Black Identity Is...
Updated: Jul 18
By: Tatianna Wilkins
What comes to mind when you think of Brazil? Carnaval? Brazilian waxes? Brazilian weave?
All these things have truth, but are not reflective of all that Brazil has to offer.
During my study abroad experience in South America, I learned that my identity would transform according to the languages I spoke. On my flight to Brazil, I met an Afro-Brazilian woman named Tathiane, who was traveling back to her home in Rio; she was leaving Peru from a conference she attended. I was curious to know about her because she was the only other Black woman on the flight. As we started talking a bit more, she explained that once I arrived in Brazil, everyone would think I am a "Brasilena." However, if I spoke Spanish, Brazilians would perceive me as being from another part of South America; speaking English would miraculously elevate my presence to an elite American with loads of money. The key thing I learned is that our identity is fragile if we give it to others to hold because we cannot control how we will be perceived.
Tathiane and I talked about the resilience that Black people have throughout the world. This resilience has afforded Black people the ability to overcome past and present events such as the middle passage, slavery, racial discrimination, and police brutality while still rising to become political figures, inventors, educators, writers, and world travelers. She recommended books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which shed light on the dark histories and paved steps to liberation from oppression. We talked about the power that technology has to change and influence the perceptions of what it means to be Black. Platforms such as Netflix and Instagram have created new mediums for positive representations of Black life. We also talked about the mythology of Racial Democracy or Racial Harmony, which is a way of masking the atrocious realities of the Black Experience. This ideology permeates the hearts of many Brazilians'; I see it as a pledge of ignorance to deny the difference of race and not address the inequalities attached to them. Sound familiar?
In our final days in Brazil, I spent it with Tathiane, exploring the "real" Rio de Janeiro. We tried traditional Afro-Brazilian cuisine like Feijoada and visited the historical zone port where Africans were imported into Brazil. A moment that stood out to me was meeting one of Tathiane's friends who was accompanied by three beautiful children.
The conversation sounded a little like this:
"They are Black women traveling from the United States. This is another one of my beautiful Black friends," Tathiane stated as she introduced me to the woman and her three children.
"No, I'm not Black. I'm Morena," the friend replied.
Morena refers to someone of lighter skin which is most likely due to a mixed-race ancestry. To me, it was a contradictory statement because her skin color was identical to mine. I recognized her Blackness as something that unified us; she saw her Blackness as a sickness or disease that she had to deny. All of her children were mixed race... I didn't think much of it until Tathiane told us that all three of her friends' children had different White fathers. This woman didn't want her children to live in this world as fully Black. The effects of this half-written narrative were evident at this moment.
This became one of the many experiences of how Afro-Brazilians rejected their Blackness. I quickly found out that being "Black and proud" wasn't a universal concept.
I remember walking around trying to connect with other Afro-Brazilians, but regardless of my quest for communication, I felt othered. Compared to interactions with other Black people, in the US, I didn't feel the same unity. In the US, it's easier, for me, to connect with other Black people I may not know. It's as if our Blackness is a defining and unifying thing. I believe this is due to our extensive history and the collective momentum of the civil rights movement. This experience made me appreciate Civil Rights Leaders like Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Back then, injustices against Black people sparked a movement towards equality, which still hasn't reached fruition. Despite this, there is a unity within Black communities that appreciates, values, and accepts all of the shades of Blackness that we reflect. There is power in our hues.
The absence of a civil rights movement was evident in Brazil. Looking at the different forms of slavery can give light to the present differences in Black Identity. Slavery in the United States was centered on a psychological separation of personal identity (segregation). While in South America, Africans lost their native identity through ethnic mixing (miscegenation). Both stories start on West Africa's shores; Africans were ripped from their homeland to work as slaves. I believe the defining characteristics of this part of Black identity are centered on the differing methods of slavery. By this, I mean the different forms of dehumanization and reconstruction of identity. In essence, race was weaponized, by the Europeans and Spaniards, and used as a means of control.
Places like Salvador, Brazil, received the most African slaves in the Americas and have the most prominent African population outside of the continent of Africa. According to the United States Census Bureau, Black people only make up 13.4% of the American population, while Afro-Brazilians make up more than half of the population. There should be power in numbers; yet, Afro-Brazilians have the numbers but not the power.
Despite the impression people may have of Brazil, racial issues still inhibit its ability to progress forward, and this can't go unnoticed. What stories of foreign places do you believe in? What hidden traumas are being suppressed in the pages of our history books? Why didn't I know that I had brothers and sisters in Brazil? Why was that narrative never told?
These are essential questions that make up Black identity. I believe that the fractured history lessons in the U.S. educational system help to perpetuate the hierarchical dominance of White superiority. A history teacher once told me that history is told from the winner's perspective. We are often taught this simplified narrative: the British came, there was Slavery, and Martin Luther King Jr. saved the day. Suppose I was never taught that Black people held prominent titles for inventions such as the traffic stop (Garrett Augustus Morgan), sent the first man into space (Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson), and rose to become the first female, self-made millionaire (Madam C.J. Walker). If these stories were not recounted, where would I find the courage to dream beyond an oppressive mindset of inferiority?
There is power in numbers. We, as Black people, have the numbers, but not the awareness. I hope this piece gives you some awareness of the presence of Black people worldwide. We might not see it, but it's there.
One thing I also hope you take away is that people will identify/label you as they see you.
But how will you define yourself?
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Mariane, Tathiane and Kiki, Favelas in Rio.
Mural of Black Life, Rio de Janeiro.