The very Black in Nina Simone’s skin…

From the New Yorker:

A Raised Voice

How Nina Simone turned the movement into music.

by Claudia Ruth Pierpont

“My skin is black,” the first woman’s story begins, “my arms are long.” And, to a slow and steady beat, “my hair is woolly, my back is strong.” Singing in a club in Holland, in 1965, Nina Simone introduced a song she had written about what she called “four Negro women” to a young, homogeneously white, and transfixed crowd. “

And one of the women’s hair,” she instructed, brushing her hand lightly across her own woolly Afro, “is like mine.” Every performance of “Four Women” caught on film (as here) or disk is different. Sometimes Simone coolly chants the first three women’s parts—the effect is of resigned weariness—and at other times, as on this particular night, she gives each woman an individual, sharply dramatized voice. All four have names. Aunt Sarah is old, and her strong back has allowed her only “to take the pain inflicted again and again.” Sephronia’s yellow skin and long hair are the result of her rich white father having raped her mother—“Between two worlds I do belong”—and Sweet Thing, a prostitute, has tan skin and a smiling bravado that seduced at least some of the eager Dutch listeners into the mistake of smiling, too. And then Simone hit them with the last and most resolutely up to date of the women, improbably named Peaches. “My skin is brown,” she growled ferociously, “my manner is tough. I’ll kill the first mother I see. ’Cause my life has been rough.” (One has to wonder what the Dutch made of killing that “mother.”) If Simone’s song suggests a history of black women in America, it is also a history of long-suppressed and finally uncontainable anger.

A lot of black women have been openly angry these days over a new movie about Simone’s life, and it hasn’t even been released. The issue is color, and what it meant to Simone to be not only categorically African-American but specifically African in her features and her very dark skin. Is it possible to separate Simone’s physical characteristics, and what they cost her in this country, from the woman she became? Can she be played by an actress with less distinctively African features, or a lighter skin tone? Should she be played by such an actress? The casting of Zoe Saldana, a movie star of Dominican descent and a light-skinned beauty along European lines, has caused these questions—rarely phrased as questions—to dog the production of “Nina,” from the moment Saldana’s casting was announced to the completed film’s début, at Cannes, in May, at a screening confined to possible distributors….

[read more @ http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/11/raised-voice]

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African Divinity, Black Gods

This week I have chosen to explore the Orixás of Brazil’s spiritual knowledge tradition known as Candomblé. What will succeed is an excerpt from Dr. Heather Shirey’s article ‘Transforming the Orixas: Candomble in Sacred and Secular Spaces in
Salvador da Bahia, Brazil’ (2009); followed by an art gallery of Orixas woodcuts produced by João Makray.

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In the streets and plazas of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, representations of the orixás , the deities of the African Brazilian religion Candomblé, are visible throughout the city. Mural paintings appear on walls and signs where they blend in with advertisements and graffiti, allowing motorists to contemplate the entire pantheon of orixás while filling up the gas tank. A sculpture of Exú, the guardian of the crossroads and the orixá who oversees all forms of communication, is positioned, most appropriately, in front of the city’s central post office; a painted mermaid associated with Yemanjá overlooks the sea; and on the Dique do Tororó, a large lake and recreation zone in the middle of the city, a group of orixá statues dances in a circle on the surface of the water.

Richly varied in scale and medium, visual references to Candomblé in the streets of Salvador are so frequent that they blend in with the surrounding urban landscape, merging with the multitude of colors that adorn nearly every surface. Although most Candomblé ritual practices take place in private spaces, the frequency of public art with a focus on the religion makes the presence of these images in the secular realm seem as natural and acceptable as advertisements for toothpaste and legal services. The movement of imagery from the sacred space of the Candomblé terreiro (temple) to the city streets, however, requires extensive intervention, as the complicated aesthetics of Candomblé must be recast in a way that is comprehensible and palatable to a broad public…..

