“They insisted on erasing the black memory of my family from the documents”: the connection between hair and identity

Jéssica Moreira - Photo credit: Tamiris Gomes
Jéssica Moreira – Photo credit: Tamiris Gomes

Note from BW of Brazil: Hair texture and the whitening of racial identity. They are common themes here on the blog but extremely important for understanding racial dynamics in Brazil. From the history of officially whitening the records of non-whites in the late 19th century, to more recent personal experiences of the black category being deleted, registrars questioning why someone wouldn’t choose the white category, to the police lightening a group of blacks in an incident report, Brazil continues to show that it is uncomfortable not being a completely white country. In reality, most Brazilian women who have a similar appearance as the woman in today’s post, avoid identifying themselves as negras. Much easier to be “moreninha” (a little brown skinned) or even better branca (white). Right in the middle of this issue of identity is the question of hair texture, which often defines if a light-skinned mestiça (person of mixed race) can “pass” as white. It’s only been in recent decades that an increasing number of afrodescendentes (African descendants) have raised the issue of the association of beauty with straight hair, but the number of people abandoning hair straightening techniques, understanding racism and discovering themselves as black people continues to grow. Below is another example of this. 

“They insisted on erasing the black memory of my family from the documents”

by Jéssica Moreira

Sou negra (I’m black). Today I know. I’m proud, I’ve let my hair down and with it I arm myself against any prejudice. Sou negra. I carry this flag, I swing it with force and I’ll go over whom I need to.

Sou negra, but I grew up a criança branca (white child). In the registrar’s office, I only saw the fair complexion of my father. They made an issue of deleting from the papers the black memory of my family. The broad nose of my mother. The cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair) of my aunts. Sou negra. But throughout my childhood they shouted “moreninha” at me, the most moreninha among my thin, white cousins, with straight hair down to their waist.

Sou negra. Regardless of the mixed tone of my skin – black, red, yellow – sou negra. I was born with a lot of hair, I grew up with even more hair yet. Cabelo ruim (bad hair). Embarrassing hair. Cabelo crespo that went down my whole back and my heart aching from insults. Therefore, it turned into tied down hair. And it remained imprisoned until seven years ago when I cut it into a chanelzinho (bob) with one hope: it will grow straight. A foolish mistake.

Wash it, tie it to the back, comb the tangled bunch of curls in order to go to school. Until that, at 9, I discovered the chapinha (flattening iron) and the artificial happiness it provided me. I was only beautiful when the locks were smooth. Before, I had tried relaxers, nothing worked. It was too voluminous, the hairdressers said.

There began the dictatorship of my life. Until, at 17, was formaldehyde’s turn, the escova progressive (Brazilian keratin treatment) that promised an eternal miracle. The first one turned out right, while the second almost suffocated me to death, except for the promises that I would never straighten my hair with chemicals (again). For three years I waited for my hair to grow, enduring the curly root with the rest straight.

In this process, I still used the escova and chapinha every week. Curly hair to go to college and to work. But straight hair for the weekend, the party, a date. For me, no one would ever be interested in me with curly hair. Until one day, I discovered there, at the side of my house, an almost village called Comunidade Cultural Quilombaque (Quilombaque Cultural Community) concentrated with many women with curly hair, black power (afro), braids and voluminous hair. And how  beautiful they were!

I discovered there that I could be beautiful, I could also free myself of the shackles that still today enslave me, still today mutilate memories and destroy our identity. Of my 20 years until now, escovas and chapinhas were decreasing. I had a job interview in which the boss also had cabelo crespo (curly/kinky hair) making me believe in the revolution of the tresses. In 2013, I only straightened my hair twice. And this year, not once.

Jessica Moreira / Photo credit: Andrea Martin
Jessica Moreira / Photo credit: Andrea Martin

My curls today seem like a luxury item. On the train, the bus or even on the plane. “Wow, mine was like that. But I think it’s only beautiful on others.” “Excuse miss, with due all respect, but your hair is cool like that, really different.” Different? This is the natural hair of the majority of the women of this Brazil. But, like me, were raised in a racist society, that hides our beauty behind our suffering.

How many years I suffered. How often I locked myself in my room cursing my hair until my last generation of ancestors. How many times I denied myself, I held my story within me, within the standards of Hollywood movies.

I blamed myself for a fault that was not mine. Since they “forgot” to make the Barbie with a potato nose; the novela with black women in power; curly hair as the Sunday afternoon attraction. And today, hearing from my mother that my great-grandmother was a slave, showing off my hair is redeeming what I lost between the attempts of straightening; it is finding myself with the memory lost in the middle of the photos in black and white. It is the certainty that the chains of that great-grandmother are being shattered by my strands, today, curly.

Source: Nós, mulheres da periferia

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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