Everybody Has a Black Grandmother: Back in the Land of Magic and Mestiçagem

Leia esta historia em português.

t is so good to be back.” I think to myself as I stride briskly out of the airport into the sultry early morning heat and duck into a waiting Uber. I feel like an old hand at this. It is my third time in Brazil and my second in the city of Recife, Pernambuco. I came here almost a year ago for the carnaval of Olinda, the historic city that has stood on Brazil’s Atlantic Coast since 1535. It was the the only time in my life words failed me. To describe the magic of Brazil’s carnaval pernambucano is far beyond my talents as a writer and I won’t attempt that here. Suffice it to say it made me anxious to return. My Portuguese slips on like a comfy regularly worn t-shirt and I ask the driver where I can go shopping for fantasias I will wear over the next few days. The carnaval is an otherworldly affair, and I will certainly not be attending as merely myself.

Speeding away, I look back at the airport. ‘GILBERTO FREYRE ’, it says in big green letters. The name rings a bell. I did not know the airport was named for the renowned anthropologist and sociologist. Apparently he was born and died here in this city. His best-known work, Casa-Grande e Senzala, translates roughly to The Master House and the Slave Quarters, and has been considered a seminal work on the formation of Brazilian society since it was published in 1933. I must confess that I’ve never read the thing, although I’m familiar with the gist. In it, he praised Brazil as a racial democracy and extolled the virtue of the miscegenation that characterized Brazilian society long since its days as a vast extractive colony of Portugal, a destination for that country’s undesirables — its thieves and murderers, and for the captives of wars and slave raids in West Africa.

“Every Brazilian, even the light skinned fair haired one carries about him on his soul, when not on soul and body alike, the shadow or at least the birthmark of the aborigine or the negro, in our affections, our excessive mimicry, our Catholicism which so delights the senses, our music, our gait, our speech, our cradle songs, in everything that is a sincere expression of our lives, we almost all of us bear the mark of that influence.” -Casa Grande e Senzala

The first time I set foot in Brazil, I was a brash and cocky 25-year old armed with a year of study of Portuguese, a superficial knowledge of the country and a veritable excitement for baile funk parties. As I travel up and down the coast of the country over a 5-week period, I grew hopelessly infatuated of its music, its culture, its language. And at the same time, an uneasy feeling arose that something was not quite right in a way that I could not understand and that this place was unlike any other I’d ever been before.

As I partied with its well-to-do citizens in beach towns in which I was usually the only black person not working, I sensed from observation that to look like me in this country was very obviously to belong to a lower caste.

I went back to my first Brazilian friend, a mixed-race woman I met in New York. “Do you think there is racism here in Brazil?”

Brazil? Here? Are you crazy? Everybody is equal.

The more I tried to understand, the less I did. When a mixed-race man I befriended in Sao Paulo complained to me about the Workers’ Party instituting policies that “let in unqualified black students into universities”, I asked him, “But Julio, aren’t you black?”

He blocked me on both Instagram and Facebook. I’ve been unfollowed on Instagram a few times in my life, sure. But you really have to really hate someone to block them on Facebook. What is in the water down here, that a guy that looks black feels insulted when you tell him so?

I became obsessed with the topic, reading and conducting interviews with anyone who would talk to me. What I learned disturbed me. I learned of a country that was the last to abolish slavery, whose elite had determined that the way to erase the country of its black character, was to pay for poor European peasants to migrate into the country en masse, and to encourage them to mix with the locals, in order for “superior” European genes to dominate and absorb the Negro. And so that population of unique-looking racially indeterminate people that fascinated me so much was not the product of some utopian color-blindness, but of a desire instilled in successive generations, to whiten their bloodlines and “improve the race”. This desire had resulted in the lack of an African identity and a rejection of blackness, in country that benefits so much from African culture.

The Traditional Brazilian Family (whitened through the ages)

ow 2 years since that first time, I’m here once again. It’s the first night of carnaval. I pull on a red hooded cape and head into the streets of Olinda. It’s full of people, young and old, visitors and locals making merry and enabling the merriment. And maybe it’s just me, but something feels different. Are there more Afros and dreadlocks and braids on display? Or am I just on the lookout for them?

“By natural selection […] white kind will take predominance until it shows itself pure and beautiful as in the old world”- Silvio Romero

I think about these words from some fancy shmancy Brazilian intellectual from back in the day that I read somewhere and chuckle to myself. It’s certainly beautiful, but not like in the old world. Sorry, Silvio. I take it all in while feeding myself a steady stream of Skol. I end up in conversation with a musician-looking type with hair piled high on his head like a bun.

“I’m Nigerian.”

“I love your music!”

Huh. Well, that’s new. Brazilians don’t even seem to listen to American music, let alone Nigerian music. And they certainly don’t usually know anything about Africa.

I befriend his friends. Rafael. Bia. Natalia. They are political intellectual from the capital, Brasilia. “We like Lula.”, Rafael tells me. “Lula Livre!” I respond, making an L sign with my thumb and index.