The Candomblé orixás are named deities with complex personalities and attributes, and people who practice Candomblé develop close relationships with particular orixás that are nourished through ritual practice. The orixás in Bahia relate to Yoruba orishas that have remained relatively intact in Candomblé. It should be noted that in Bahia, the vast number of individual Candomblé communities are not unified under one
larger ritual authority and liturgy is not completely  standardized. Individual Candomblé communities are effectively independent from one another, and consequently
beliefs and practices are not entirely consistent. Bahian Candomblé communities identify with a number of
nações (nations; sg. nação), one of which, Nagô, has come to be seen as the dominant Candomblé nation in scholarship as well as in the popular understanding of the religion. Followers of Candomblé Nagô are particularly devoted to the orixás and the ancestry of these entities is rooted specifically in Yoruba practices from Nigeria. Members of Candomblé terreiros of other naroes, such as Jeje and Angola, however, accord special attention to other kinds of spirits (caboclos and exus, for example), usually alongside a variety orixás, some of
which differ from those revered in the context of Candomblé Nago. In this case, the origins of the spirits can be found throughout West Africa as well as in Brazil. Given the diversity of beliefs and practices along the various naroes, is it not surprising that connections to Yoruba ritual practice vary from community to community; along some followers of Candomblé , Yoruba is spoken as a liturgical language, for example, but this is certainly not universal. Likewise, the relationship of the Candomblé orixás to similar spiritual entities in Yoruba practice is by no means precise….

The presence of Africa is quite visible in this city, where a large percentage of the population is African descent. African-derived rhythms dominate popular music, and local culinary specialties–based on ingredients like okra, black-eyed peas, and palm oil– would not be out of place in West Africa. Since Candomblé has strong connections to West African traditions, it is often held up as a symbol of the presence of Africa in Bahia. A billboard campaign in 2001 sponsored by the State Board of Culture and Tourism referred to Salvador as “Black City: The Most African City of Brazil”. This speaks to the fact that the region’s unique “African” identity serves to sell Bahia to visitors from other parts of Brazil and abroad. The incorporation of a popularized version of Candomble into the cycle of festivals promoted by the state and local governments has served as an important device to draw national and international tourists to Bahia, and this has also provided Candomble with visibility and perceived legitimacy in mainstream society. But of course the acceptance of Candomblé and other cultural practices defined by the dominant culture as “African” is relatively recent in the history of Bahia.

From the time of their arrival in the slave port of Bahia, Africans
and their descendants began to transform the beliefs and
practices of their diverse ancestors into Candomblé, the religion
as it is practiced today. Scholars across the disciplines have examined the history of Candomblé, exploring, among other questions, its relationship to self-help organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church and its role in identity formation in Bahia and elsewhere. Emerging from these numerous rich studies is a history of repression, sometimes violent, and the development of the religion as a subculture and a site of resistance). In addition, many of these studies have sought
to trace the complicated and shifting relationship between the
dominant class, mostly wealthy and identified as ‘white;’ which
recognized and feared the power of Candomblé, and those who
practiced the religion, most of whom were of lower socio-economic status and identified as “black” or “African:’

After the abolition of slavery in 1888 and until the 1930s, the
state of Bahia repressed the practice of Candomblé by outlawing ceremonies, confiscating sacred objects that are central to the religion, and ordering the arrest of individuals who were caught in possession of its material culture . A notable shift occurred in the conceptualization of Brazil and its national identity in the 1930s…

Candomblé’s previous image as a “primitive ritual”-one that was perceived to be potentially dangerous and corruptive to the dominant culture-was recast as a “religion” that contributes to the shared identity of Bahia.

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Orixás by João Makray

Listening to Afro-Brazil’s lusophone diaspora

I spent the better part of this morning (ever so briefly) listening to the music of Black Brazil. Hoping to find those gems which could somehow encompass the experiences of Afro-Brazilians. This was an impossible task to say the least, which was made far more difficult because of my own assumptions of what constituted Black Brazil. For me, to speak of Afro-Brazilian music was to celebrate the rhythms and lyrics of native born Brazilians of African descent.

