Travelogue: My Journey through Brazil and Wakanda and how I became too woke to sleep
This is a long story about travelling. Travelling in many senses of the word. Travelling and learning. First through the very real country of Brazil, and then through the very fictional country of Wakanda, and how I acquired a consciousness that has not let go of me ever since.
First of all, introductions. I am a Nigerian man. I was born in the city of Lagos in southwestern Nigeria some 25-odd years ago. Perhaps more specifically, I’m a Yoruba man. That means I speak the Yoruba language. I was born in Yorubaland, where Yoruba-speaking people have lived for thousands of years. “Nigeria” is just a geopolitical entity created by the British and negotiated for with the French some 150 or so years ago when the Europeans were running around Africa doing stuff.
From this, you might surmise that I’m black. For the first 16 years of my life, I didn’t realize this. In Nigeria, where virtually all 200 million of us have dark skin, it was never a useful marker of anything. No one thinks of themselves as black. That’s like you identifying as Homo sapiens. Well, duh. We think of ourselves as Yoruba, Igbo, or Hausa. Or as Nigerian, when people abroad ask us where we’re from. However, living in the USA would change that. Living in the USA would teach me pretty quickly that I was black. And that it meant something. I have lived in the United States for almost 10 years now. Sometime after university and getting intimately acquainted with the peculiar beast that is American racism (of which I think there’s a plethora of reading material on the Internet), I decided the USA was just one country among many and that it was time to go check out some other places. I devoted all my energies to traveling and haven’t looked back since. #blessed.
I have traveled somewhat extensively in a few countries now, and I have learnt that one’s experience of a place will be filtered through one’s identity and appearance. For the most part, this wasn’t that big a deal. People in Istanbul asked to take pictures with me like I was Jay-Z, people found me exotic and attractive in Australia, and I could always walk into any bar alone in Mexico and leave with 5 new best friends (Love you Mexico). All stuff I was cool with. The converse could also be the case. Every now and then, I’d meet a prejudiced person or someone oblivious as to the ignorance of their worldview. In Bogotá, Colombia, cops would routinely single me out and ask me for identification and then smile obsequiously once I presented an American passport. Again, all things I could handle.
However, when I decided that I was going to spend 5 weeks in Brazil at the end of 2017, I had no apprehensions. The land of carnaval and samba. As a reasonably well-read person, I was aware of its colonial and slave past. Fun fact: Brazil imported 10x the number of slaves (5,000,000) than the United States (500,000). Yeah. Fun. Brazil is home to the 2nd largest black population in the world, after, you guessed it, Nigeria. I was also aware of the large scale of miscegenation in the country, and that the majority of people claimed indigenous, African and European ancestry. I wasn’t naïve enough to expect a ‘racial democracy’ as is commonly advertised, but I imagined something more harmonious than the USA, where the lines between black and white were blurred much unlike the USA, and so it was harder to discriminate and where everyone knew how to dance and got along. So I spent a year or so learning Portuguese, applied for a visa and found myself on a plane to Rio de Janeiro. 5 weeks later, I spoke fantastic Portuguese, I had learnt how to dance samba, been introduced to some fantastic Brazilian music, met amazing Brazilians and people of other nationalities and done some of the wildest partying I’ve ever done. Everything I expected. What I didn’t expect was to acquire a more expansive consciousness of what exactly my skin color meant, and the feeling of enormous relief when I got back to the USA, that I lived there and not in Brazil as a black man. I guess what I’m saying is, I think Brazil makes the USA look like a progressive paradise for black people. Which is saying something.
Again, I think it’s important to emphasize that I mostly enjoyed myself in the country. The anecdotes I’m about to relate are more of an observation of the society I was trying to immerse myself in, and less of a recollection of negative experiences I suffered. As I made my way from town to town and city to city in Brazil, it took some time for me to begin to notice the things I’m about to relate. The first real place in which I started to notice something was amiss on the town of Jericoacoara, a vacation town on the Northeastern coast. It’s more of a village than a town, with unpaved roads and sand everywhere, more horses than cars, the most pristine dunes, and amazing sunsets. Most people appeared to be well-off Brazilians vacationing for the Christmas holidays, plus the usual European/Argentinian traveler set.
