Note from BBT: It’s very fitting that the subject of today’s post is being featured on what would have been her 86th birthday as well as well as the first day of the annual Black History Month in the United States. I would be willing to bet that not even 1% of 1% of African-Americans have ever heard the name Lélia Gonzalez, and that’s not outrageous considering that I would say that the average Brazilian, black or white, probably has never heard of her either. As I have pointed out in a number previous posts, it seems that it’s far more likely for Brazilians regardless of race to be familiar with African-American figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks or even Malcolm X, rather than important Afro-Brazilian figures such as Abdias do Nascimento, Luiz Gama, Laudelina de Campos or the aforementioned Lélia Gonzalez.
That has changed drastically in the past few decades as more Afro-Brazilians have had access to college and are thus studying leaders of black Brazil as well as becoming involved in nation’s organized black rights movement and organizations. In turn, with this knowledge, they are making more people aware of just who these people were and why they must be remembered.
In my own political trajectory, I have come to scrutinize more of leaders and discover the movements and political views that they held as well as their origins and coming to the conclusion that many, conscious or not, were involved in movements that I may or may not have co-signed on. Even so, regardless of whether I connect with every aspect of their politics, I will still celebrate them because, as a people, we are still lost in the struggle and in some ways, as none of us have the answer to how we get out of the situation we’re in, maybe we shouldn’t focus so much on bringing down those who represented us.
Today is a day in which I think of a number of people who were born on this day, both famous and everyday people. One of cousins was born on this day over 50 years ago. An important voice in the ascension of Afro-Brazilians today, Paulo Rogério, also celebrates a birthday today. The mother of a long-time friend of mine and the friend of a friend were all born on this day. On the famous side, there are James Ambrose Johnson, R&B/Funk fans knew as Rick James as well as the man who showed that African-Americans could also “move on up”, actor Sherman Hemsley. I get the feeling I’m forgetting someone, but for now, let’s learn a little more about the woman some see as the Brazilian Angela Davis, the leader and intellectual, Lélia Gonzalez.
Lélia Gonzalez was our Angela Davis and should be compulsory reading in schools and universities
By Bárbara Martins
During her visit to Brazil in 2019, the black American activist Angela Davis said in São Paulo: “I think I learn more from Lélia Gonzalez than you do from me.” With this questioning, she not only opened up the viralism common to Brazilian intellectuals (which we can already agree to call coloniality), but also drew attention to a great truth: it is inconsistent that Lélia Gonzalez is not read and valued as much as she should be in national schools and universities.
Angela says this because, similarly to the way her thoughts were transformative for the black and feminist movement in the United States in the 1960s, Lélia’s reflections were fundamental in the 1970s and 1980s to outline how racial, gender, and class oppressions intertwine and manifest themselves in Brazil.
One of the founders of institutions such as the Unified Black Movement (MNU) and the Institute for Research on Black Cultures (IPCN), Lélia was an activist, teacher, philosopher, and anthropologist, as well as a true milestone for women who introduced decolonial thoughts – those that question the permanence of Eurocentered thoughts in the imaginary of places that are ex-colonies, such as Brazil – to feminism and the Black Brazilian movement.
Who was Lélia Gonzalez?
Born on February 1, 1935, in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Lélia de Almeida Gonzalez moved to Rio de Janeiro as a child in 1942 and remained there until the end of her life in 1994.
In Rio, she studied and finished high school at Colégio Pedro II, in 1954. She then graduated in History and Philosophy from the old Guanabara State University (UEG), now Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ), in 1962. At the end of the 1960’s, she worked as a professor at Colégio de Aplicação Fernando Rodrigues da Silveira (now CAp-UERJ).
She then took a master’s degree in Social Communication and became a PhD in Political Anthropology to work as a professor and researcher at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), where she was head of the Sociology and Politics department.
Daughter of a domestic servant of indigenous origins and a black railroad worker, Lélia worked as a nanny and also as a still very young employee, as she revealed in an interview with the 1986 newspaper O Pasquim.
As a child, I was the nanny of Madame’s little boy, you know that black children start working very early. There was a director of Flamengo who wanted me to go to his house to be a little maid, one of those they saw a raised in the house. I reacted a lot against this, so the people ended up bringing me back home.
As an activist, the anthropologist participated in important political organizations for the black movement during the period of the Military Dictatorship. In 1978, for example, she participated and was present at the founding of the Unified Black Movement Against Racial Discrimination, which the following year became simply the Unified Black Movement (MNU).