However, Brazilians don’t quite make such a clear distinction between Afro-Brazilian music. Instead there is a strong sense of enjoying the Black diasporic music across the lusophone world. See the Portuguese colonized various places across the world, including Brazil, Western African, and even southern India. As a result, African music traveled along the trade routes of the vile trade, but its powerful resonances were able to transcend the confines of social death, and gave life to the African populations of Portugal’s colonies and the all those entrapped by African rooted music which couldn’t be denied.

What will follow are just 5 Afro-Portuguese artists with a brief bio and a song of theirs that caught my ear, and hopefully yours.

Gilberto Gil – Toda Menina Bahiana

Gilberto has long been a vital part of Brazil’s musical and cultural legacy. Born in Bahia, he would go on to become an integral part in Brazil’s Tropicália movement, which saw the fusion of music and political action during the turbulent ’60s. He has since made numerous critically renowned albums and was even appointed as Brazil’s cultural minister during Lula’s administration.

Naná Vasconcelos – Ondas

Naná is one of Brazilian’s most famous composers. First known for his work with Milton Nascimiento during the 60s-70s, he has since traveled the world playing in bands in NYC, Norway, Brazil, UK, and Italy. Though he spends most of his time these days in his hometown of Recife, there, he continues to compose uniquely African and diasporic soundscapes.

Manecas Costa – N’Miste Vivi

Though Manecas’ homeland of Guinea Bissau, a former Portuguese colony in Western African, does not get the same musical recognition as it Cape Verdean neighbor, it has not stopped Costa from creating beautifully tragic pieces, infused with social responsible and aware lyrics. Coming out of his teens he was selected by UNICEF to be their Goodwill Ambassador and has now since made Lisbon, Portugal his new (musical) home.

Bonga – Mona Ki Ngi Xica

Growing up, Bonga was a track and field star in his native Angola after breaking the Portuguese recorder for the the 400 meter race. However, it is Bonga’s music that has been his most enduring legacy. This song in particular, which translates as ‘The Child I’m Leaving Behind,’ led to his exile from Angola shortly after its release in 1972. The lyrics (see below) were written in response to Angola’s colonial dictatorship prior to the country’s independence. In fact, Bonga used his freedom of movement garnered as a national sports hero and his musical prowess to spread messages of solidarity amongst the pro-independence movement prior to his exile.

lyrics:

[The Child I’m Leaving Behind]

Attention! I’m in mortal danger
And I’ve already warned you
She will stay here and I will go away

This child of mine
Evil people are after her
This child of mine
On a tide of misfortune

God gave me this offspring
That I brought into the world
And she will stay here
When I am gone

Ananda Nahu’s Black Brazil

Lavishly packing her murals in deep reds and strong oranges, Ananhu Nahu has spent the past decade perfecting a craft we in the US call graffiti, but what she knows as pichação, a form of tagging that has taken over the streets of Brazil and can even be scene on display in art galleries as far as NYC and Paris. Ananhu has also been integral in transforming pichação into a ‘legitimate’ art form, which can mow be appreciated in art galleries across the world like other fine artistic styles. Here you will see images of her murals that feature famous people across the Black Diaspora and her aptitude for seamlessly infusing her pichação with stenciled images. In fact, she worked alongside Izolag in creating a piece considered to be the largest stencil painting in the entire world. You can read more about this emerging artist here and the emerging Afro-Brazilian graffiti movement here.

 

Brazil’s Racial Democracy

There is something disturbing, at least for me, when I read the countless criticisms by journalists, scholars, and even celebrities about Brazil’s purported racial democracy. Not because the perspectives they provide are without base or merit. Certainly many issues along the fault lines of race, and other oppressions such as gender, orientation, class, etc., still exist within a country which had once been (like the US and all other Latin American countries) colonized for hundreds of years. A colonial history marked by an economic, social and political system built on the promotion and maintenance of slavery and the trade of African peoples.

