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from the July 2016 issue

Falling in Love with Bahia & Brazil: On Negritude, Saudade, & Surrender

Naomi Jackson reflects on her own intellectual and cultural journey, finding affirmation in Afro-Brazilian culture, and a new dimension to her love and fascination for the stories of Black people.

I have been trying actively to stave off a case of Brazil-o-philia since the early 2000s when I lived in pre-gentrification Brooklyn. Preventive care for me looked like resisting the allure of capoeira classes, which offered the promise of instant friendship and community, endless references to obscure terminology, a pet name (as a West Indian, it’s hard for me to resist affectionate teasing and nicknames), and a warrior physique. Determined to keep my hot foot off Brazilian soil, I cut short conversations with friends who traveled to Brazil and caught Luso-fever. I thought that the Caribbean, West Africa, and South Africa, where I’d traveled in search of Blackness that both reflected and diverged from my own in ways that were instructive, affirming, provocative, and occasionally downright maddening, were enough.

But then a series of fortunate events led me to Brazil via Social Justice Leadership’s (SJL) Transformative Leadership Program for grantmakers of color. At that point in my life I’d been working on the program staff of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for four years and was itching for change. It was the eve of my thirtieth birthday and I had turned into something of an ascetic in an effort to reflect upon and change my life. In the summer of 2010, I swore off women and alcohol and threw myself into writing, yoga, work, and family. Six months of somatics training and leadership training melded our crew of folks into something that resembled a dysfunctional family. A fellow participant, Lorelei Williams, the twin sister of a friend who I met through poetry and the heady days of Black lesbian girl gang hangs in Brooklyn, had traveled to and lived in Brazil off and on for years. Lorelei invited me and several SJL alumnae to travel to Salvador da Bahia, the seat of Brazil’s negritude, in November 2010 for a ten-day learning and cultural exchange tour. I knew a little bit more than nothing about Brazil when I went: I’d taken a few capoeira classes that left me barely able to walk. I could say “O meu nome é Naomi” in an alliterative way that made me giggle. I knew that Brazil’s diasporic claim to fame was the fact that it boasted the largest population of Black folks off the African continent.

My initial resistance to Brazil sprung from the same well as my resistance to capoeira, the Brazilian martial art that slaves used to train both body and mind for the resilience required to survive and occasionally escape slavery. Some part of me knew that, in the same way capoeira tested the limits of what I thought my body was capable of, Brazil would push my spiritual, intellectual, and creative limits. So, I stayed away.

It would have been almost impossible for me to resist Brazil forever. Given my love for Black people and fascination with our stories, Brazil’s paramount importance in the historical trans-Atlantic slave trade and its contemporary role as a cultural and economic leader on the world stage, it was inevitable that my travels would lead me there. Which is to say more plainly that one cannot be serious about interrogating Blackness and knowing the African diaspora today and not revere Brazil as a touchstone in that inquiry. I’m a pan-Africanist at heart. I cut my teeth on the writings of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and W.E.B. Dubois in secondary school before studying abroad in Ghana and South Africa. My upbringing was a mash-up of influences and islands. I claim a mongrel Caribbean heritage with roots in Barbados, Antigua, and Jamaica. I spent several summers in these places my parents—and eventually I—came to call home. My travels to and extended stays in the Caribbean punctuated my upbringing in Flatbush and Crown Heights, Brooklyn neighborhoods that I affectionately refer to as “all West Indian, all the time.” While my fiction is generally concerned with the emotional texture of Caribbean and Caribbean-American women’s lives, my eyes are trained on Blackness more generally. I am intrigued by the different expressions of Blackness I’ve found during my travels to places as different as Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, and France, and understand this inquiry to be a lifelong one whose questions will never expire.

As with my childhood study of French, my study of Portuguese was motivated less by a love of the language than by convenience and a love of Black people. I started studying French in seventh grade because my teacher was pretty and smelled good. I continued in prep school because I placed in Honors French; it was the one class where I didn’t feel stupid after years of academic excellence in public school. I was embarrassed when my classmates told me I spoke French like a Southerner; hearing the languor of French as spoken by Senegalese women in Ousmane Sembene’s film Black Girl tied my studies to a greater goal that would take me up and away from a classroom where I wasn’t good enough, closer to the glamorous women in Dakar who filled the screen with their gorgeously Black skin and fresh hairstyles. When I heard Afro-Brazilian people speak Portuguese, first in films like City of God and Bus 174, and then live and direct in Bahia, I fell hard for the ease, lyricism, and lilt in their voices which reminded me of the Anglophone Caribbean family and community I grew up in.

For better or worse, I’m both competitive and near-fatally curious. A dedicated mimic of accents (I can fairly successfully manage a pan-Caribbean accent that is mangled Bajan, Jamaican, and Antiguan with a dose of Trinidadian melody thrown in for good measure), there is nothing more frustrating for me than hearing Black people beautifully speak a language that I have not yet mastered. Within a few hours of landing in Bahia, I had begun to fill a notebook with Portuguese vocabulary. Slowly but surely, I flirted with and learned new words from the woman who served coffee at our hotel—minha írmã, I called to her each morning before asking for a cup de café com leite, savoring the words she repeated back to me with a Bahian accent that was at once indisputably Black and decidedly seductive. The ends of words like doente were soft rather than hard in the mouths of Black Brazilian folks. No small part of my motivation in learning Portuguese was to be able to make a sound that imitated “she” over and over again. As a woman who loves women and is both a hopeless romantic and a wordsmith, “she” is a word of which I know I’ll never tire.

