Culture is

reclaiming history

We face a scenario in which groups marginalised from global society continue to seek their own spaces from which they can contradict stereotypes, resist the labelling gaze of colonisers, and, on the other side of the coin, plant dreams, water the land, and foster growth in a forest of life.

Djamila Ribeiro

14 June 2024

A story by Djamila Ribeiro

I’m making a song
where my mother and all mothers
will see themselves mirrored,
a song that speaks like two eyes

I’m walking on a road
that runs through many countries.
They may not see me, but I see
and salute my friends.
(…)
My life, our lives,
form a single diamond.
I’ve learned new words
and made others more beautiful.

I’m making a song
for waking up men
and putting children to sleep.

"Friendly Song" poem by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, song by Milton Nascimento. 

We face a scenario in which groups marginalised from global society continue to seek their own spaces from which they can contradict stereotypes, resist the labelling gaze of colonisers, and, on the other side of the coin, plant dreams, water the land, and foster growth in a forest of life. We often come across gazes which focus on these groups in isolation from each other, as if they were disconnected from a dialectical relationship to imperialism. At the end of the day, as Tejumola Olaniyan (1959–2019) taught us, thinking about Europe as modern in its institutions and development against Africa as a space without modernity ignores the fact that both exist in the same historical time and that the modernity of one was based on the colonisation and exploitation of the other. This idea was important to him because it allowed him to rethink modernity from a global perspective as a shared patrimony.  

At the end of the day, as Tejumola Olaniyan (1959–2019) taught us, thinking about Europe as modern in its institutions and development against Africa as a space without modernity ignores the fact that both exist in the same historical time and that the modernity of one was based on the colonisation and exploitation of the other. 

From birth our bodies are caught in a web of meanings which are out of our control. Regardless of our personal desire for transformation, we are inserted into a system which was operating well before we were born and whose structure remains rooted in the oppression of some groups by others. That is part of our reality, so it can never be an invitation to inaction. As long as we are alive, we can generate energy to sustain the structures of resistance which the oldest of our nonconformists built from their diverse identities and points of view as the grounds upon which modernity was raised. In this sense, a prize like the one given by the Prince Claus Fund will not resolve centuries of discrimination, but it surely will play its part in drawing together an international struggle for humanity. 

An example will help clarify a number of questions. Lélia Gonzalez (1935-94) was a Brazilian social scientist and celebrated precursor of black feminist thought about the country from which I write. As a public intellectual during the period of military dictatorships that raged across South America in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, Gonzalez had no time to waste. She wrote, organised conferences, taught classes to the general public, and participated in debates to show that she was part of the social group most impacted by misery with the hope of somehow altering the balance of forces. 

In her writings from the 1980s, Lélia anticipated the need for a transnational feminist movement when she proposed an ‘Amerafrican’ identity, an identity for the people of the Americas and the Caribbean. She led marches, organised Black feminist journals, and trained a generation of researchers, activists, and artists. But why am I bringing up Lélia? Because if you had been in Brazil in 1994, the year that she died, you might have seen something in a newspaper about the death of one of the greatest Nagô Queens to have ever lived in our country. If you had related to black Brazilian militancy, always embattled even without any economic power, you would have seen the grief over her passage to the spiritual plane, just as you would have seen the celebrations and joyous memories of fraternal moments. The Afro-diaspora has different funeral traditions from the ones imposed by the colonisers. The point is that outside of these social circles, you would not have seen a recognition of her passing worthy of her impact. 

It is important to emphasise that what happened with Lélia and with innumerable voices from the Global South is not a coincidence or merely an injustice, but the result of a colonising project which is constantly updated and continues to this day. It is a sophisticated technique for erasing the existence of marginalised social groups to the benefit of those favoured by that racial oppression. In Brazil, black women are the largest demographic group, constituting close to 27% of the population. Even so, if I go into a government building, a university campus, or an office, I might see one black woman working in institutional solitude among white people, and alongside her I would see black women as the great majority of the cleaning service. For as much as this situation might be uncomfortable for people committed to social transformation, it benefits the racially hegemonic group as a whole through a system of inequality. 

It is a sophisticated technique for erasing the existence of marginalised social groups to the benefit of those favoured by that racial oppression. 

Metaphorically, we are speaking here about the renovation of the ‘mask of silence’. This mask was an invention of Brazilian sugar plantations. According to the legend, it was first used on the enslaved woman Anastácia. Anastácia was the daughter of Delminda, who was taken from the Congo and brought to the port of Rio de Janeiro. She was raped by the plantation owner and her daughter was born with blue eyes. Given that whitening the population of the country was a publicly acknowledged good, Anastácia was admired for her beauty. Despite that admiration, her ‘bad-mouthing’ the injustices of slavery irritated many slave owners, who thought up a metal device with small holes in the mouth so that she could breathe and continue to work but not make a sound with her voice for the rest of her days. From the colonial period on, in an example of religious syncretism, Anastácia was beatified by the enslaved population and attracted a legion of followers up to the present. 

In the words of the multidisciplinary thinker Grada Kilomba, in her essay ‘The Mask’: The mask, therefore, raises many questions: Why must the mouth of the black subject be fastened? Why must she or he be silenced? What could the black subject say if her or his mouth were not sealed? And what would the white subject have to listen to? There is an apprehensive fear that if the colonial subject speaks, the colonizer will have to listen. She/he would be forced into an uncomfortable confrontation with ‘Other’ truths. Truths that have been denied, repressed, kept quiet, as secrets. I do like this phrase ‘quiet as it’s kept.’ It is an expression of the African Diasporic people that announces how someone is about to reveal what is presumed to be a secret. Secrets like slavery. Secrets like colonialism. Secrets like racism. 