“Welcome to Brazil!” Rafael bellows. I have passed the test. In polarized times such as these, one doesn’t make friends without establishing that you’re not some right-wing escroto. “Voce votou em quem?” ask several signs and costumes I observe. Who did you vote for?

We like Lula

Throughout the week, the sense I have of a more alert social consciousness gets stronger. The topic of race and racism is on the lips of every person I meet, new friend or old, white and carioca, pardo and nordestino, Uber drivers and street vendors selling me beer.

“We’re too mixed. Everybody has a black grandmother.”a black girl I just met named Madara tells me, as she glides smoothly alongside me and her friends away from the house we’re sharing and towards the town center. I ask her to elaborate. “This miscegenation is just another dimension of white domination of everything, including black bodies. Miscegenation began in Brazil though constant rape of black women. And then there was a plan to whiten the Brazilian population, so that each next generation could be whiter than the next and Brazil would be rid of black population. And because of this process of whitening, many people who are not dark-skinned don’t consider themselves black….the question of colorism here is another delicate topic…”

I nod knowingly. I don’t tell her this, but I was in fact pleasantly surprised when I met her. Especially in the northeast, I rarely meet Brazilians who look exactly like me, an African. Many here despite being considered black still seem to have at least a little visible indigenous or European admixture. I also think about all the Brazilians I know, many of whom mention in passing that they had a grandmother who look like me, and that almost without exception always have partners and children whiter than they are, an observation that calls to mind that vomit-inducing Modesto Broncos painting and that I’ve never known what to do with.

Later, I go to visit my friend Amanda at her boyfriend’s house. “My grandmother was very racist. She told us we had to only have relations with whites because blacks were not people.” my friend Amanda tells me and Max , who is black. She also told me a couple days ago that her grandmother was black. Same grandmother? Different grandmother? Who knows? It’s Brazil. Later I ask her for the full story. “I have a black grandmother I didn’t know. My other grandmother was born in 1918. Her husband was born in 1886. Two years before the abolition . He was born into a family of slave-owners and was raised by an enslaved woman. And so I think my grandmother drank deep from that fountain. We tried our best to correct her when she said such things, but she was very set in her ways.”

I ask another woman in the house about her unusual German-sounding last name. “I think my great-grandmother was a prostitute at the docks and my great-grandfather was a German sailor.” , she tells me matter-of-factly. I take her in, loose brown curls, light-colored eyes, wide nose and dark brown skin. She is at once African and European and none of those things. She’s Brazilian. This is the story of this country. Beautiful people, sordid histories.

I spot the iconic 2018 World Cup Nigerian football jersey a couple of times. “You know what that means?” I tell my friend Kali. “We’re entering your consciousness”. She introduces me to a friend.

“Eu sou nigeriano.”

“Ah! Eu amo! O povo Yoruba!”

It is different.

ix days later, I’m in the throes of both a fever and a hangover and a strong sense of moral guilt. There was a time when I could party six days in a row without batting an eye, and it seems those days are behind me. Bia invites me to join her and her friends in Porto de Galinhas, a touristy beach town an hour away. I think the name is pretty. Someone explains when I get there that in the period after the British abolished slavery and its navy patrolled the Atlantic, the slavers would claim their ships were bringing in chickens to port and certainly not enslaved people, and so the place became known by that moniker, the ‘Port of Chickens’. Till today, the Brazilians have an expression “pra ingles ver“ do it for the English to see” — to describe the act of pretending to do something you’ve promised to do but aren’t doing, or doing something only in theory, like ending the importation of slaves. Of course during this time, the British anti-slavery squadron was patrolling the waters on the other side of this ocean, off the coast of the city where I was born, trying and sometimes failing to intercept the slave ships. In the end, they decided to intervene and bombarded Lagos, deposing the pro-slave trade king and installing a puppet king who promised to end it. It was the first step in creating the country that came to be known as Nigeria and it is the reason I speak English natively. My country and this one are linked far more deeply than most of our people on both sides of the Atlantic even know.

I spend the next three days in recovery, on picturesque beaches and natural pools, hanging out with this group of politically active young people from Brasilia. With the exception of Rafael, they are all younger than me.They are constantly in conversation with each other, about all things serious and trivial, laughing, joking, bickering, as good friends do. They speak so fast and it’s a struggle to follow the conversation when I’m not directly being addressed. I start to punctuate my sentences the same way they do with mano, velho, ta ligado?, which I think makes me sound hip like them, but probably sounds ridiculous coming from a gringo. I notice they use the diminutive form of many words. bem quentinha, very hot. bem geladinha, very cold. I’m starting to think in Portuguese. Thinking about it, it’s been a week since I last spoke English.

