When I arrived in Brazil in December 1986, I was only going to stay for three months. I had just completed my MA in Latin American Studies and was enrolled in the PhD program in History at UCLA. The plan was to gather information on the role of iyalorixás (high priestesses of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé) in the lay community. Mãe Menininha, one of the most famous iyalorixás in history, had died that year, and I wanted to explore her influence in society at large and go beyond that to take a look at other religious leaders. I soon learned that the Candomblé community was (is) sick and tired of being studied, and decided that I’d rather be a part of it – and Bahian culture in general – than study it. Then I got involved in Capoeira Angola, building on the basics I had learned in LA. It was more of an activist movement than a martial art – helping revive and perpetuate another aspect of African resistance in Brazil.
Before the three months were up, I came to a decision: I would find a new home for my only “family” back in California – Lily, a lovely lilac-point Siamese cat – and stay in Brazil. With the help of good friends who made that possible – Susan, Steve and Cynthia, this is a shout-out to you – I made my home in Bahia, and for a while there, I thought I had left academia behind me. I married a Capoeira classmate, had a beautiful daughter (who is now 25), got divorced, adopted another daughter, and worked as a translator and English teacher. But then, after a while, I started dreaming of that PhD I had left behind.
Fast forward a few decades. Based on the research I did for my MA, which focused on Brazilian intellectuals who studied Africans and Afro-Brazilian culture before it became an accepted field of study in the 1930s, I decided to turn my attention to an Afro-Brazilian, Manuel Querino, and an African American, Booker T. Washington. Both were self-made men who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They both believed that education was the best path for former slaves and their descendants to get ahead, and led by example. Although they were both highly respected in life, they were later maligned, Washington as an “accommodationist” and Querino as a “humble Black teacher” who lacked “intellectual sophistication”. My aim was to put both men in context and shed some light on their tactics and trajectories.
Reader, I graduated on March 18, 2014. After all these years I have earned a PhD in Ethnic and African Studies from the Federal University at Bahia Center for Afro-Asian Studies (CEAO/UFBA). And that is just the first step. Watch this space.