (19) Carneiro, “Enegrecer o feminism.”

    (20) Bairros,“Nossos Feminismos Revisitados.”

    (21) Guacira Lopes Louro, Gênero, sexualidade e educação: uma perspectiva pós-estruturalista [Gender, sexuality and education: a post-structuralist perspective], 7th ed. (Petrópolis: Vozes, 2004), 146.


    IMAGE CREDITS

    Patricia Domínguez, Eyes of Plants, 2019, video still, courtesy of the artist

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