From denial to consciousness: One didn’t know he was black, the other denied the existence of racism – Two Afro-Brazilian militants tell their stories

Afro-Brazilian activists Frei David and Jurema Batista
Afro-Brazilian activists Frei David and Jurema Batista

Note from BW of Brazil: In the last 80 years or so, Brazil successfully promoted itself to the world and Brazilian citizens as a “racial democracy” in which there was no discrimination based on the concept of race. With this propaganda, the nation was able to effectively neutralize any sort of widespread anti-racist movement to challenge this hegemonic mythology. In fact, as we highlighted here in a previous post, with a goal of eventually erasing the black population from the midst of the nation, top statesmen supported the idea that, at least in the census, there were to be no more non-white Brazilians. This is a Brazil that by official census figures was at least 63% non-white late in the 19th century. With this propaganda campaign, millions of non-white Brazilians were indoctrinated to 1) avoid identifying themselves as black or 2) deny that widespread institutional racism existed in Brazil. As an example of how successful this propaganda campaign has been over the years, today we present two prominent figures in the anti-racism, black consciousness movement revealing their personal journeys from denial to militancy.

The profiles and interviews are taken from the 2010 dissertation O Mundo Negro: a constituição do movimento negro contemporâneo no Brasil (1970-1995) that defended at Universidade Federal Fluminense in 2010 by Amilcar Araújo Pereira. The study was later released in book form. 

Jurema Batista
Jurema Batista

Jurema Batista was born in the city of Rio de Janeiro on August 9, 1957. She was founder and president of the Association of Residents of Morro Andaraí in 1980 and that same year, she entered the Letters course of Universidade Santa Úrsula that she concluded in 1983. She participated in the founding of Nzinga – Coletivo de Mulheres Negras (Collective of Black Women), also in 1983. She was councilwoman of the city of Rio de Janeiro for the PT (Workers’ Party) for three consecutive terms: 1992-1996, 1996-2000 and 2000-2002(?) With this last being interrupted halfway through, when she was elected state deputy for Rio de Janeiro. In two terms she was president of the Committee for Defense of Human Rights of the Municipality. At the time of the interview she held a seat in the Legislative Assembly of the State of Rio de Janeiro (Alerj), where she presided over the Commission Against Discrimination and Prejudice of Race, Color, Ethnicity, Religion and National Origin.

For many black women activists in Brazil, their main political reference is the late, great Lélia Gonzalez. In her interview, Jurema Batista also reveals how Lélia Gonzalez influenced her. 

“I became president of the Associação de Moradores do Morro do Andaraí (Association of Residents of Morro Andaraí) in 1980. That same year, I was at Faculdade Santa Úrsula (Santa Úrsula College), and the racial issue was not in my mind. We had the Centro Acadêmico de História Luiz Gama (Luiz Gama Academic of History Center) which was run by a group of blacks from Bahia. One day I was going there was going to be a debate and they invited me: “It’s to debate about this situation of blacks”. I said: “Me? I don’t want to know about this. Are you going crazy??” They said: “Because there is racism in Brazil.” I said: “What racism? Where is it that you invented this stuff? This was the only thing missing. You’re bringing things from the United States here. We don’t have this thing here, no, only in South Africa.” Then, the class started. Pretty soon a Rastafarian came in my room and said: “Come on, we’re waiting on you. It will be a wonderful debate.” I was dragged to the debate! I got there and who was at the table? Carlos Alberto Medeiros, Lélia Gonzalez and this guy who was calling me into the room, which later came to be my advisor in my first term as councilor and was murdered, Hermógenes. I got there with Carlos Alberto Medeiros talking that way in which he spoke, and on top of that he was handsome at the time, fine. And Lélia speaking in that way that she spoke, wonderful. That blunt way that she spoke, passionate.

But I fought with her emotionally. I said: “That woman is going crazy. Where does this woman get this?? There was a lot of resistance, but at the same time, she said something that touched me so deeply that I got to go where I knew she was. If I knew this: “Lélia Gonzalez will speak at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation.” I would go and listen. Then I understood everything. It was just then that I became aware of the racial issue. And I was very angry. I was a “militant pitbull” because I was very angry. Later is when I understood this, including in the psychoanalytic process; because I was deceived. My entire life I drank in this history that in Brazil there was no racism. When I discovered that there was … People would make denouncements and I began to see: actually, I lived in the favela (slum), and I saw how the police treated people, what their level of education was, etc. I lived there in the cauldron and knew that that was true.”

Frei David dos Santos
Frei David dos Santos

Frei David was born in Nanuque, Minas Gerais on October 17, 1952. When he was a year and a half years old, he moved with his family to Vila Velha, Espírito Santo, where he was raised. He entered the Seminary of the Franciscan Order in Guaratinguetá, São Paulo, and graduated in Philosophy and Theology and participated in the formation of the Agentes Pastorais Negros (black pastoral agents) and since the mid-1980s, has served in parishes in the Baixada Fluminense region of Rio de Janeiro, where he participated in the creation of the Pré-Vestibular para Negros e Carentes (PVNC or Pre-College Entrance Exam Prep for the Black and Needy) in the early 1990s. At the end of 1990s he founded Educafro (Educação e Cidadania de Afro-descendentes e Carentes or Education and Citizenship and Afro-descendants and the Needy), that also acts as a pre-entrance exam prep in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. In 1994 he was elected to the Latin American Executive Secretariat of Afro-Latin American and Caribbean Pastoral. He participated in the coordination of the collection in Negros em Libertação (Blacks in Liberation), of Editora Vozes (Publisher).