There was a different party every night and I started to notice that the only black people I saw at these nightly parties were staff. This is not damning in and of itself and I noted this fact with a figurative shrug. However, I started to get a creeping feeling of unease, of invisibility. I would go partying for hours and at the end of the night, realize I had not managed to hold a meaningful conversation with any of my fellow vacationers (aside from the group of mostly foreigners I’d met in my hostel). As something of a veteran traveler, striking up conversations with strangers is an art I have honed to perfection yet for some reason, I found it extremely difficult to do so here. Most attempts at striking up conversations with a lot of the bougie Brazilian women were met with a mixture of pointed rudeness and dismissal that bruised my heretofore healthy ego. In short, I felt invisible. I was forced to consider the fact that most people who look like me in Brazil are of a decidedly lower socio-economic status than their “white” or even mixed-race counterparts and were more likely to be staff in the bars and clubs we frequented than patrons. I wondered if that had something to do with why I suddenly found myself in this quite novel position of being a wallflower at parties. I’m usually the life of the party. After 5 or 6 days, I packed up and left Jericoacoara, relieved to move on and still trying to process my experiences.
My feeling of unease would only begin to deepen as I spent time in Brazilian cities, and began to talk to Brazilians about their country. In Salvador, Bahia famous for a picturesque old city built by slaves and famously known as the capital of Afro-Brazil, I observed the dilapidated nature of the larger modern city, the numerous poverty-stricken panhandlers and hucksters on the streets. I smiled politely at glib comments from European tourists about how beautiful the old city was and how “the slaves really did a great job”. And I looked at the beautiful blue water and thought about how those slaves that came piled on top of each other in the bottom of boats came from my country and spoke a language I speak. This did not require a feat of imagination of my part. Their descendants dress in pretty much the same fashions as we do across the ocean in Nigeria (when we’re not dressed in the western fashion). Some of them worship deities that I learned about as a youth in history class in school, because in Nigeria we gave those deities up for Jesus Christ and Mohammed and they are now largely relegated to our history books. The Yoruba orishas (gods) — Shango (the god of thunder), Ogun (the god of war), Eshu (the trickster god), and Yemoja (goddess of the ocean) are the ‘orixas’ Xango, Ogun, Exu and Iemaja respectively. I learned from speaking with their present-day adherents in Brazil how they are persecuted by Brazil’s majority Christian faiths (Catholic and evangelical). I ate acarajé, better known as akara on the other side of the Atlantic and are staple breakfast food for us. As I said in a social media post about my experience there, I was so struck by the cruel and arbitrary luck that I happened to be born in 1992 and not in 1692, otherwise I might have arrived in Salvador in a very different manner than I did. Needless to say, I was in a solemn mood for most of my time in that particular city.
Crime is ubiquitous in Rio. You’re always hearing about it, and it seems to have a color when people speak about it. On my first day in Rio de Janeiro, a Dutch tourist advised me to “watch out for the Africans. They’re the poorest people here and they do all the crime”. I pointed at all the black people queuing with us for entrance into the samba club and asked him which ones he was afraid of. A Russian friend got her phone snatched on New Years’ Eve by a “very dark-skinned boy”. The effect of all of this was an increasingly strong realization that my dark skin defined me as a potential threat to strangers here, a feeling I had long forgotten since an unfortunate stretch of time I spent in the middle of Virginia for university. I noticed the split-second tensing of a strangers’ face muscles when I walked up to ask for directions in São Paulo, and the immediate relaxation of those muscles when I spoke Portuguese with a gringo accent. Even the few middle-class-appearing black/mixed people I saw in the trendy neighborhood in Sao Paulo where I was staying tended to meet my gaze a few seconds too long as if questioning what someone with such undiluted West African features was doing on this side of town, outside of the favelas. I understand that this is conjecture on my part of what they were thinking, but that’s just one familiar effect of racism. You become hyper-aware of your person and your interactions with others, questioning people’s motives when you’re in spaces where you’re the only one. The only dark-skinned black people in the bars/restaurants I frequented tended to be wait staff, bouncers, and cleaners.
Of course, having lived in the USA for so long, none of these experiences were completely novel. The reason I wrestled so much with what I was experiencing was because of yet how different Brazil was from the United States on the subject of race, yet so similar, and in some cases, more extreme. When I observed groups of friends’ socializing in public spaces, there was simply more mixture between black-looking people and white-looking people. In the US, in my experience, multi-ethnic social gatherings tend to be work-related. Social segregation is very much the norm. Black people have black friends, live in different neighborhoods (even when they are affluent), go to different bars, and have a different culture from white people. They even speak the language differently. This simply isn’t the case in Brazil. Segregation by choice did not appear to be a thing.
When I observed Brazilian families as well, the picture was so completely different to the USA so as to feel other-worldly. Brazilian families are truly United Colors of Benneton. Features-wise, everyone is on a different point on the black-white spectrum. In the same family, one person might be very dark-skinned, their partner freckled and red-headed, their children all mixing and matching between both features. This is what the average Brazilian family that I observed looked. It might even fool you into thinking you were in some truly color-blind utopia. After all, if they are inter-marrying, they can’t possibly be racist right? Yet, when I watched Brazilian television, the soap operas that are very popular there, and even newscasts, I might as well have been in Portugal. I saw virtually no black people in the soaps, except in clearly tertiary roles where you saw the back of their heads rather than their faces (the driver, the maid, the cashier). There were no black news anchors, reporters or weathermen. My research showed that this was reflected in real-life as well. There are hardly any black doctors, lawyers, or politicians. In short, I learnt that Brazil had no visible black middle-class.