My first trip to Salvador da Bahia in November 2010 was an expertly organized tour focused on deepening understanding of Afro-Brazilian culture and the political climate facing Afro-Brazilians’ movements for social change. We visited veteran community organizer and lawyer Vilma Reis and heard about work by Conselho de Desenvolvimento da Comunidade Negra (CDCN) to secure labor protections for and secure the dignity of Black domestic workers. We were all surprised to learn that domestic worker is still the #1 occupation for Afro-Brazilian women, as it once was in the United States before the Civil Rights Movement. We met Afro-Brazilian students, many of them the first in their families to attend college, who went on to graduate school, studying music, human rights law, and politics, including Paolo Rogério Nunes, director of the Brazilian Institute of Ethnic Media. We learned about affirmative action, not yet a dirty word in Brazil but instead a hard-fought victory to redress the de facto and outright exclusion of Blacks from secondary and higher education. At the Steve Biko Institute, we met students in Biko’s STEM program and learned about the considerable financial, social, and emotional barriers to completing their educations as well as their resilience in the face of them.

While in line for a visa at the Brazilian consulate in New York, the African-American man in front of me warned me that I might go to Brazil and decide to make a life there, as he had. Once I touched down in Bahia, I felt an intense mix of familiarity and intrigue and what I can only describe as hominess, the same as I’d felt the first times I visited the Caribbean as a child and Cape Town, South Africa, as a teenager. Wary as I was of adopting yet another country as second home in the same way I had with Barbados and South Africa, the moment that I saw the gold statues of the orixas floating above the water just past the airport, I knew that this was another place I would long to call home. It didn’t help that we met several Black Americans who’d transplanted themselves to Brazil, including Adjoa Jones de Almeida, an African-American with Brazilian roots who I first met through a community organizing group for young Black women of color in Bushwick, Brooklyn, called Sista II Sista. Adjoa had recently moved to Bahia with her partner, Jason Warwin, cofounder of a Harlem youth leadership organization, Brotherhood/Sisterhood Sol, and their two young children. We marveled at their children’s fluency in English and Portuguese; many of us left inspired by the vision and boldness of their family’s choice to move to and lay down roots in an Afro-Brazilian community. Sitting on the veranda of their compound, talk among the writers assembled and editor Malaika Adero turned to the importance of translating Black Anglophone classics like Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name into Portuguese, as well as introducing American audiences to Afro-Brazilian writers like Conceição Evaristo, whose work has been translated into English but has not yet been embraced by American literary audiences on the level of writers like Clarice Lispector.

Black women’s lives are at the center of my writing. It was no surprise, then, that the highlight of my first trip to Brazil was a visit to Cachoeira, a picturesque town in the northeast corner of the state of Bahia. There, we hobbled up and down cobblestone sidewalks before and after our visit to the Irmandade da Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte (The Sisterhood of Our Lady of the Good Death). This secret society is the oldest and longest-running Black women’s fraternal organization in the Americas. Founded by enslaved Black women, the Sisterhood began in the early nineteenth century as an insurance scheme that afforded the women who belonged the dignity of a proper funeral and burial. The order also collected monies from its members, many of whom generated extra income through small businesses as street and market vendors, to buy each other’s freedom from slavery. The descendants of these women are the baianas, known for their white dresses and turbans and selling acarajé. Though its secret practices and meetings are obscured from public view, visitors from around the world travel to Cachoeira each August for the Boa Morte Festival, and I hope to join them one day. I was deeply moved by the legacy, purpose, and resilience of the Sisterhood of the Good Death; immediately, a new novel idea was born. I knew that this visit to the Sisterhood was my first, but certainly not my last, both literally and figuratively.

When I returned to New York City in the fall of 2010, I was lit up about Brazil. I found myself glued to news about and then exulting in the election of Dilma Rousseff, that country’s first woman president and, importantly for me and the comrades I met in Brazil, an occasional ally with Black-led social movement organizations and causes. I searched for but did not find Brazilian Portuguese classes that fit with my schedule, and consoled myself with Berlitz Portuguese audio lessons during my commute. The following fall, I started the graduate creative writing program at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. As luck would have it, a partnership with the US State Department and Brazil designed to foster exchange between African-Americans and Afro-Brazilians enabled me to begin free Portuguese lessons with Rosetta Stone in September. By the next spring, I was taking Portuguese classes five mornings a week, a step toward my new goal of translating Afro-Brazilian literature from Portuguese to English. I studied Portuguese for the next two years through classes, discussion groups, films, and books, and have found myself recently reignited about this work. Although I have yet to translate work from Portuguese or French for Anglophone audiences, this is a decisive next step on my journey as a writer and editor.

There is a new generation of Afro-Brazilian writers, including Lívia Natália and Edimilson de Almeida Pereira, whose work would benefit from translation into English and should be in conversation with that of writers across the African diaspora, breaking through the existing chains of cultural exchange that are generally hampered by linguistic segregation. I’m encouraged by a 2015 conversation in Cachoeira between Lívia Natália and African-American author Sapphire of Precious fame; more pairings of Black writers from the States and Brazil, and other parts of the diaspora including the Caribbean and Africa, would allow for a much richer literary community and conversation that takes advantage of the literal and virtual border crossings made possible by globalization.

John Keene’s essay for Harriet, the Poetry Foundation’s blog, “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” outlines urgently and in great detail the need for a commitment by Stateside translators and publishers to translate and publish the work of Black writers as well as work by women and LGBTQ people. Keene implores: “ . . . we have a truer and fuller sense of the Black diaspora, and thus the globe, when we have translations of the vast body of work out there.”

I hope to answer Keene’s call not just with this essay but also with my own efforts as a translator, helping to bring Afro-Brazilian literature to Anglophone readers. Through this work, I look forward to contributing to a necessary, evolving dialogue that broadens definitions of global Blackness, a conversation to which Brazil has much to contribute. 

© 2016 by Naomi Jackson. All rights reserved.

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