The episode of the “awakening of racial consciousness” as told by Frei David, one of the most well-known characters in Brazil with regard to the implementation of policies of affirmative action for blacks, is especially instructive in terms of his subsequent political career as a black militant:

“I entered the seminary and in my first clash there, I packed my suitcase to get out. I entered in March, and on May 13, the class, most of whom were of German and Italian origin, from southern Brazil, invented a commemoration of the Lei Áurea (Golden Law) in the cafeteria at noon. They took a table, they put it in the middle of the cafeteria and made it like it was a slave ship. And on that day the black seminarians should sit at that table for lunch. It was slave ship table, a tribute in (the form of a) little joke they were going to do with blacks. And as I never imagined myself black, I always saw myself as someone “queimadinho da praia” (a little burned from being on the beach), in the beaches of Espírito Santo, and not much more than that… I thought: “I am moreno (brown/dark) because I’m more from the beach, period. I didn’t assume my blackness. And then, in front of this fact, a very difficult climate was created. In truth, I never took it upon myself the mission of sitting in that middle table. Usually I sat on the side tables, like the rest of the whites. And at playtime someone shouted: “Wait a minute, there’s an empty chair. Someone’s missing. It’s David.” Then there were half a dozen big German boys pulling me by the legs and arms and putting me in the chair, in the middle of the table. I said: “Wait a minute. You’re offending me publicly. You are attacking me are calling me a negro in front of everyone. That’s an assault. I don’t accept such a thing.” And so they let me go in the middle of that table, I stuck my hand in the jar of water, dropped a couple of glasses, broke some things and left, I went to my room to pack my bags and go leave.

“And there was a trainer who was a very well prepared, very capable, very strategic guy. I was already packing my suitcase, and he said: “What happened?” I said: They called me negro, assaulted me, so I’m offended and I’m leaving.” He said: “All right, if you want to go, go. But do this: stay until at least tonight so we can talk. Let’s talk a little bit, I want to know a little more of what is happening. Afterwards you go. There’s no problem. You want to go, go. You’re an adult.” At night, I went to his room after dinner. And he created a very tranquil environment: “Who is your (futebol) team?” I said: “I am Flamengo.” He complimented Flamengo and suddenly he said: “Do you have here a picture of your mother?” I said: “Yes, I do.” I reached in my wallet, took out a photo of my mother and showed it to him. He looked: “Your mother is white?” I said: “Of course. I’m white, my mother has to be white.” He cut the subject and, once he realized I was totally relaxed, he posed the following question: “Do you have a photo of your father?” I said: “No, I don’t have one, no.” He said: “You don’t have one?” I said: “Yes, friar, I have one, but it’s there in the suitcase.” “Go there and get it.” I said: “But the suitcase is already closed and I’m ready to go..” “You will go, and I want to at least see the photo of your father.”

“I opened the bag, dug deep and got the photo of the father, brought it and showed it to him, completely humiliated. And he said: “Your father is black!” Then there was a general shock. I stopped, didn’t leave, I didn’t move neither forward nor backward nor did I sit down. He took a glass of water and said: “What’s happening?” I couldn’t speak, and he said, “Look, you suffer from a serious illness of which you are not to blame. You suffer from an extremely dangerous, contagious disease. It is called the ‘ideology of embranquecimento (whitening)’. And only you have the remedy to overthrow this disease. If you don’t work, if you don’t attack this disease will ruin yourself altogether and you will always be s suffering person.” I said: “And what’s this disease like?” He said: “This disease causes the person to reject his people, his race, his ethnicity.” He pointed to himelf: “I, German, I read books in German about my people every week. Everything connected to Germany I’m reading, studying my culture, my people. I’m feeding and maintaining. And do you do this?” “No sir. I have never read a book about blacks.”And there began to awaken in me an odd question: “Damn, my father is black and he never said anything about blacks to me.” Then I started to do the reading, go back in history: my father practically neutralized the children in his family. That is, we were all born without knowing his family. He distanced himself from his family and instead connected to my mother’s family, which is white. I began to understand how it developed in us, in me and in my siblings, the rejection of the racial question.

“In 1976, I began the awakening of racial consciousness, critical reading of race relations in Brazil and how very poorly resolved it was, how much it was a source of damage to life, because the beautiful is the person loving himself as God created him. And if I experienced it, I began to wonder: “How do the rest of the blacks live?” And I found that all the black people of the seminar – there were few, there were eight, with me – also denied their racial culture. And I began, in society, in town meetings, where I went, trying to get close to black people and touch on the black theme. And I found that, out of ten, nine did not even want talk about this subject. Then I realized that the rejection was in an overt degree, it was a problem, a national problem. I decided that from then on I didn’t want to be Franciscan because São Francisco (St. Francis) has a proposal of life and has a project of society. I wanted to be Franciscan because I wanted to put this structure of the Franciscan Church to the service of a subject that is not being dealt with well, that is the question of black people.”

Source: Pereira,  Amilcar Araújo. O Mundo Negro: a constituição do movimento negro contemporâneo no Brasil (1970-1995). Dissertation in History defended at Universidade Federal Fluminense in 2010.

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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