I do share the worries and critical gaze of those who understand racism is far more than meets the eye. How it pervades throughout society even in spite of the hundreds of years of struggle towards its end. And is still tightly wound within the heart of the American narrative, like a diseased worm. Festering since the colonial powers decided to make the Americas the place where it was acceptable to wallow in the filth of the vile practice, long after it had lost favor in  Europe. Nevertheless, when people, especially from the affluent US, wave their fingers at the supposedly bambozzled Latinos I am troubled. 

Take for instance this Deadspin article on the world-class footballer they call Neymar. Where a blogger laments on the whitening of Neymar’s clearly African descendency  and his apparent ‘run’ from his it. All of which he bases solely on a single comment by Neymar. When he stated, “Never [have I experienced racism]. Neither inside nor outside of the field. Because I’m not black, right?” Taken out of context it would reaffirm all suspicion that he’d rather be white. Except it would be ignoring his own efforts to support fellow Brazilian footballer Dani Alves during the banana controversy.

Yet it is far more disconcerting that the commentator criticizes Neymar without any real sense of how slavery, thus racism, took form in Brazil. How the Portuguese interacted with Afro-Brazilians in a strikingly different manner than the British did with US Blacks. Their emphasis on racial distinctions that were complex and nuanced in ways that belie comparison to the US. In fact, Brazil’s current national census has continued the original colonial trend and now offers around 186 different racial classifications. Yes 186! Technically Neymar is not Black, in Brazil, because to be black is a question of skin tone. And not so much blood, as it is in the US. Nor would it fit that Neymar would be running from that either since Brazil has had a long history idolizing the beauty of dark-skinned African for their beautiful complexion and ample curves. It could just be that Neymar was unable to bridge the cultural gap between racial distinctions, or just as confused by this uncanny thing we all thing we all participate in, called race.

Now I don’t want to give the idea that slavery was nicer in Brazil, but just different.

Haitian anthropologist and philosopher Michel-Rolph Trouillot put it best when he reflected on his experiences with teaching African-American history: “it attracted the few black students around–plus a few courageous whites–and they were all expecting too much, much more than I could deliver. They wanted a life that no narrative could provide, even the best fiction. They wanted a life that only they could build right now, right here in the United States…. I wanted them to know that slavery did not happen only in Georgia and Mississippi. I wanted them to learn that the African connection was more complex and tortuous than they had ever imagined, that the U.S. monopoly on both blackness and racism was itself a racist plot.” Hyperbolic maybe, on point most assuredly.

 I’m still surprised how very few African Americans are aware that in sporting events across Europe many African diasporic players are repeatedly assaulted with ape taunts and bananas thrown at their feet. Ironically, in countries where its actually illegal, as in criminally wrong, to use racist language at another person.

Or their lacking awareness of the Quilombo movement taking place in Brazil, as I write. A social movement drawn from the families of African slave descendants fighting for their rights to the lands that their ancestors first settled, during and after slavery. Lands which had been systematically taken from beneath their feet in the years following emancipation.

It seems there is just as much to be learned by US blacks from Afro-Latinos, as it is true in reverse.

Why are US Blacks unaware of what goes on in the diaspora, but the same is not true of those outside the US? In what ways is the rise of the ‘Post-Racist’ society much like that of Brazil’s racial democracy? Can it possibly be true that a person of color can be raised without directly experiencing a racist act towards them, but still be systematically and historically barred from representation in popular media, boardrooms, and political chairs? If so, don’t Afro-Brazilians offer the US a unique perspective since they have been supposedly living in a racial democracy for a hundred years? And why aren’t the issues of indigenous rights more forcefully discussed in the US, beyond reparations quips and more plaques?

