Note from BW of Brazil: One of the key areas of study to understanding the brutal experience of the enslavement and the assault on African identities in Brazil, is the manner in which the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé has been dealt with. Connections with blackness and all things African have been under assault ever since the first Africans began to arrive in the land that would centuries later would officially become known as Brazil.
Leaders and elites of Brazil have long sought to separate African descendants from their roots as a mechanism to keep this population under control through the promotion mixture, assimilation, appropriation and the idea that Brazil was a racial democracy. But one of the necessary steps to transforming blacks and persons of African ancestry into simply Brazilians was the Brazilianization of black cultural practices that would later become simply Brazilian rather than black or African. Through this process, elites hoped to undermine any threat of any sort of widespread black militancy movement that could pose a threat to the country’s white power structure and religion would play a prominent role in this process.
In 19th century Brazil, Catholicism was the only accepted religious belief in the country. As such, black people were forced into professing the religion of the white elite, which in turn contributed to the syncretic nature of African cults in Brazil. Heavily persecuted in first half of the 20th century, prejudice against African-derived religions continues to this day with a noted rise in attacks on its followers, temples, leaders and accessories. It is within the terreiros (temples of worship) of the candomblé religion where we find a privileged place in the construction of a community feeling sewn together by the construction of the black identity. With only around 0.3% of all Brazilians proclaiming the religion they follow to be of Afro-Brazilian origin, we can see a major weapon in the de-Africanization of Brazil’s population of African descent.
For some, re-connecting with religions such as candomblé has had a profound effect on the strengthening of one’s identity as a black man or woman or providing the strength to be able to deal with Brazil’s potent brand of racism as well as the stress of everyday life. Journalist Ana Paula Lisbon credits candomblé as being one of the revolutionizing forces in her life that helped escape a bout with depression. Below, author and professor Kiusam de Oliveira describes the power she found in the religion as a force against the racism she experienced as a child and the strengthening of her identity as a black woman.
Kiusam de Oliveira, between color and candomblé
By Jessica Bernardo
At age 11, after hearing racist statements from a teacher, a child asked his mother if she could be placed in a basin with bleach. The girl wanted to be lighter. Today, as an adult, Kiusam de Oliveira argues that her involvement with Afro-Brazilian religions was one of the main allies for getting stronger as a black woman.
With a curriculum that includes, among others, the titles of pedagogue, master and doctor in Education from the University of São Paulo (USP), mãe de santo (iyalorixá or priestess) and author of children’s books Omo-Oba: Histórias de Princesas (Omo-Oba: Stories of Princesses), O mundo no Black Power de Tayó (The world in the Black Power of Tayó) and O mar que banha a ilha de Goré (The sea that bathes the island of Goré), Kiusam is one of the most important women in the black movement.
In 2008, she published the thesis “Candomblé de Ketu e Educação: Estratégias para o empoderamento de mulher negra” (Candomblé of Ketu and Education: Strategies for the Empowerment of Black Women), with the challenge of showing how religion could help the empowerment of black women, without even converting. She is interviewed today by J.Press and talks about representativeness, feminism and the social side of Ketu’s Candomblé.
J.Press – To begin our conversation, Kiusam, I would like for you to tell a little about your personal experience with the Afro-Brazilian religions. How did your relationship with these religions help you in accepting your own body, face, and characteristics?
Kiusam – I come from a childhood marked by very difficult periods in the school space in relation to a minha cor negra (my black color). My second school was a nuns school and there I knew what racism was in practice at age six. At age 12, I was a completely transformed girl, with a rage against my body, with hatred of my skin color, blaming my parents for being born with that color and suffering so much with it.
At age 11, I had a teacher who said she would not answer my question because I would be nothing more than a maid. Because I was black, ugly and had canela fina (thin shins), and canela fina [according to him] was good for work (see note one). This was the last moment. This teacher already had racist attitudes and my mother had instructed me to bring a tape recorder to his class. That day I recorded and he was extremely perverse.
After that action, it was the first time I saw my mother crying: I asked her if she could put me inside the basin with água de cândida (bleach) to see if I would get lighter. It was when she realized that she was not going to be able handle the process of building my black identity by herself and said she would seek help. This help came through the Movimento Negro Unificado (Unified Black Movement) (MNU) GT Balogun – São Bernardo do Campo (São Paulo state).