The MNU was born with the objective of becoming a front for the defense of Afro-Brazilian people against structural racism that has exploited and disrespected black communities since the beginning of the country’s history.
Organizational framework of the black Brazilian movement, until today the entity defends the inalienable rights of dark skinned individuals from all Brazilian states.
An important voice for women members of the black Brazilian movement, Lélia Gonzalez also used field activism and intellectual production to call the attention of colleagues to causes of the silencing of female voices within Afro-Brazilian militancy.
Attentive and in contact whenever possible with other feminists in Latin America, Lélia was one of those responsible for presenting the relevance of Brazilian social movements to other countries and for representing and strengthening the presence of black women in politics and universities.
The feminism of Lélia Gonzalez
A pioneer in several issues within Brazilian feminism, Lélia Gonzalez’s ideological approach is based on a primordial principle: intersectionality.
Lélia’s intersectional thinking is based on the idea that it is not possible to build a plural and welcoming feminism for all women without the commitment – both of non-white members and (and especially) of whites – to recognize the intersection between multiple oppressions of race, class, and gender.
In recognizing the relevance of the issues raised by white and European feminism and adding with emphasis the intersectional slants that are essential to understanding and analyzing the context of patriarchal oppression in Brazil, Lélia Gonzalez proposed what she called an Afro-Latin American feminism.
In this feminism, the anthropologist argues that in a country whose initial formation was largely based on black and indigenous women, it is neither acceptable nor coherent that molds of a white, European feminism, which starts from issues that have little to do with the needs of non-white women, standardizing the struggle of Brazilian feminists.
Intersectionality permeates all of Lélia Gonzalez’s feminist thought
In her essay “Por um feminismo-afro-latino-americano” (“For an Afro-Latino American feminism”) written by Lélia in 1988, the researcher explains what she calls “racism by omission” within white feminism.
How do you explain this ‘forgetfulness’ on the part of feminism? The answer, in our opinion, is in what some social scientists characterize as racism by omission and whose roots, we say, are found in a Eurocentric and neo-colonialist worldview of reality.
Still in her words: “Latin American feminism loses much of its strength when it abstracts a fact from reality that is of great importance: the multiracial and pluricultural character of the societies of this region.
As she defended: “The awareness-raising of oppression occurs, before anything, by the racial” for the Amefrican women (as she herself calls it) and Amerindian women. Therefore, to disregard the racial factor is to deny an inseparable part of the experience of these women in Latin America.
This was the struggle that Lélia also sought to bring into the black movement by pointing out the pain, issues, and especially the potential of black women as political articulators within antiracist organizations.
Lélia was also a harsh critique of the myth of racial democracy documented by sociologist Gilberto Freyre (1900 – 1987) in the book Casa-Grande & Senzala, 1933. For her, the theory was a strong tool of ideological domination and translated the root of silence about racial oppression in Brazil.
For reasons like those presented above, Angela Davis – whose work is, in large part, more recognized within the themes already mentioned than those of Lélia Gonzalez in Brazil – felt surprised to be considered, perhaps, the greatest reference on black feminism for Brazilian intellectuals.
“I feel strange when I feel that I am being chosen to represent black feminism. And why here in Brazil do you need to seek this reference in the United States?”, said the activist during her visit to São Paulo in 2019.
“If there was one country to represent all the peoples of this region [Americas], it should be Brazil, not the United States,” she added, stressing the urgency of reading Lélia Gonzalez’s productions.
Books about Lélia Gonzalez
To read and delve deeper into the works and thoughts of Lélia Gonzalez, Hypeness suggests three books which, besides being good introductions about the author, also present important panoramas about the black movement, intersectional feminism and decolonial ideologies. See:
Por um feminismo afro-latino-americano (For an Afro-Latin American feminism), organized by Flávia Rios and Márcia Lima (Zahar, 2020)
Collection of articles and essays written by Lélia Gonzalez between 1979 and 1994. It’s on sale for BRL 47.92, at Amazon.
Lélia Gonzalez: retratos do Brasil negro (Lélia Gonzalez: portraits of black Brazil), by Alex Ratts and Flávia Rios (Selo Negro, 2010).
A biographical work that covers the life trajectory, intellectual production and political activism of Lélia Gonzalez. It’s on sale for BRL 15.95, at Amazon.
Pensamento feminista hoje: perspectivas decoloniais (Feminist thought today: decolonial perspectives), by Heloisa Buarque de Hollanda (Bazar do Tempo, 2020)
A collection of articles and essays by feminists whose thoughts revolve around decoloniality. It’s on sale for BRL 62.40, at Amazon.