In addition to the advanced course in Portuguese, I have also enrolled in class about Brazilian politics and society. Rafael, a political scientist working in the capital for the country’s main left-wing opposition party, educates me on the many inscrutable aspects of Brazilian politics. The unholy alliance between corrupt politicians, prosperity-gospel preaching evangelists, foreign right -wing influences, fake news purveyors, international capital seeking cheap assets via privatization schemes, urban militias — paramilitary organizations usually made up of ex-policemen that carry out vigilante activities against drug gangs while doing their own share of drug trafficking and organized crime. These are just some of the villains in a saga that has left Brazil a violent, economically stagnant, culturally divided, politically fractured mess that makes the USA look like Utopia, and headed by an even more cartoonish, incompetent, racist and misogynist right-wing demagogue.

I watched Democracia em Vertigem, I tell him. But I still don’t get it. How did a country that pulled millions out of poverty under Lula decide to swing so far in the opposite direction? He explains some of the social forces at play, including the powerful evangelical base, the deliberate flooding of fake news into the phones of the electorate via WhatsApp, and a peculiar feature of Brazilian society whereby the old middle class resents the improved status of the newer less white middle class, as typified by comments complaining that airports now look like bus stations because so many poor people are now able to afford flights. Despite the unique peculiarities, I’m struck by how similar the right-wing resurgence here has in common with the one in the country I live.

Bia tells me about research she’s about to begin on the effect of World Bank policies on the education of the Brazilian citizen. As everyone knows, she tells me (and I realize I only learnt this recently), the debt crises of the 1980s and 1990s allowed the multilateral organizations like the World Bank and the IMF to demand structural reforms in the African and Latin American debtor countries. Thus, education in Brazil has been gutted, reduced to basic mathematics and Portuguese.

“Why?” I ask. “Why do they want this?”

“To create a different kind of workforce. Cheap low-wage labor for the international market.”

I remember that 2 months ago, I was in a small village in southern Senegal, on the other side of this ocean, talking to a Russian man about this.

We talk about race and racism a lot. I have read so many books about it. And I have certainly observed it and felt its presence in my time in the country. But I don’t truly understand it the way I understand its American variant. We discuss the differences in the formation of the two societies post-slavery. In America, the racist desire to maintain white “purity” led to a separation of the two. The violence beginning with the Civil War made it so there were two separate societies, in conflict, one oppressing the other, but it made it easier to organize and fight.

Here on the other hand, the sinister plan for absorption failed to get rid of black people as intended, but it did create this mass of African-descended people, who differ vastly in physical characteristics, and also have claim to European and indigenous ancestry. Therefore, the racism is more phenotypical, less rooted in culture. There is little distinct mainstream culture that can be said to be exclusive to Afro-Brazil. Their cultural contributions have been claimed by the nation as a whole. As a matter of fact, there is no Afro-Brazilian community. This is what Gilberto Freyre acheived, in sanitizing the sordid colonial slave past and conjuring a compelling narrative for a nation in an identity crisis to believe about itself. This left no room for any other identity than “Brazilian” and allowed the country to pretend for so long that all was well there was no such thing as racism. This has made it impossible to organize and mobilize the African-descendant population, as race is fluid and many yearn to escape the confines of being part of the oppressed and stigmatized race. Straight enough hair, less African features, and with enough money, you get to call yourself whatever you want and polite society will play along.

Is the solution the increased Americanization of the country’s racial thought? To move towards the black/white binary? According to Rafael, the black activist set seems to think so. There is a small but growing movement in the country of black men and women choosing to identify as such and even take African names from Nigeria or Congo. Interestingly enough, there are thinkers (usually mixed-race) in the USA that lament the hard binary of the USA and would probably feel more at ease in the fluid Brazilian system. I don’t know what the answer is. But I think that the more people learn history and how they got to where they are, the more they can critically examine the narratives they’ve been fed. And so I too share the knowledge I have about where I come from and the linkage to their country. I share my knowledge of Yorubaland in the 19th century, the time of the wars that supplied the slave ships. This is knowledge I have only recently acquired as I sought to understand the conditions that led to this travesty.

By the time I leave, my immersion in Brazilian culture is so thorough, my friends even took the time to explain the common memes and viral videos all Brazilians of a certain age are familiar with. This is the most Brazilian I’ve ever been. I will probably never fully understand this country like a native, but I will always come back, improving my Portuguese, meeting new people who give me faith by rejecting the values of a racist society, and improving that understanding.

On the morning of my departure, I go to the bus station to wait for a bus to the airport. An ancient-looking woman is sitting with a walker and I sit next to her.

“There is an Angolan who came last week. ” She tells me, mentioning that he sells something or the other.

I shrug warily. E dai? What does that have to do with me?

“Well, the skin color”. She points to my arm.

I shrug again, reminding myself not to be rude to old ladies.

She shuffles off slowly to catch her bus. It is what it is.

I think back to what someone told me at some point in this trip, when I ask her how she feels about her country.

“I love Brazil, despite Bolsonaro, despite the racist policy since colonization, despite genocide and machismo. I love Brazil because governments come and go and try to knock us down, but our people continue to construct our history. Every carnaval, the most oppressed people shine and demonstrate their brilliance. The true carnaval is made by the blacks, the poor, the women.”

Me too, I said, me too.

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