Note from BW of Brazil: In today’s feature we bring you an update on a project happening between Brazil and Africa in which a number of Brazilians of African descent are discovering their roots through DNA testing. We introduced the project back in September in a piece called “Documentary project ‘Brasil: DNA África’ helps 150 Afro-Brazilians trace their ancestral roots“. Although I will admit that I’m not one to wholly accept the results of these tests as flaws have been found over years, it’s still exciting to see the historical exchange between Africa and its descendants, a bond that was interrupted by a brutal system of human bondage that affected millions of people from across the African and American continents. In today’s report, we follow the journey of one Afro-Brazilian woman from Rio de Janeiro to Africa’s most populous nation in search of her roots.
‘Blacks can’t live mourning about slavery’
By João Fellet
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Brazil received at least 4.8 million enslaved Africans, all forced to abandon their identity when boarding for the country.
The production company Cine Group invited 150 Brazilians to take a DNA test to identify the place of origin of their African ancestors. After the results, the production followed the travel of five participants to the regions of their ancestors.
The recordings will lead to the television series Brasil: DNA África, to be released in the coming months (the production company is still negotiating the rights for broadcasting). The BBC Brasil interviewed two participants about the experience.
Read below the story of the Rio-based artist and entrepreneurial Juliana Luna, 29, who found out she is a descendant of the Yoruba people of Nigeria:
“In Bolivia, where I spent part of my childhood, there is a funny superstition. When they see a black person, many have the custom of pinching him. They think this is lucky. I returned from school full of pinches, and one day my mother had to go talk to the director.
Even so, I only started to question my origins in earnest much later, at 17, when I lived in Rio and shaved my head. It was very long, the result of a relaxation process.
It was a relief. My mother thought I was disturbed and wanted to take me to a psychologist. I said I needed to understand who I was.
I let my hair grow naturally and began to identify myself as negra (black). As a teenager, I saw myself as parda (mixed/brown) – because when I said I was negra, people responded: ‘Imagine that!’, as if this were something bad.(1)
When the Brasil: DNA África exam showed that I descended from the Yoruba of Nigeria, I didn’t believe it. It had been a while since I had been giving workshops on how to assemble turbans. And who taught me how to do them was a Yoruba family I met in Boston (USA).
I had gone to spend a holiday in a friend’s house and when I saw those wonderful women with turbans out and about, I thought, ‘I need this in my life.’
I was in a difficult situation, living in a toxic relationship. When I put on the turban it was filling me with strength, reinvigorating me in a way that I could not understand. It was my crown.
In Nigeria, I interviewed the musician Femi Kuti, a man who uses his art as a form of activism. He said the African people had no time to cry, living to mourn for the people sacrificed by slavery. He compared it with the case of the Jews, who suffered the Holocaust but then had a period of healing and reconciliation.
In Germany, every time it changes the prime minister (chancellor), he/she has to ask for forgiveness for the massacre of the Jews. This didn’t happen in our case, everything was always thrown under the carpet.
I also interviewed Wole Soyinka, the first black person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He had a super strong voice – seemed like a god – and told me that the only thing that can make reconciliation happen is art, which alone can build a bridge between universes so broken. Because art creates reverberations and is a language that everyone can understand.
I was deeply impressed with the conversations and I thought that with my art with the turbans, I am creating micro-reverberations. Because I don’t teach just for black women, but also for white women.
When I was invited to the Fátima Bernardes program (Encontro), on Globo TV, I did a turban on her head. People were very troubled not only by the fact that she, a representative of the white Brazilian elite, had worn a turban, but because I, a black woman, had made the turban on her.
I saw it as a ‘hacking’, a way to construct a dialogue, so that we move forward to the next level.
We are often aggressive and we were in this you-me duality, but not always does the conflict help us grow. My way to hack the system was to make a turban on an elite woman on national television. No harm, only educating.
The trip to Nigeria awakened me to the importance of connecting with our ancestry. There I learned that in Yoruba philosophy, we all belong to a line, sewn and connected to everything that refers to the ancestors.
So when a child is born, it is not named on the first day. The elders get together and ask the spirits of the ancestors what it should be called. The name is the mission of that person’s life.
There I also heard that, regardless of skin color, we are all connected and there is a stream of collective consciousness. It’s not because I’m not Jewish that I will not feel empathy for what the Jews suffered in the Holocaust. When you put yourself in another’s place, you are no longer you and become the other.
That’s what’s lacking on the question of blacks. If each seek that connection, take responsibility and ask for forgiveness, we see that we are all in the same boat.”
- A very common experience among Brazilians who come to identify themselves as negros/negras rather than the plethora of racially-ambiguous terms (such as pardo/parda) that are so common. It speaks to a significant rise in black identity that has taken place in Brazil over the past few decades.
How so Vernell? All she wanted to do was discover her heritage.
Blacks in Latin-America have a long way to go, as it relates to loving and nurturing their blackness. Lord Knows, my emotions have been all over the map with our kinfolk south of the border. As African-Americans, it’s hard for us to understand how other blacks can hate what so many around the globe obsess over. Yeah, we went thru our shame phase, but, that was decades ago. I’m pissed about it just like other sistas and brothas. But, we have to keep nagging and nagging until the status quo changes in Brazil/Latin-America. Folk need to understand, this is about us. We’ve been enslaved and raped by Europeans for centuries. At some point, this bs has to stop. Us hating ourselves is unacceptable…Period!
Very interesting Thanks for sharing this. The whole identity thing is a minefield, as is the overall tapestry of human existence. I do appreciate the even-handed and objective view you’ve taken of a very subjective matter. I am curious. Were you seen as “black” when you came to Nigeria!? Pardos/pardas in Nigeria are seen as white. FYI, I am Jewish/Nigerian. Not Yoruba, though. We are the Itsekiris of the Niger Delta.
In Africa, biracials are not seen as black…Why? They’re wise enuf to know that racist whites will use the mixed ones to embed white supremacy in the black family. Honestly, I agree with that sentiment. In America, the half-breeds are treated as honorary whites. Given all sorts of advantages and opportunities that real blacks are not given. Why should we keep punking ourselves just to make them feel good? Blackness is a means to an end for them, not set in stone. Don’t say you’re black if you don’t mean it!!!
From where I sit in Zambia far south of the African equator, a person of mixed race is certainly not referred to as black. They are mixed race, period. They don’t have any better opportunities than blacks but they are also not viewed as white. So from our perspective out here, America is yet to have a black President because Obama couldn’t be labled black if his mom was white.