After suffering with racism during childhood, Kiusam found in candomblé ways of empowering herself. “There’s no way that you can’t get stronger,” she says. (Photo: Personal collection)
Parallel to all this, I had a very agitated spiritual life, because I also saw spirits since (I was) very little. My parents would take me to doctors who said I was crazy. Then one day, when my father was very sad at work, a colleague asked what the problem was and he told him what was happening. This friend said that he frequented umbanda. Both he [my father] and my mother were Catholics. They were somewhat reluctant, but went [to the ceremony].
I remained many years in umbanda. And when I went to candomblé, I found myself completely. In candomblé, the orixás were black and had no perfect bodies: they had thick lips like mine, wide noses like mine, cabelos crespos (curly/kinky hair) like mine… There was a very big identification.
And in addition, this identification was given through orality, because the elders told the stories about these orixás (African deities), men and women. And how strong these women were, how incredible they were! At the same time they were extremely feminine, they were warlike and strategic. They occupied spaces of power. And that was building my identity in a positive way, where I could see the pessoa negra (black person) as protagonist, as beautiful, as a warrior. That was putting me back in the plumb.
All this was constructing a strengthening network for my identity as a mulher negra (black woman). There is no way of not getting stronger, empowering yourself, and not having a more feminist discourse.
J.Press – Women assume a leading role in Afro-Brazilian religions, but in most of Africa there are also the men who celebrate the services. How did the process of women’s protagonism take place in the celebrations in Brazil?
Kiusam – The ladies who perpetuated the Ketu Candomblé in Brazil, who have been transmitting their knowledge through the generations, have always been extremely strong women who have worked for feminine empowerment with the exact notion of the macho and racist society in which we live in Brazil specifically.
Ketu Candomblé is not African. It is Brazilian. It is a Brazilian creation. This is crucial. It was created by African women, hunted and captured on the African continent, who needed to recreate a way of life and family life, which for Africans was always fundamental and which, through the process of slavery, was extremely devastated.
The blacks were dying of banzo, of deep sadness, of the solitude and the break with relatives. These ladies, who were already priestesses on the African continent, arrived here and, realizing all this, they created a religion with a centrality in family matter.
In Africa, these women might not even play a leading role, if you look with the eyes of the West, but they played a key role along with kings. As priestesses, they might not even have the visibility, because apparently a man could be in charge of that society, but the basic orientations of that community were given by the sacerdotisa (priestess).
And it seems that this was not always the case: it is important to point out that there was a time in the African continent where women held power in sociedades secretas (secret societies) like Geledés, as amazons, and so on. Since this power has been forcibly taken away, we have tried for centuries to take the lead in our stories, not wanting to be ahead of the man but walking with him.
J.Press – What role do women play in this religion? How does Ketu’s Candomblé reflect on the image of the black woman?
Kiusam – Within the Ketu Candomblé, as a living contemporary, you are reliving the myths lived by the orixás. We relive what our ancestors once lived.
So it sees the black woman as the protagonist of everything, as the protagonist of life itself. As a woman extremely strengthened because she is the image of these ancient ancestors that we have as a model. The black woman is intelligent, initiatory, strategist, loving. She is seen as the heart of a community. Contemporary movements are being guided by her.
Candomblé does not preach the superiority of the black woman. In fact, it preaches the union of the masculine and the feminine. Therefore, men and women need to learn to walk together.
J.Press – Blacks suffer a lot from lack of representativeness. How do you believe that the value and presence of black women in religion contributes to women’s identification and empowerment? In addition to the spiritual question, did the figure of the mãe de santo (priestess) contribute to this?
Kiusam – The figure of the iyalorixá contributes as a positive and empowered form of female representation. She’s on the throne, she’s in the main chair of the shack. This is extremely positive. She is in the place of the principal representative, the queen.
And this woman who occupies a space of power within the religious space transmits every day, in the daily life too, the stories of these orixás in the form of stories. These tales are loaded with powerful teachings on community lives, ethical and aesthetic values.
