Note from BBT: It’s yet another symbol an identity that sometimes seems to be lacking in Brazil. In my first few visits to Brazil in the early years of the 2000s, I noted something as I walked the streets, regardless of what city I was in. Brazil is a Portuguese-speaking country but everywhere I looked, it seemed that Brazilians wore t-shirts with slogans and sayings written in English on the front. Most times when I would ask people, they didn’t even know what the phrase on their shirt meant. It is also very common to see companies and advertisements in the streets that use at least a little English in their publicity posters.
English being the dominant global language in terms of business and culture, anyone who wants to be someone or be seen as modern, hip or chique has to speak at least a few phrases of English and in Brazil, this becomes clear for anyone who walked around in any Brazilian city. I remember being in Ilhéus, Bahia, back in 2001 and having a conversation with a young college professor. We were having a discussion about American imperialism when he opened up his jacket and showed me his t-shirt as he said, “Look, I can’t even have my own culture here!” On the front of the shirt were a number of Looney Tunes characters.
Now, you might think, “Well, he bought the shirt, so what’s he complaining about?” It’s not really that simple. Number one, I can’t assume that he himself bought the shirt, but the point that he was making is that, in many ways, Brazil, in many ways, is somewhat of a colony of the US. It’s everywhere. Go to the movie theater and probably 8 of the 10 films showing will be American. Turn on the television and you can see not only American sit-coms and series overdubbed in Portuguese, but even reality shows. Everyday, I see headlines in the top Brazilian news sites about something going on in the US.
Then, as I said, walking the streets, and I haven’t really counted in a while, but it seems that on any given day 80-90% of the t-shirts with phrases written on the front will be in English. Having gone shopping for both children’s and adult’s clothing, I can tell you that Brazil’s clothing stores are saturated with characters, images, phrases and slogans that any American would familiar with. Not even considering black Brazilians specifically, but Brazilians in general are basically force fed American culture.
With this in mind, one has to wonder how those t-shirts that read “100% Negro” became so popular back in the day. If I’m not mistaken, think these shirts were quite popular in Brazil some time between the mid-90s and early 2000s. I sometimes wonder, in a country in which so many black people are taught to avoid defining themselves as black, how did these t-shirts catch on? It was around that time that black identity politics really began to spread across the country to challenge the narrative that one should be ashamed of being black.
As black pride and entrepreneurship continues to grow at an accelerated rate, t-shirts are yet another symbol of the growing demand for black identity-oriented products across the country. One of the t-shirts in the story below exemplifies this. Whereas a few decades ago, black women would have been proud to be called “morena” or “mulata” or any term that would distance them from blackness. Nowadays, millions of black women are proudly proclaiming “nem morena, mulata, (sou) negra” (neither morena or mulata, I’m black). In the year 2000, I couldn’t have imagined seeing some of the slogans and images being printed on the t-shirts featured in today’s piece. Then again, as the title of this blog tells you, this is black Brazil today.
“I’m not a racist, I even have a white shirt!”: the speech of the t-shirts
By Ana Paula Xongani*
You may already know by heart a word that I always say and that touches everything I propose to say about fashion, that we “wear speeches”. The idea is, from the understanding of fashion as a tool to discuss society, to get attached to people’s non-verbal discourse from what they wear.
Today, several brands have captured the power of this idea and the urgency that, especially some specific groups in society, have to break barriers of silencing. This is so, but so strong that it became literal with the “boom” (I will call it a boom by pure empirical evaluation as far as my eyes can see) of clothing and other objects printed with phrases. So, quickly, I remember Negrei, NBlack_21, Resisto OPM e Mulher Negra é a Revolução (Black Woman is the Revolution).
A post shared by Negrei (@eunegrei) on Aug 4, 2020 at 6:07 am PDT
To talk a little about it, I spoke with Don Lima, creator and designer of Negrei, a brand I come to know at last year’s edition of Feira Preta (Brazil’s black expo), an event that I consider, as I said here, one of the most important fashion runways made by black women from Brazil and other Latin American countries.
“You know, I am a more closed guy, in mine. I don’t always speak or want to speak out loud what I think, so the words and graphics on the products I create speak for me,” he says after having a brand of custom tailored printed shirts, he wanted to develop a brand that reached more people and could be used on more occasions besides parties and other social events.
A post shared by NBlack_21 (@ nblack_21) on Aug 17, 2020 at 6:48 am PDT
With the phrase “não sou racista, tenho até camisa branca!” (“I’m not a racist, I even have a white shirt!”), the first one printed on a Negrei shirt, he used an ironic comparison to bring identification to black people and a nudge on those who say they are not racist because they know or live with black people, in the classic phrases: “Não sou racista, tenho até amigo negro” (“I am not a racist, I even have a black friend”); “Não sou racista, sou casada com uma negra” (“I’m not racist, I’m married to a black woman”) and things like that (see here, here or here, among numerous other examples).
Don tells me that, from the phrases, which he also prints on other products and surfaces, there may be opportunities for dialogues, reflections and even a good laugh. “In the society in which we live, it is impossible not to be in contact with people who have racist attitudes or who reproduce them. So, we know that at some point in life we will either have to “push it under the rug” or criticize those who “push it under the rug” for these people. So, what did I create? A dish towel with this stamped phrase: “I don’t push things under the rug for a racist”.
A post shared by Resisto OPM (@resistoopm) on Apr 13, 2020 at 1:16 PDT
The phrases that Negrei uses are very connected with a young crowd, who are building new codes of communication from the marriage of the speeches of traditional social movements with what is said on the streets and with the multiple media channels we have.
“I’m always very connected. I watch a lot of lives (online chats), read things, listen to podcasts. My creativity draws from these sources,” he comments. He understands that Negrei is not a fashion brand, but a communication brand that has one of its platforms in fashion to express what it means. I think it’s really great. Don´t you think?
I asked Don Lima, who he would like to give a Negrei t-shirt to. He thought, thought and said: “Malcolm X! With our BLK PWR sweatshirt”. Have you ever thought what power?
I take this space to say and register that I am too much of a fan of your work and also to thank you for the chat. I’m with you!
* Ana Paula Xongani is a multi-entrepreneur: at Ateliê Xongani, of Afro-Brazilian fashion, and also at the company that bears her name, of content creation. She hosts the program Se Essa Roupas Fosse Minha (if these clothes were mine), on the GNT network about conscious fashion. She speaks lightly and responsibly on topics that are always important for everyone together to build a more just and welcoming world for everyone, especially for black women. Affective activism, as they say.