Anti-Racist Feminisms in Brazil
As the largest and most populous nation in Latin America, Brazil is often at the center of conversations about how to theorize and resist racism and patriarchy in the Americas. The challenges facing anti-racist feminists today are profound. President Jair Bolsonaro is openly hostile to feminist, Black, and indigenous social movements. As Thula Pires described in vivid detail in her presentation, the Bolsonaro government’s neglectful and incoherent response to COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on already marginalized groups.
To understand how academics and activists are conceptualizing the challenges and opportunities presented by the current political conjuncture, Yale Comparative Literature Associate Professor Moira Fradinger organized a trilingual conversation on “Anti-Racist Feminisms in Brazil,” held on March 26, 2021.
As part of a series of conversations on gender in Latin America led by Moira Fradinger through Yale’s Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies in collaboration with the Centro de Investigaciones Y Estudios de Género at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (CIEG-UNAM), the meeting brought together activists and academics whose work analyses Brazilian politics, urban space, art, and history through the lenses of class, race, and gender.
Doctoral candidate at the Freie Universität and documentary filmmaker, Juliana Streva, opened the panel with her talk, “Quilombo Politics Todays: Fugitive Routes from the End of the World.” The quilombo dates from the Portuguese colonization of South America and refers to a community of people, mostly African or Afro-descendant, who fled from slavery and formed their own society outside of the slave society’s norms and institutions. Although quilombos existed until the nineteenth century, they were rarely allowed to remain independent for long, given that they posed an existential threat to plantation slavery.
Streva described quilombos as a “rupture from the inside” of Brazilian society. Rather than seeing the quilombo as a historical phenomenon, Streva drew from the thinking of the poet and scholar Maria Beatriz Nascimento to assert that the quilombo is part of a “continuum of anticolonial gestures and struggles that propose alternative forms of living together today.” Giving evidence for how the quilombo has been used in feminist and anti-racist politics and art to “reclaim and evoke demonocracy” and challenge a “system where profit is put above life,” Streva offered the quilombo as a model for reforming Brazil’s democracy and economy.
In “Imagining, feeling, and hearing knowledge otherwise,” Léa Tosold also drew on Maria Beatriz Nascimiento’s extensive writings on the quilombo to probe the institution’s potential as a model for contemporary anti-racist feminist political formations in Brazil. A member of the Department of Political Science at the University of São Paulo, Tosold focused on Nascimiento’s poetry about the quilombos:
The quilombo is an advancement, it is to produce or reproduce a moment of peace. Quilombo is a warrior when it needs to be a warrior. Ant it is also a retreat if the struggle is not necessary. It is sapience, a wisdom. It is the continuity of life, the act of creating a happy moment, even when the enemy is powerful, and even when he wants to kill you. The resistance. A possibility in days of destruction.
Summarizing the transhistorical and transformational possibilities of thinking with quilombos, Tosold said: “Quilombo evokes the memory of past and ongoing violences but in a way that does not merely raise crisis; its goal is more proposal than reactive. It aims to ensure the flouring in spite of everything.”
For Tosold, the implications of using the quilombo to inspire contemporary anti-racist feminist politics are threefold: ancestors exert agency in today’s world; building another world is not something only possibly in some distant future, but is an effort of the present that builds on the past; and the mere fact of the past living in the present does not preclude us from transforming the present.
Nathalia Carneiro also offered insight on how to build a new world in a present shaped by the enduring legacies of slavery and patriarchy. In “Origin and creation: on Black Feminist Poetics in Brazil,” Carneiro opened her presentation by vividly counterposing her personal experience of living through COVID-19 in São Paulo with the impressions of Lauren Olamina, a character from Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower, who also faced an apocalypse.
The world is full of painful stories. Sometimes, it seems that they are the only kind of story that exists and, even so, I found myself thinking how beautiful that drop of water was between the trees.
“With no gas or electricity, during the red phase of COVID-19, there were few cars on the street, and the sky was more beautiful and [she] had ever seen it in São Paulo,” a megalopolis of over ten million people. Carneiro used this poetic epigraph from Butler to draw links between US and Brazilian Black feminist poetics. Black feminist thought from both Brazil and the US offer ways of imagining progress and beauty even in the midst of apocalypse, a situation which has haunted indigenous and Black communities in the Americas since colonization and to which they have responded with imagination and beauty.
Also exploring the urban landscape of COVID-19, Thula Pires closed the panel with her presentation, “Death policies: COVID-19 and the labyrinths of the black city.” Pires considered how vulnerability during the pandemic was shaped by gender and race. Recalling Frantz Fanon’s notion of the white and black city, she noted how the pandemic response in São Paulo was experienced by black women as a kind of double vulnerability. The black city, which Fanon understood as a woman-city, was not allowed the option of quarantining and social distancing. Black women disproportionately lived in crowded neighborhoods and their economic vulnerability meant they had to go out into the street, enduring pollution and harassment as well as heightened susceptibility to illness. At the same time, in the gated communities of the white city, it was possible to shut oneself off from both harassment and epidemiological vulnerability.
Punctuating Pires’ talk about COVID-19 and the dynamics of racial segregation was the noise of the São Paulo street coming through her window, an audio reminder to the nearly 100 people tuned into the panel of the urgency of intersectional analyses for understanding contemporary Brazil. This panel was the second in a series of conversations on intersectional feminism, focused on bringing together speakers on these topics from the global South. To learn about upcoming talks, follow LAIGN or CLAIS on Twitter.
By Joshua Mentanko