Stories strengthen us all the time. And I can’t think of it without ceasing to make this bridge with these stories, gaining the space of Brazilian literature, which is what I also do. I write stories so that black children can see a positive representation of their own image.
Recounted narratives are tools, fundamental tools in the fight for an anti-racist education. Fairy tales in Brazil are basically European, with white princesses, light-eyed, straight-haired, with a kind of beauty that black and non-black children quickly wish they had. Those who have that profile feel represented, but even white children who don’t have those characteristics start thinking, “Heck, if I had my blonde hair, my blue or green eyes… But I don’t have it, look at how I am!” Imagine for the black children! Black representation is still little in dolls, in television advertisements, in magazines and newspapers.
The Omo-Oba: Histórias de Princesas [book written by the pedagogue], for example, brings the stories of black princesses like Iemanjá and Oxum in a way that does not touch at any moment in religiosity. They are African, black princesses, each with her basic characteristics, with her links with the elements of nature.
They are stories that strengthen us within the religious space, but also, through literature, can strengthen those who are not in this space and who believe that there are no princesas ou rainhas negras africanas (black African princesses or queens). A book and a story can show that they do exist! And so, each child is identifying and creating pleasure in being the way they are.
Representativeness, for the child, the youth and the black adult, is fundamental. A positive representation for your beings liberates yours, our bodies.
J.Press – And in your doctoral research you also noted this …
Kiusam – Yes. It’s one thing for you to be inside; another thing is for you to collect data systematically, interviewing people you don’t know to see the ways that each one has walked within the religiousness and what this religiosity has done for good, from constructive to the identity of those people, right? Then we can see that it was not only beneficial with us. That many people can benefit from this space, with a view to recovering their self-esteem, strengthening their identities… It’s something no one can take away from candomblé, because it’s there for that.
J.Press – When you did the research, you set out to show that the person did not need to convert, as you are saying now, to reap the benefits of candomblé in education. Can you tell us a bit about these results?
Kiusam – Within the space of candomblé we work with Afro-Brazilian values such as, for example, circularity. We have a habit of sitting in school, one after another, and this quickly causes a feeling that one can’t look at the other’s sheet, at the other’s notebook, to the side. You can only look forward. And the teacher himself gives this instruction: “Look forward, boy!”. And in the hour of trials and activities, individuality is prevailing.
You quickly learn to cover your activity sheet so that no one sees it. Thus, the one who knows the most is in power, will get the highest marks and this will stimulate, all the time, the child to be selfish. Who knows, he might as well be in a collective job, sharing the way he understood this knowledge with whom he knows less, with whom he has difficulty learning.
And another point is the hierarchy itself. You don’t look in people’s eyes. If you work within circularity, which is an Afro-Brazilian civilizing value, everyone is looking at everyone. The chairs placed in a circle, the space open for energy to run, so that the performances happen in front of everyone. It is a civilizing value that happens all the time in candomblé.
Other ideas, which are also linked in opposition to Western individualism, are cooperativism and communitarianism. Within the Afro-Brazilian traditions, in candomblé everything is done in the collective. You organize parties in the collective, the obligations are given in the collective…
It is important to recognize that every child, every adult and every young person who attends a school has his or her own energy, has his or her strength, has his or her knowledge that precedes the knowledge of the school. But the arrogance of education professionals – and education as a larger system – thinks that the child ends up being a blank book that needs to be filled by Eurocentric education and disregards the previous knowledge that child already has, which does not happen in space of candomblé. I can be 50 years old, the child can be four, and I’ll have to respect her, because she has an ancestral vital energy that is the same as I have and that I carry.
The thesis brings people from within [the religion], who once were from outside, and who can think of the teachings that were transmitted to them in candomblé, that would be fundamental for Brazilian education to know. The contribution we have to make is enormous in times of so many educational disorientations.
Source: Araújo, Bárbara Luna de. “Reafricanização e construção da identidade negra nas religiões de origem africana em João Pessoa/PB: o caso do Terreiro Ilê Tata do Axé.” 30th Reunião Brasileira de Antropologia. 2016. Congresso. Jornalismo Júnior
- Another saying and belief dating back to Brazil’s near four centuries of slavery. The idea was that people with thin shins and thin bodies were better workers than those with thicker bodies.
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