Echoes of black resistance in Serra da Barriga, in Alagoas (northeastern Brazil), land of Zumbi of Palmares*, run through the veins of Vanda Menezes, black militant and feminist activist for 30 years. Psychologist and criminal expert of the civil police in Alagoas, Vanda has already been Secretary for the State of the Woman and, today, is part of the Network Women and Democracy.
The genesis of her black militancy in the movement dates back to an episode of her youth, age 18, when her friend Marcelino Dantas was denied entry into a private club in the capital of Alagoas because he was black. In 1979, Vanda participated in the founding of the Zumbi Cultural Association, the first entity to discuss the race problem in Alagoas.
In the early 1980s, she became part of the feminist movement. After two decades of activism in defense of women’s rights, Vanda assumed the post of the Secretary Specializing in Women’s Issues in the state of Alagoas in 2002. In the 2008 municipal elections, she ran for Vice-Mayor of Maceió (1) PDT (Partido Democrático Trabalhista or Democratic Labour Party) by integrating herself into the coalition “Maceió More Human.”
In this Day of Black Consciousness, what do we celebrate?
It was exactly 30 years ago when leaders of the Movimento Negro of Alagoas and from various corners of the country came up to the Serra da Barriga for the symbolic retaking of our ancestral home. I recall Abdias Nascimento, Leila González, Abigail Páscoa, Januário Garcia, Vovô, Apolônio, Inazete Pereira, Telma Chase, Zumbi, Carlão, Mãe Hilda, Zezito Araújo, Marcelino Dantas, Edialeda, Helena Theodoro, Olympio Serra, Carlos Moura, Ordep Serra**, among so many others who were there. Today, we are the majority of the population, we have the law of quotas in almost all public universities, we have state and national agencies to deal specifically with the ethnic/racial question. On that day, besides revering Zumbi, Dandara and all quilombolas (maroon society inhabitants) who gave their lives for freedom that even today, November of 2009, twenty-first century, third millennium, we still don’t have. We reflect and discuss why all these achievements are the fruits of our everyday struggle. And despite all our struggle, the trafficking and police are still killing our youth, black women are working in the most precarious situations, our children dying of diarrhea because of the lack of basic sanitation. We continue in the middle of the road.
How do you evaluate the achievements of the movement and, more specifically, the black women’s movement in the last twenty years in Brazil?
For the black movement, the achievement was to have led the country to reflect on racism, and to question the myth of racial democracy in Brazil. Having transformed the 20th day of November into a civic date to discuss this issue; the issue of prejudice, racial discrimination and racism. For the black women’s movement, [the conquest] was set up in an organized segment of Brazilian civil society and lead the Brazilian women’s movement and the feminist movement to consider the effects of racism and racial discrimination on the agenda of women’s rights in Brazil – health, education, work and the media, among other issues.
Thirty years ago we did not have the range of social indicators, with the racial studies to demonstrate the size of the gap between the quality of life of black and white people, black women and white women. We fight for these data, the data that gives visibility to the result of racism, and this is something that Brazilian society has in large quantity. And the challenge is to account for this gap, this huge inequality.
In what ways does Brazilian racism show itself more effective and more difficult to be fought?
Racism in Brazil proves more difficult to fight because there is an incredible resistance to assume it as a social, moral and ethical problem against people who are descended from those who had the experience of slavery. In my opinion, this is one of the most important starting points for understanding the strength of racism in Brazil. The black population – slave and free – was intentionally excluded from the nation project that the Republic designed to the country with the end of slavish relations of production and social organization. That is why, also, that the November 20, remembering the saga of the Quilombo of Palmares, is so important to the social and political organization of the black population.
Palmares and others quilombos are concrete examples of resistance created by enslaved men and women against a regime that reduced the human condition on a large scale. Nowadays, to address racism, discriminatory acts based on race in the lives of black people, is also a form of resistance to situations that dehumanize black people. Whoever suffers the acts of prejudice and discrimination for being black does not condone the idea that here in Brazil, racism is hidden.
How is being a black woman in Brazil today, compared to the beginning of your career as a feminist militant and black?
You see, racism is still alive in our country. Mechanisms change according to the situation, but it’s still cruel. Like 30 years ago, I continue having to prove what I am because in our country it’s not enough to prove who I am but it is to prove what I am. It’s already been seen. What’s worse is that I am the rule, I am the exception. And the majority of Brazilians don’t believe in exception.
The progress has been made in the dialogue between the feminist movement and the Movimento Negro? What are the difficulties and obstacles that remain?
You mean the black women’s movement? This dialogue is under construction. As I said earlier, our organization as a movement of black women could has managed to insert the race issue in the feminist agenda and discuss how racism defines the condition of life and death of our population. All construction has difficulties and obstacles. There were many years of master’s house and slave house. However, we have advanced a lot, because, in feminism, equality and equity is essential. Therefore, I am a feminist with specificity: my feminism is black.
How do you assess the policies of the Lula government aimed at promoting women’s rights and confronting racism?
I assess them as good. There are difficulties and resistance because these type of policies have never before even been discussed within governments. But I imagine that if the government and organized civil society, of a so plural manner, work together – the government executing policies without fear that the civil society monitor, evaluate and suggest – we will have effective public policies for our population.
* – Zumbi dos Palmares, or Zumbi of Palmares (1645-1695) was the last, greatest and most celebrated leaders of all of Brazil’s quilombos (in the northeastern state of Alagoas), runaway slaves societies where inhabitants erected their own communities. Today, is honor of Zumbi, there are countless black organizations named in his memory and he is unquestionably the most important symbol of black consciousness in the country. Read more about Zumbi here.
** – All of the aforementioned people are or were important leaders of the Movimento Negro, a collective of Afro-Brazilian civil rights groups dedicated to the struggle for equality for Brazil’s black population.
1. Capital and largest city of the state of Alagoas
Source: Observatório de Gênero