(from documentary “Quilombo Country,” narrated by Chuck D)

When I read the countless US articles on Brazil’s racial illusions I am reminded of a proverb which says loosely: the faults you may see in others are very much the one you possess yourself, how else would know how to so easily find them. In this way, I look forward to encouraging the discussions between Afro-Latinos with US Blacks. Where the former may take the lead in talking about racisms across our present conditions in a manner which does not blame those lives which have been stunted by something that is always there, but not always present. Yet does not lift  responsibility from those who still living in the places of terror and calculated neglect (the global slums) and those who have fled from taking part in changing their communities’ futures. This, however, will never come to fruition if we get to cozy in our armchairs.

(Feature image is of mural art featured in the Brazilian Favela Praça Cantão, which has inspired similar action in places as far as Philadelphia- take a look: Citypaper.net)

Blackness in Soccer

The World Cup’s allure is practically unrivaled by any other competitive sport, or game, since the dawn of civilization. Just last week, the thrilling match between the USA and Portugal broke ESPN’s  record for the most watched sporting event since it began over thirty years ago. Looking back to the 2006 World Cup, there was an estimated 750 million people who watched the final and that’s not including the presumably millions of fans crowded in local bars or outdoor venues.

There is an ugly side to the soccer spectacle billed as the melding of ethnic flavors with healthy competition. Soccer has long been a sport plagued by racial bigotry much akin to the blatant expressions of racism in the US prior to integration. I don’t mean to give the impression that the US is now devoid of racism, given the lack of Black coaches across the sports spectrum and the recent scandal involving Donald Sterling, race is clearly still an issue in the US. However, long gone are the days when racial insults are hailed down from the stands with regularity. Yet just this past April, Dani Alves a world-class Brazilian right back, tired of ignoring the bananas thrown at his feet during play, decided to take a bite out of one during a corner kick. With that single symbolic gesture he brought to light the overtly racist chants, banana throwing, and player-to-player insults that soccer organizations continue to ignore.

Though the World Cup seems to do a good job of quelling such barbaric behavior–at least on the surface. However, the insidiousness of raciality is so deeply embedded within FIFA (the organization responsible for organizing the cup), its barely perceptible to the untrained eye. Take a look at this clip from John Oliver’s new show on HBO where he describes the global atrocities for which the World Cup is responsible for:

This World Cup has been especially horrendous in the collusion of FIFA and the Brazilian government to silence protesters, while building multi-million stadiums in the middle of nowhere jungles and lifting any responsibility builders have to pay taxes. In other words, they will spend close to 11 billion dollars for stadiums that will only be enjoyed during the tournament without having to give any money back to aid the communities–in the form of taxes–that are disrupted by the construction.

Nevertheless, many people still take to the streets, many of them black and poor, with the courage to contest the subtle racism embedded in a tournament that does little to address the issues of poverty and racism plaguing many of the favelas just beyond their modern stadiums. Just last Thursday, hundreds of Brazilians again took to the streets even in the face of massive police backlash. Take a look at the photos below which you will be hard pressed to find on any major media outlet:

And there have been the efforts of #HumanRightsCup, who want to stop the ongoing exploitation by FIFA in Brazil. You can find their efforts in places as globally dispersed as Spain, Ghana, Algeria, Greece, Honduras, South Korea, and many more. They are bringing to light that Blackness in soccer includes addressing both the overt racism of fans and the subtle structures of racism embedded in its largest international body.

 

(Re)remembering Ruby Dee’s Passing

I must admit when I first heard her name spoken a couple of weeks ago on the local NPR station, I thought I had no clue who Ruby Dee was until I saw her picture again.  Who can forget Ruby Dee, the longtime actress of the big screen and small, whose loving union with Ossie Davis brought together two immensely passionate and gifted thespians that endured the strife of segregation and was a source for social change? In fact, I was little aware of the activism she was apart of throughout her life, especially her participation in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Sometimes I forget the march was far more than MLK’s speech, nor was it solely a product of his labor, but rather it was the dedication and commitment from people, like Ruby and other leaders, whose combined efforts helped pull off the history-making protest, all in an immense effort to both change the face of American society and address income inequality. Two issues we still face today!

But I’ll let Ms. Dee describe the march in her own words:

Her spirit will surely be missed.

 

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