Who are the references for our black children?
From a very early age, the imagination of children drives dreams of who they aspire to be when grow to be adults. But for black children, who are some of the prominent blacks that they look to for inspiration?
By Marques Travae
Gabriele is nine years old and is a fan of actress Taís Araújo. Eva Tainara is only five years old, but already she wants to be like Globo TV journalist Maria Júlia Coutinho. Igor, 8, admires the hairstyle worn by futebol superstar Neymar while Ana Luiza is inspired by the player’s talent on the field. Sara Beatriz is only seven years old, but there are already three women who she looks up to and who divide her desires of who she most wants to be like. The first is the model who is most associated with Brazilian Carnaval, the mulata Globeleza. The second is Raíssa Santana, who became the first black woman to be elected Miss Brasil in thirty years. The third is singer Ludmilla, who recently reached a milestone when she achieved 10 million followers on Instagram and became the most followed black woman in Brazil.
As the media has such a powerful influence on how people see themselves and the world, one can only imagine how important people who are regularly featured on television and film are in the world of the child. We all know stories of current star athletes, singers, actors, etc. who have spoken about the people who influenced them to become who they are when they were children. José Rivair Macedo, professor of history of Africa and coordinator of the Núcleo de Estudos Afro-Brasileiros, Indígenas e Africanos (Center for Afro-Brazilian, indigenous and African Studies) at Ufrgs (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul), points this out:
“It is very likely that the children in general and not just black children have as reference personalities valued in the media, associated with the idea of success, economic power and prestige. We have to go beyond the icons of the consumer society,” said Macedo.
But even though the media may influence all children, regardless of race, seeing prominent people who look like them in the media is arguably even more important for black children, as in Brazilian society at large, the vast majority of prominent positions are usually filled by people with white skin, straight hair and European features. Added to this dominance in social areas, Brazilian culture itself reproduces a preference for this whiteness in everyday interactions that impressionable children easily pick up on. For this reason, having positive role models is extremely important for the development of self-esteem and a positive racial identity for black children who will carry these influences into their adult lives.
“Since adolescence, via my friends following the fashion magazines and I couldn’t identify with the modelos de cabelos lisos e loiros (models with straight, blond hair). I suffered a lot from that,” says 29-year old Pavithra, an organizer of the women’s collective known as Meninas Black Power based in Rio de Janeiro. In terms of role models, standards of beauty and references, Pavithra’s memories of growing in the neighborhood of Irajá on Rio’s north side are similar to that other black girls growing up in her generation. The stars and the women that all of the girls idolized and wanted to be like were people like popular children’s TV program hosts Xuxa and Mara Maravilha, both white women. Wanting to emulate Xuxa and Mara, Pavithra was naturally influenced to start straightening her hair. Unfortunately, at that time, Brazil’s media didn’t have any prominent black women with natural hair that all of the girls wanted to be like. For Pavithra, the singer Mel B. of the popular British girl group the Spice Girls was the first popular reference that would eventually lead her to accepting her natural hair.
“We need affirmative models, but not only Miss Brazil, on the news, the protagonist of the novela (soap opera), but also brilliant black mathematicians, physicists, engineers. We need those who are what we want to be,” concluded Tainá.
Sometimes having a positive reference in which to see oneself doesn’t necessarily have to be a person of prominence in the local or national media. Sometimes such a role can be played by an important person in the community, such as a teacher. This was the case for 34-year old Maríndia de Moura Gomes Kubiaki. Kubiaki clearly remembers the impression that a teacher of cultura afro (African culture) made on her. Remembering her as a pretty mulata with cabelos crespos (kinky/curly hair), Maríndia was able to understand the importance of liking the reflection that one sees in the mirror. Having applied this belief in her own life, it was only natural that Maríndia would pass this message on to her own daughters, Eva Tainara Moura Leotti, five, and Gabriele Machado Moura, who is nine.
“After that class, I freed myself. In adolescence, we had to maintain the standard, they were all girls with straight hair. When you create your identity, accept yourself and like yourself, people will come to understand you. When you follow a standard, nobody can see you,” explains Maríndia.
For little Eva Nabil, even being a shorty, there’s already no doubt as to who she looks up to. A few years back, it was big news when it was announced that Maria Júlia Coutinho, who would later become known as simply Maju, would become the first black woman to cover weather reports on Brazil’s top night news program, Globo’s Jornal Nacional. And whatever Maju does, says, what clothes she wears and how she wears her hair, little Eva picks up on to the point that she can do a pretty good imitation of the journalist.
“Good evening, I’m Maju, it will be sunny and rainy in Porto Alegre,” says Eva in her best Coutinho voice.
Although a fan of Taís Araújo, arguably Brazil’s most successful black female actress, Gabriele also identifies with lawyers because, in her view, this profession protects the rights of everyday people.
“It’s important for children to have this reference. We are how we are, each one has their beauty,” says Maríndia.
Having become the first black woman to earn the title of Miss Brasil in thirty years and only the second since the pageant began in 1954, Raíssa became a reference for millions of black girls across Brazil in 2016. Two of those girls were sisters Sara Beatrice, seven, and Ana Luiza, nine, who watched the competition together with their mother, 36-year old Edilaine Rosângela Oliveira.
“Sara sees black women on TV and loves it. She says he’s going to be the Globeleza and was delighted with the Miss Brasil,” says Edilaine.
Among Sara’s passions is also dancing and the girl loves a wide variety of music, but funk and pagoda are at the top of her list when she feels like dancing. Asked which singer she currently likes, and the young girl doesn’t hesitate to affirm that she wants to be like funk/MPB singer Ludmilla.
