Smiling in the Park

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There’s an adage about a hummingbird that was carrying a droplet of water in its beak, heading towards a forest fire. Asked what it thought it could do to put out the blaze with such a small contribution, it replied (presumably without dropping the droplet): “I’m just doing my bit”.

I’ve always loved that story, and I thought of it this morning as I was jogging through Summerfield Park in Birmingham, smiling at passers-by and saying “Good morning” to anyone who smiled back.

In Salvador, Bahia, the Brazilian city where I lived for nearly 30 years and still have close family, it is customary to say “Bom dia” to people one meets in the morning – indeed, all day long. It may hark back to African traditions, which are still strongly present in that city’s culture. Certainly, it is a Yoruba custom to greet people in the morning by saying “E kaaro”.

In Birmingham’s Summerfield Park, I make a point of smiling and greeting everyone I meet, unless they are (a) staring fixedly at their phones, (b) deeply engaged in conversation or (c) small children who might mistake me for a paedophile.

What I have found is that, no matter whom I greet – black, white, brown, male, female, bearded, covered,  or not – most will smile back. Some even seem pleasantly surprised that a middle-aged white woman is smiling at them.

What started out as a natural exercise in cordiality has become my mission to smile at everyone I meet in attempt to assuage some of the hurt brought on by Brexit-fuelled prejudice (or the prejudice that fuelled Brexit).

Which brings me back to the hummingbird. I may have become, “that smiling white lady who jogs in the park”, but at least I am making my own minuscule contribution to peace and harmony in my community. A small step for a woman, an incremental move forward for humankind?

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Postscript: Yesterday evening, the same day I wrote and published this post, I went to a talk with the “grandfather of Black British photography”, Vanley Burke. Through a photograph he took, I learned that Summerfield Park was the site of a major peace rally in 2011, following riots during which three young men were killed, hit by a car in Dudley Road.

Promoção de livro sobre Manuel Querino e Booker Washington

O livro Travessias no Atlântico Negro, reflexões sobre Booker T. Washington e Manuel R. Querino está disponível pelo preço promocional de R$4,99 até amanhã (3 de setembro de 2018). O valor normal é R$34,99. Promoção válida apenas no Brasil, nos sites da Amazon – http://www.amazon.com.br (Kindle) – e da Livraria Cultura – http://www.livrariacultura.com.br (Kobo)TAN capa final small

De/visualizing Blackness

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Condemned as racist and exploitative of black women, this controversial advert for Devassa dark beer did something far worse

Last week, I attended a thought-provoking seminar, ‘Visualizing Blackness in Latin America & the Caribbean, 16th-19th Centuries‘, held on 29 & 30 May 2018, and organised by the Institute of Latin American Studies, School of Advanced Study, London. Among many other interesting topics, in her keynote lecture, “Colour and Undertones: On Black Subjects in Latin-American Visual Culture”, Dr Tamara J. Walker mentioned an advert for Devassa dark beer which sparked controversy in Brazil a few years ago. In 2012, the National Council for Self-Regulation in Advertising (Conar) determined that the makers of Devassa – a product line that also includes a ‘blonde’ beer, and whose name is defined as ‘woman devoid of modesty or morals with regard to sex’, which could be translated as ‘slag’, ‘slut’ or worse – had to change the advert, as it was considered racist, a crime under Brazilian law.

When I saw the advert again after all these years, something else struck me about the image. Everyone at the seminar agreed that the woman portrayed is lovely and sexy in the old-fashioned pin-up style of glamour. The racism is more to be found in the text, which reads: ‘you can tell a true black woman [dark beer] by her [its] body’ (as the word for beer is feminine in Portuguese, this sort of double entendre is easily conveyed).

The main problem I saw with the image was that, according to Brazilian racial categories, the woman portrayed is not ‘black’ at all, but the classic sexualised and romanticised ‘mulata’ (once known in English as a ‘mulattress’). In other words, the text of the advert is not only racist and sexist, but the image has failed to represent black women as presumably intended – thereby effectively de/visualizing them and deleting them from the picture.

I had some difficulty explaining this to an African-American scholar, presumably because the one-drop rule in the US has led to greater solidarity and unified self-identification among a relatively small portion of the population, based on ancestry and the common experience of historical enslavement (as I argue in my PhD thesis, President Obama was only legitimised as a representative of the African-American community by his wife, Michelle, as his father came directly from Africa and therefore did not share that experience of historical enslavement), whereas in Brazil, African ancestry is so widespread that many people who would be considered black elsewhere see themselves as white or ‘brown’ (pardo). As a result, ‘blackness’ is based on appearance and placed at one extreme of a continuum, the other end of which is ‘whiteness’. There are many shades and categories in between.