To think about the future of the Prince Claus Fund we need to engage in an exercise of Sankofa, an Adinkra symbol whose image presents a bird with its feet turned forward and its head looking backwards, to the past. In the philosophical tradition of the Akan people, who created this symbol, Sankofa teaches us to return to the past as a means of reframing the present and building the future. Through this exercise, we can glimpse the importance of the Prince Claus Fund Award as a global ally in the struggle against the ‘mask of silence’. 

...we can glimpse the importance of the Prince Claus Fund Award as a global ally in the struggle against the ‘mask of silence. 

Lélia Gonzalez reminds us that our inheritance comes not only through the experiences of colonialism and enslavement but also through a legacy of struggle and resistance. It is fundamental, in that sense, to tell the history of black people from the perspective of a subject involved in the construction of society and not only as the victim of oppression. Paraphrasing the philosopher Walter Benjamin, we need to brush history against the grain, from the perspective of the ‘defeated’. Benjamin says that history is always told from the perspective of the victors, and if we do not refute that version, the victors will never stop winning. The future can only be thought from a re-examination of the past told through humanising eyes, a multiplicity of eyes. In this sense, the Prince Claus Award plays a major role in drawing attention to the stories of people who promote the possibility of other ways of being, in shedding light on the stories of so many people who have stepped up from their places of resistance. 

I began this article with a song by Milton Nascimento because we need histories in which our mothers, all mothers, will recognise the stories of their own lives. We need the histories of black mothers who were not seen as people who made an impact on society but only as people who were impacted. Black women who work as janitors or maids are the ‘cleaning ladies’, the ‘coffee ladies’. They are not even referred to by their own names because often no one thinks to ask what those are. The only thing anyone knows is that they have homes, but those homes are somewhere far away. No one thinks to ask where. They are not treated as human beings with meaningful stories, with lessons to impart. They are looked down on with a condescension that hides how other people get to feel so above them. Has anyone ever thought to ask about their dreams? Or has their position become so naturalised? It so happens that the ‘coffee lady’ has both a first and a last name, as Lélia Gonzalez teaches us. She is in the position she is in as the result of historical inequalities, but she might be a community leader, a prominent member of her church, a respected Ilalorixá, or she might run her own small business on the weekends. She may be a mother who has had to learn how to stretch the food so her children can eat every day, manage the arithmetic of daily life without letting her dreams become disappointments. The ‘cleaning lady’ could have a vast knowledge of herbs and the plants that heal. She understands the challenge of making each day work. That is why the threads of history pulled together by the ‘winners’ do not help her see anything beyond the role they have already forced on her. Not every mother sees her own life in the familiar songs because they were written by patriarchal hands that look down on everything feminine. All mothers need to write their own histories. These are not just ‘women’s things’, but histories that set the tempo of the world. 

...we need histories in which our mothers, all mothers, will recognise the stories of their own lives. We need the histories of black mothers who were not seen as people who made an impact on society but only as people who were impacted. 

‘I’m making a song for waking up men and putting children to sleep’, Milton Nascimento continues. Telling histories that draw men out of the deep sleep of indifference, that bring peace so that black mothers can lull their children to sleep, so that these sons and daughters do not have their childhoods stolen by inequality. I am thinking here of the loneliness of the two thousand black mothers who lose their children every day to policing policies rooted in violence. The loneliness of those women who know the opportunities that will be closed to their children, who try to show the world that their children are hardworking. This loneliness can lead to mental illnesses. With all respect to Foucault, in his Madness and Civilization he seems to have forgotten that racism does psychological damage to the black population. 

Not every mother sees her own life in the familiar songs because they were written by patriarchal hands that look down on everything feminine. All mothers need to write their own histories. These are not just ‘women’s things’, but histories that set the tempo of the world. 

These histories have always been told, but the perspective of inequality has not seen them. ‘They may not see me, but I see them.’ The vision of the future that we want is one in which all of these people can see and be seen so that, from that multiplicity, bridges can be extended between different networks of meaning. 

The objective here is the sum of a collective struggle among people from the most vulnerable levels of global society, a sum that can serve as a great source of strength. As the revered Brazilian writer Conceição Evaristo says, ‘sometimes people manage to speak with such strength that the mask splits apart. I believe that split symbolises us because our speech forces the mask open.’ Even though she has been widely admired and respected within the black community, Evaristo was only recognised nationally in Brazil after she turned seventy, and that due to the strength of younger black women who promoted her through social media. Responding to this issue in an interview with the BBC, Evaristo reflected on what message she would want to leave for other women: ‘I would say not to lose a fighting perspective. To look at the past and think about the women living in Quilombos, about women who even with their circumscribed freedom, managed to leave us a foundation for struggle, for freedom, for ourselves. We need to build the present without losing that line to the past. Without losing the example set by the women who walked the same path we are on today.’ ‘My life, our lives, form a single diamond. I’ve learned new words and made others more beautiful.’ The future we want to build needs to know how to write these histories.  

The vision of the future that we want is one in which all of these people can see and be seen so that, from that multiplicity, bridges can be extended between different networks of meaning. 

This story was translated from the Portugese by Brian Gollnick, Associate Professor, University of Iowa, USA.