Edilaine also understands the importance of having successful people in whom they can see themselves. And luckily for her girls, they don’t have to look only to famous singers and athletes to see positive, successful role models because they have examples of established, professional black women within the family.
“Nós somos negros (we are black), it’s our race and we are beautiful like this,” says Edilaine proudly. Further demonstrating how she identifies with the necessity of her daughters having successful role models, Edilaine goes on to name people like journalist Glória Maria, and actresses Isabel Fillardis, Neuza Borges and Taís Araújo as black women she identified with before mother to Sara and Ana.
Like Pavithra and countless other black girls, Edilaine also went through her methods of imitating straight hair. When she was a little girl, Edilaine would put a cloth on her head to mimic long straight, hair that move and swing with the movement of her head.
“It was the profile of the time. Today, girls want the black (afro/natural hair). Also, I’ve done a lot of braids in their hair,” she says speaking of her daughters.
Being a girl doesn’t hinder Ana Luiza’s respect and admiration for the skills of futebol superstar Neymar, Jr. Go to any neighborhood throughout Brazil and you’ll find groups of boys kicking soccer balls around or playing FIFA 2016 imitating their favorite stars. But there are also quite a few girls who also like and play the sport. In women’s futebol, the biggest star of the last decade is also known by a single name: Marta. But this doesn’t diminish Ana Luiza’s fondness for the former Santos star. Ana is also a girl who likes to participate in the sport. Her seven-year old cousin acknowledges the girl’s skills with a soccer ball even though she “commits a few penalties”. He would know as he used to play with the girl in the family’s neighborhood of Santa Cecilia in Viamão.
“I will support what she wants to be”
Lisandra Viana Macedo, 36, is an administrative assistant who, like Maríndia, lives in the neighborhood of Humaitá, feels that the historic election and two-term presidency of Barack Obama brought more visibility to black people. But even understanding the importance of the image of someone like Obama for black people around the world, she doesn’t think it’s necessary her little man, 8-year old Igor Macedo Alves, look to a famous black person to draw inspiration.
“I prefer that he have his personality. Like an artist, being a fan, that’s okay, because they worked hard to be there. But I think it’s important for him to study. I will support what he wants to be, but without influence,” she explains.
Anyone who has followed the career of Brazil’s biggest futebol star of the past few years, Neymar, knows of the athlete’s penchant for making statements with new hairstyles. Since becoming “the man” in Brazil, some of the superstar’s styles became the subject of hundreds or thousands of memes. Sometimes it seems that Neymar’s hair (and recently his tumbles) get as much attention as his moves on the field. And for young Igor, Neymar’s skills as well as his hair, are a huge influence. While the boy is constantly honing his skills as a player, his desire to copy Neymar’s many hairstyles are a little more problematic for his mother, especially when the eight-year wanted to straighten his hair in an attempt to be like Neymar.
Neymar has changed his hairstyle and color numerous times since becoming a pitch boy for numerous products, but the issue of his choosing to straighten his naturally kinky/curly hair has been an issue for some black parents who struggle with instilling an acceptance of African features in their children in a country that teaches them to reject these features, particularly their hair, on a regular basis. It seems that every day, we become aware of another black child who was the subject of ridicule in school because of their hair texture.
As if that weren’t enough, there was a time when young Igor also wanted to imitate his idol by bleaching his hair blond, a practice that countless young boys and teens adapted when the Neymar’s fame began to explode after he began playing in Europe. Igor also wanted to grow out what Brazilians call a black power, meaning an afro, as well, but a closely cropped ‘do eventually won out. But even keeping his a cut low to his scalp, Igor’s mother still manages to use a razor to make designs that give him a unique look.
Igor’s cousin is six and like most little Brazilian boys, he is also a futebol fan, his favorite player Vitinho (Victor Vinícius Coelho dos Santos) coincidentally sharing his name. The star-making power of YouTube is responsible for the inspiration of Lisandra’s daughter, Luísa Reis. Luísa is an avid follower of the Bel para meninas channel that has over 6.5 million subscribers. Although Luísa looks nothing like Bel (most people would not classify Bel as black), the popular channel has inspired Luísa to consider getting into the YouTube game herself. Still interested in the things that little girls of her age are into, according to Ana Cristina, her mother, Luisa isn’t consumed by her appearance at this point, but devotes her time to her interests, which include books and videos.
As the children and even the mothers of the article show, famous people play an important role in the lives of young people who look to these figures as sources of inspiration. And in many ways, there’s nothing wrong with that. Most of us have looked up to a famous person at one time or another as someone we look up to and want to be like when we grow up. But what is problematic in Brazil, is that it is almost a necessity for black children to look to athletes and entertainers in order to see role models that look like them. As Brazilian society has long been based on racial inequality, when we look at the important roles that have an influence on society, it has only been in the past few decades that Afro-Brazilians have been able to make strides in which it is becoming more common to see black doctors, lawyers, politicians, business people and CEOs. In recent years, there’s also been a debate as to whether seeing the Globeleza Mulata shaking and gyrating nearly nude on television every year should really be considered an ideal role model for a young girl such as Sara Beatriz.
Make no mistake, there’s nothing wrong with looking up to people such as Taís Araújo, Neymar or Ludmilla, but until it becomes more common to see black people caring for people’s health, defending rights in a courtroom or making laws that contribute to a more egalitarian world, black children will continue to look to the few black people they see on TV as sources of inspiration, which in some ways puts limits on their aspirations of what they can eventually become, as such images subtly send a message as to what is possible for a black person. This can only change when, in addition to Taís, Neymar and Ludmilla, our children also know Sonia Guimarães, Rachel Maia and Nilma Lino Gomes.