In Brazil, ‘race’ is identified not through ancestry but through markers – particularly skin colour, features and hair. Although she has full lips – de rigueur among models and actresses of any ethnicity nowadays – the features of the woman in the advert are European and considered attractive according to the white racialist aesthetic, particularly her nose. Even among the very few black women who make it into the modelling world in Brazil, there is a distinct preference for those with a ‘nariz afinada’ – an aquiline or Roman nose. This is nothing new, as racialist discourse has long given preference to such noses, seeing them as superior to ‘snub’ or ‘broad/flat’ breathing apparatus (N.B. by way of full disclosure, I have a ‘snub’ or ‘retroussé’ nose, and although, as far as I am aware, I am ‘white’, a white supremacist once told me that I could be black, based on the shape of my nose and lips).

As I pointed out to my African-American interlocutor – and I hope I made clear then and now – I am not denying that the fictional woman portrayed could, and probably would, self-identify as black in Brazil. I am not negating her self-perceived Blackness. The problem with the picture is that, to be truly ‘black’ by Brazilian lights – especially in Bahia – she should look more like Zezé Mota or Taís Araújo. Better yet, to mention a more familiar example for non-Brazilians, she should strongly resemble Lupita Nyong’o.

Apologies, and moving on

I apologize for the last few posts, publicising my new e-book in Portuguese. I am working on an English translation, adapted for a non-Brazilian readership. I have changed the name of this blog to encompass other topics that might arise. I have recently noticed, for example, that the debate on the supposed Booker T. Washington/W.E.B. Du Bois dichotomy is still alive and well, and intend to weigh into it shortly. Watch this space!

Travessias no Atlântico Negro, agora no Kindle brasileiro

Travessias no Atlântico Negro: Reflexões sobre Booker T. Washington e Manuel R. Querino está disponível no Kindle brasileiro. Veja uma amostraTAN capa final small

Travessias no Atlântico Negro já está disponível

Meu e-book Travessias no Atlântico Negro: Reflexões sobre Booker T. Washington e Manuel R. Querino já está disponível no site da Livraria Cultura. TAN capa final small

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Novo e-book no prelo

Neste livro, Sabrina Gledhill analisa as trajetórias e táticas antirracialistas de Booker T. Washington (1856/1915) e Manuel Raymundo Querino (1851/1923), dentro do contexto do Atlântico Negro. Apesar do prestígio que desfrutaram em vida, suas imagens foram dilapidadas após a morte: Washington com a mácula de “comodista” e até “traidor da raça”; e Querino com a imagem de um “humilde professor negro” de parcos poderes intelectuais. A realidade, como os dois educadores negros que são o enfoque deste trabalho, foi muito mais complexa.

Querino foi uma figTAN capa final smallura multifacetada: pintor-decorador, artista, abolicionista, jornalista, líder operário, político, professor de desenho industrial e pesquisador, fundador da historiografia da arte baiana, defensor dos terreiros de candomblé, sócio fundador do Instituto Geográfico e Histórico da Bahia, inspiração para Pedro Archanjo (protagonista de Tenda dos Milagres) e o primeiro intelectual afrobrasileiro a destacar a contribuição do africano à civilização brasileira.

Educador, orador e conselheiro de presidentes dos Estados Unidos, Washington nasceu escravo e chegou a ser considerado o “negro mais famoso do mundo”. Após a Emancipação, trabalhou como zelador para custear seus estudos no Instituto Hampton, fundou o Instituto Normal e Industrial Tuskegee e tornou-se o líder da “nação negra” nos Estados Unidos, tendo como seu maior rival o intelectual negro W.E.B. Du Bois.

Depois de apresentar o contexto em que viveram e traçar as interconexões entre suas realidades, Gledhill analisa suas trajetórias durante a vida e após a morte. Mostra como Manuel Querino poderia ter acesso a informações detalhadas sobre a vida e obra de Washington décadas antes que sua autobiografia mais conhecida, Up from Slavery, fosse lançada no Brasil, traduzida por Graciliano Ramos. Paul Gilroy, o idealizador do conceito do Atlântico Negro, usa a metáfora de navios atravessando o oceano. Gledhill mostra que as “travessias” também poderiam ser realizadas por meio de traduções e da telegrafia.