So as a curious person, I did some research to try to resolve these contradictions for myself. And what I found was equal parts fascinating and troubling. As I’ve established, Brazil imported 5 million (!) slaves into the country from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Brazil was also the last country in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery (only finally getting around to it in 1888!). Ever since colonial times, the Portuguese colonists had less of a compunction about having children with black concubines than did their British counterparts in North America. Once slavery was abolished, the elites looked around at their significant black population and were unhappy. They were unhappy with having a country with such a large number of people of an “inferior race”. Their solution to this was the policy of branquemento or whitening, an ideology that encouraged racial mixing, not as a result of belief in equality but for the purpose of literally breeding out the black. Here’s what a Brazilian statesman told Theodore Roosevelt, comparing the United States and Brazil at the time:
“Now comes the necessity to devise some method of dealing with it [the Negro problem]. You of the United States are keeping the blacks as an entirely separate element, and you are not treating them in a way that fosters their self-respect. They will remain a menacing element in your civilization, permanent, and perhaps even after a while a growing element. With us, the question tends to disappear, because the blacks themselves tend to disappear and become absorbed…”
The Brazilian elite deployed a considerable propaganda effort to this ideology, promoting the myth of a harmonious “racial democracy” (their words) where whites provided industriousness and rationality and blacks provided sensuality and happiness to make a great nation. Black culture became Brazilian culture, with samba becoming Brazilian music and dance and capoeira becoming a Brazil art form. Even the Brazilian national foods are African in origin. Here’s one such example of such propaganda:
In a perverse way, it’s hard to argue with the brilliance of this strategy. Brazil never had Jim Crow and racism was never codified into law. There were no segregated schools, fountains or buses. There were no violent lynchings of black men for consorting with white women. There was no one-drop rule. Instead, your race was down to your phenotypical features and class. What this produced was a racial hierarchy without the strife and the violence. White was clearly on top, black was clearly on the bottom. If you kept marrying whiter or lighter-skinned, you could “improve the bloodline” and enjoy the benefits of whiteness. How perfect. As a result, there was no civil rights movement, no Black power movement, and no “Black is Beautiful” movement. Brazil could point to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries and say, “we’re not like them. We all get along here. We’re all happy and dance the samba. There is no such thing as racism here”. Yet 130 years later, when you look at the data, in all indicators (wealth, health, education, income levels given the same levels of education, life expectancy), the gap between black and white is far starker than anything you might observe looking at similar data in the United States. It should be noted that Brazil is a poorer country that stagnated under a military dictatorship for many years (factors which no doubt have some bearing on these things).
I got a sense from my conversations with educated black Brazilians that this is starting to change and there is an increased activism among the more educated millennial population. I also found it interesting that the majority of Brazilians I brought this subject up with (black and white and everything in between) readily admitted that their country is very racist. These Brazilians mentioned that their universities and workplaces were virtually free of any black people. They mentioned how routinely the police harassed their siblings who were unlucky enough to be darker-skinned or have a more African phenotype. However, these Brazilians tended to be well-educated, well-traveled and English-speaking. It occurred to me that anyone who visited the United States or even the United Kingdom would realize how dismal Brazil must be for black people comparatively. For all the problems the U.S has, it has a visible black middle class, more representation of black people in positive roles in media, a vocal tradition of civil rights advocacy and more black success stories. There is no Brazilian equivalent of Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, or even Ben Carson. Not only do these not exist, I think most Brazilians would hardly be able to imagine it. Brazil to me seemed in some respects to what the USA must have been like in the 1970s, with ostensible equality between both races in the letter of the law, yet quite obvious social and economic inequality with a feeble black middle-class, tensions simmering between the surface (Brazil’s politics are a righteous mess that are a topic for another day), hardly any black luminaries accepted by mainstream society except in the realm of sports (soccer in Brazil’s case), and only the beginnings of a black solidarity movement.
