“You are African?” The words fell from her mouth like a ton of bricks. For several moments, my synapses short-circuited under their weight. Save for her inflection, she could’ve spoken either a question or an affirmation. Maybe it was a reminder.
Adorned in a shimmering silver headwrap and a billowing white dress, the beautiful baiana woman looked at me with a quizzical gaze, acarajé (deep-fried balls of peeled black-eyed peas) in hand. Even if my language skills were up to par, I’m not sure I could have offered her a substantive response in my current state of mental paralysis. Standing in the middle of Praça da Sé in Salvador, Bahia—the country’s repository for African culture—I was caught in a quandary that my African and African-American studies degree couldn’t rescue me from. Was I, in fact, African?
Since the day I got off the plane in Brazil, I felt ensnared in an irreconcilable identity crisis. Over the course of two months, I visited the country’s three largest cities (Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and São Paulo) along with some of its smaller coastal towns. On each leg of my journey, I encountered a succession of experiences that made me critically question the construct of racial classification in relation to the African diaspora. As if growing up Black in America hadn’t wounded my psyche enough. So why would someone with a mediocre-at-best comprehension of Portuguese travel halfway around the world to incur a racial complex, you ask?
To be quite frank, I went because I had to. I left for a reprieve from American culture and the everyday stressors of living in New York City. I left to explore the social stratification and the myriad of vibrant cultures within a country that I’d been enamored with since my college days. For the past year and change, I’d been rolling in the deep end of a lethargic state brought on by a nebulous, self-imposed career transition. Brazil served as a reset button to help me realign my inner compass. So with mere sketches of travel and accommodation plans in hand, I left.
A few weeks before I arrived in Salvador, I’d been living in a gated apartment building in the sought-after neighborhood of Copacabana. Yet after two days, it was over-apparent I was in direct contrast with my surroundings and my own purpose. With a few exceptions, it’s uncommon to see Blacks living in Copacabana. The prolonged stares from children in strollers and general passersby confirmed it.
Flaunting one of the world’s most desirable beaches, Copacabana is an upper middle class neighborhood with little tolerance for the have-nots. But don’t let the smooth taste fool you. Copacabana is also a neighborhood where some of the most luxurious condominiums sit directly across the street from favelas recently (and reluctantly) relinquished by reigning drug lords to the statewide pacifying police force. I knew that’s where I had to go.
Raised in a housing project in the Washington, D.C. area, I naturally wanted to get a better grasp of relative poverty in the country. With that I fled my comfy confines and moved into a very modest two-room barraco house in the Rio de Janeiro favela of Vidigal, living with an Argentinean artist couple and their 2-year-old, Yoko Ono. (Their unborn son will be named Tupac. He will not be Black.) In Vidigal, I began to comprehend favela life through a pastiche of gestures, an exchange of fragmented English and Portuguese, and Google Translate.
A close cousin of the shantytown, the favela should qualify as the eighth world wonder. How these neighborhoods remain ensconced on the inclines of Rio’s steepest hillsides, stacked vertically like a gravity-defying game of Jenga, is nothing short of a marvel. Amongst a labyrinthine series of alleys and streets, the city’s poor population has cultivated tightly woven self-sufficient communities akin to that of a citadel. There are grocery stores, pharmacies, fashion boutiques, dish/cable TV shops, restaurants, health clinics, post offices… and brown folks of varying hues. Yet as much as I attempted to highlight our diasporic commonalities, it was apparent from day one that I was different.
“Because you’re Black.” A good friend in New York, a Rio native, offered these words in attempts to assuage any remaining reservations I had about living in a favela. After explaining that my race would act as a theft deterrent of sorts to would-be miscreants, I felt peculiarly at ease. But as I became more acclimated with the community, I became fully aware that no one there was Black like me.
“Hey, Bob Marley!” The light brown-skinned man running the store off the main road smiled broadly, waving emphatically in my direction. To many there, that was my identity. It was a stereotype, a compliment, a misnomer. They stared. They touched my hair without permission. I was peculiar, intriguing, Black.
I began to contrast our conditionings. I was weaned on a steady residual diet of Jim Crow and segregation. They were fed the fodder of racial democracy, born out of branqueamento (or blanching/whitening). I was made to feel inferior via a series of institutionalized direct current shocks to the system. They were mestizo. I was Black. I was out of context.
“But you’re not really Black.” In her earnest attempts to explain Brazil’s complex system of racial categorization, the girl in São Paulo threw me further into a paradigm tailspin. A pulsing urban metropolis with many parallels to New York City, the Black visage in São Paulo was just as elusive as in the other cities I’d visited. Identifiably Black people were rarely featured in print advertisements or billboards. And Blacks with kinky hair were virtually unseen in that realm. According to this paulista, I could be considered moreno in Brazilian society.
But how would my dreadlocks factor into the equation?
“I think it depends on whether you straighten your hair or not.” Coming from a White paulista raised in America, that was definitely a notable comment. But there seemed to be a seed of truth there. The shelves of most department stores in the city are stocked with one of their hottest commodities: hair relaxers. Many women supplement it with hair weaves of varying textures and colors.
Standing on one of the busiest corners of downtown Sao Paulo, I asked a self-identified Black buddy to help me make sense of it all by racially labeling passersby. His responses were surprising, to say the least. “Preta… branco… amarelo… moreno…” In his estimation it was skin color, not hair texture, that was the determining factor for categorization.
Unpacking my trip several weeks later, I have yet to decipher the code. My understanding of their perception of their African heritage remains lost in translation. There’s no widely held notion of Pan-Africanism or blackness in Brazil. To them, we are not brothers and sisters. Distant cousins, at best.
Racial democracy has created the climate for so many blurred lines and states of denial. Nonetheless, I’m glad for my experiences: painting elaborate graffiti pieces in broad daylight; being racially profiled in a Louis Vuitton store in Leblon; inadvertently walking into a full-scale protest, complete with tear gas, shattered windows and street fires; traveling to a remote coastal village to see an obscure Keith Haring mural. I could literally write a book. Through them all, I emerged with a reaffirmed sense of purpose, focus and, oddly enough, blackness.
Washington, D.C. native Rico Washington is a New York City-based journalist and singer/ songwriter whose work has appeared in Okayplayer.com, Wax Poetics and Upscale. Visit www.superbizzee.com or follow him on Twitter @superbizzee.