Until recently, most Brazilians minimized their sometimes visible Black ancestry, preferring to attribute their color to an indigenous heritage. A lot of “white” people in Brazil would not be considered so in the United States. Black ancestry seems a dirty secret that people are ashamed of. When I introduced myself to an older white Brazilian man as African, he passionately rubbed his skin and told me he was also African. He said “We all have some African in us in Brazil but we don’t like to talk about it”. He told me that when he was younger he was black-looking, which caused him a lot of trouble with the police. And that as he got older he slowly whitened. I was quite interested in what he meant but the other mixed-race Brazilian girl in the conversation was less interested in this line of conversation and promptly excused herself. My own direct observation of the unabashed preference for fair-skinned and fair-haired people among Brazilians in the bars and clubs I frequented also seemed to corroborate the theory I had that the desire to “improve the race” must still persist to this day in some form. I was struck by how racism and its legacy could manifest itself in such different ways in two different countries with a similar past. In the US, one drop of black blood makes you black. Society doesn’t care how you feel about it and there’s little you can do to change it. In Brazil, you just have to marry whiter, and you can get some social mobility. I learnt that successful Brazilian black men almost always marry white women of lower socio-economic status, trading their wealth for increased social standing for their progeny. No wonder it’s difficult for a black solidarity movement to gain traction, when blackness is a condition that can be escaped.
I spent about a month or so after my return struggling to come to terms with my experience of Brazil. I loved the language, the music and the culture of the country. When I listened to samba and maracatu, those African rhythms spoke to something deep inside me in a way that hip-hop or even Afrobeat could never. And I had made several wonderful Brazilian friends with whom I continued to exchange correspondence. But a part of me hated the society I observed. Not only because of everything I had learned about its racial history but honestly because as much as I hated to admit it, my self-confidence took a hit in Brazil. I felt less interesting, less attractive, more subdued than I had been in a long time. At the urging of several friends, I began to write this essay. The breakthrough in my intellectual struggle would come with the coincidental release of Marvel’s Black Panther, a fantastic movie that I saw twice in a row. The movie deserves its own essay, but it’s basic premise is a battle between an isolationist African king = who feels no kinship to the African diaspora around the world, or even on the continent, and an African-American whose experiences of racism and subjugation had fueled him with such rage that he dedicated himself wholly to the goal of launching a bloody pan-African revolution.
Watching this spectacle when I did was the final piece of the puzzle. All of a sudden I saw myself in the hero and villain. I had grown up privileged and sheltered in Lagos, Nigeria. I was a curious kid and I studied the history of American racism in a dispassionate academic way. Like a lot of African immigrants, I felt little kinship with African-Americans when I arrived in the USA at age 16 and probably bought into some of the many prejudices from which they suffered. Ten years later, I had completed a thorough immersion in the culture of American racism, and my feelings had largely calcified towards its adherents, as I saw it. However, I think I still thought of racism as a peculiar American institution, like the NRA or the Golden Corral. That would change as I traveled more. The first scene featuring the villain in Black Panther takes place in the British Museum, where he sneeringly inquires as to how the British came by brass masks from 7th century Benin. That scene was one out of my own life. I visited the British Museum in 2015 and saw the brass and bronze treasures of Yorubaland and Edo displayed and walked around entire floors devoted to India and Egypt and I remember thinking, “Wow, they should call this museum the Museum of Shit We Stole”.
Brazil was the tipping point for my pan-African consciousness. I have thought long and hard about what I learned in Brazil. And here it is: We live in a world based on a lie, the lie of white supremacy. One might think the racial hierarchy has always been that way, but some studying reveals it’s a relatively recent fiction. It only began some 500 years ago, when Europeans built and funded ships to go searching for knowledge and riches. Economic expediency and the cold exigencies of demand and supply led to one of the greatest evils that mankind has perpetuated against itself. For hundreds of years, ships filled tightly with Africans stacked on top of each other like sardines in can departed from Badagry and Cape Coast and Gorée Island and landed all over the “New World”. The labor provided by those slaves enriched Europeans beyond measure. To justify the unbelievable cruelty of all this, they deployed Christianity and science. They said their God ordained it so. They came up with junk science about skull shapes and its relation to intelligence. Out of all this came the racial hierarchy we live with today. We live with it everywhere. In Africa, where we jettisoned our gods for the Christian God thanks to the British missionaries, and where we live in countries whose arbitrarily-drawn borders encourage ethnic strife , and in Brazil and Cuba where our far-flung cousins hold onto those gods as a last lifeline to a culture they are forever separated from by time and by an ocean, and in the United States where they forged a new and resilient culture that defiantly withstood all manner of state-sponsored and cultural violence and continues to thrive. The history of the world is far longer than any one person’s lifespan, and so the story is not over yet. I can only hope that 500 or 1000 years from now, through a collective force of will that spans continents and lifetimes, we may have solidly refuted the grand lie that was perpetuated 500 years ago. Until then however, all I can do is to continue to live my truth unapologetically as a living counterexample to that lie. I guess this is the story of how I became a pan-Africanist.