By Stevonne Ratliff
Instead of opting for a trip to Hawaii or a European vacation, many African-Americans take it easy on the Brazilian coast. For African-American vacationers, Brazil proves to be more than a locale for rest and relaxation. The country serves as a Mecca for those in search of Black history, culture and the promise of a racial democracy.
Quite a few African-American entrepreneurs have become hip to the profitability of Black American travel in Brazil. BlackWoman founded Soul Planet Travel seeks to infuse African and African-American history for Black American travelers, with trips to Salvador de Bahia and Rio de Janeiro. The Avocet Travel company also frequents these South American hotspots. Avocet’s founder, Charles O. Smith, is the creator of the African-American women’s publication Essence Magazine. He hopes that Cultural Vacations to Brazil will build bridges between the African Diaspora.
He explains, ”Our mission at Avocet Travel is to ensure that our guests enjoy a unique and authentic travel experience that is enlightening and entertaining, and will engage them on an emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual level.”
In the past, what little African-American knowledge of Black Brazil was gained through the textbooks of scholars. However, greater opportunity and economic growth for Black Americans has allowed many to see our sister country with their own eyes. Direct interaction with Brazil is having a greater influence on African American culture today. But for those who can not afford to travel, Brazil is disseminated to the United States through music, film and sports.
More than ever, Brazilian flavor has put new spice to the American music scene. Artists such as Kelis and Pharell Williams experiment with samba, “baile” funk and batucada as they mix it into their usual Hip-Hop concoctions. Music television networks BET and MTV stream videos of rappers such as Snoop Dog and Ja-Rule as they swagger around Rio’s Cidade Maravilhosa with a different breed of Hip-Hop Honey.
Even though American Black and Brazilian Rhythms have meshed for centuries, modern music legend Sergio Mendes has explicitly drawn parallels and intersections between Hip-Hop and Brazilian Samba. His album Timeless features American Hip-Hop and R&B artists such as the Black Eyed Peas, John Legend, India. Arie, and Q-Tip.
Films telling the stories of Black Brazilians immediately become cult classics in the African-American film archive. They are added to the DVD collections of Black families with the likes of Coming to America and The Color Purple. Black Americans find the experience of Afro-Brazilians familiar yet similar, as they watch these films. The sounds of Brazil prove to be even more interesting than the sites on the screen, as English subtitles translate a strange and hypnotic language that isn’t quite Spanish.
Brazil in Afro-American Culture
Brazilian films serve as a large draw for African-Americans to travel and know more about Brazil. The images of exotic beauties in the film Black Orpheus continue to woo financially successful American Black men to Brazil. The play list of the movie’s soundtrack by Antonio Carlos Jobim whispers to them like a siren’s song and gives hope in finding a dark-completed Eurydice on the streets of Copacabana.
Even the crime and violence Brazil’s largest cities have become a fascination. Young Black men who have for decades glorified American bred gangsters such as Don Corleone (Godfather) and Tony Montana (Scarface) have added the 2002 Brazilian film City of God to their gory collection. Wisecrack banditos with itchy trigger fingers and the ebony toned villain “Little Zé” rival business-minded criminals such as Nino Brown in the film
New Jack City. The fact that City of God is based on a true story and stacks a higher body count than other such films leaves many to question the gangster authenticity of American ghettos and inner cities. In such case, even the Brazilian criminal element proves to be more of a stimulus than deterrent for travel to cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro; appealing to those dare-devils who have to “see it to believe it” mentality.
Although Rio de Janeiro’s entertainment machine serves as a large factor pulling African Americans towards Brazil, many seek to explore the deeper, spiritual and historical ties between the Black Americans and Afro-Brazilians. If Africa is the Motherland for Black Americans, Brazil is most definitely the sister-land literally and figuratively. Beginning in 1548, the shores of Brazil harbored 5 million West Africans that were traded into Chattel slavery by the Portuguese.
This group totaled 40% of those sold in the Atlantic slave trade-seven times more than the United States. In especially miserable circumstances, families were torn apart. The biological mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters of these Africans were sometimes sold and traded to other countries; many of them landing in the American South.
Knowing this history, African-Americans that travel to Brazil cannot help but to ask themselves: “What if my ancestors were brought to Bahia or Pernambuco instead of Mississippi?” After some time in Salvador (Capital of Bahia) they imagine being moved by rhythmic Axe percussions, instead of sultry southern jazz and speaking the relaxed Portuguese language of the “Negro Bahiano” instead of Gullah or Creole. A trip to Bahia can make one ask, “What if the drums at the candomble house led our mothers and sisters into the tranced state of Yemanja or Oxum, instead of a church-induced Holy Ghost dance?”
Many African-American travelers find that like fraternal twin sisters, Black Brazil and Black USA are two different manifestations of the same mother Africa. Not even centuries of chattel slavery could steal the essence and familial ties of the two. The possibility to reveal mysteries of self often brings African-Americans to the city of Salvador which lies in the heart of Bahia, Brazil. With an 80% Black population, Salvador de Bahia has the most African descendents in the world outside of the continent of Africa.
Another appeal beyond self-discovery is the promise of Brazil’s “Racial Democracy”. Unlike the United States, Brazil did not implement the post-slavery system of Jim Crow. For African- Americans, the post-slavery era consisted of legal discrimination and segregation. Ever worst, Blacks were subjected to racial hate in all of its ugly forms. This allowed American Whites to murder, terrorize, rape, and pillage the life and liberty and property of Black families with little, if any, legal consequences. Even as we move beyond this horrible era in human history, dejected African-Americans still look to Brazil, as a race-blind society of Black majority. For those who are not wiser, Brazil seems to be a Utopia for the downtrodden Black American spirit.
Many Brazilians – Black, White and “Other”; pride themselves of the racial mixture of its population and subscribe to the country’s Racial Democracy myth. In reality, the oppressive forces that hold Black Brazilians stagnant come more often in the form of poverty and political corruption. It is unlikely that America tourists will spot many Afro-Brazilians during their stay on Rio’s hottest beaches. A majority of Brazil’s Blacks and Indigenous people are trapped in “favelas”; mostly hilltop neighborhoods where violent wars rage over the international cocaine trade and third world poverty leaves starving children. Favelas are largely the tell-tale signs of the country’s chaotic economic and political state.
Hidden Racism in Brazilian Society
However, they also tell the story of racial segregation. A reality that is selectively erased for the collective memories of Brazilians both Black and White. This is done with hopes of upholding a faux Racial Democracy. Unlike in the United States, Black Brazilians are not still dizzy from blows dealt by Jim Crow. They are however; coyly denied jobs and entrance into public places such as high end hotels and restaurants. Despite one’s economic status, Afro-Brazilians are often denied visas for international travel. Attempts at systematic advancement such as Affirmative Action, face violent backlash.
The truth, Brazil is a society that is highly racist but embraces its African roots on a superficial level. For the most part Brazilian racism ignores or fades out the needs and contributions of its Black population. At best it is patronizing. The Brazilian Negro can be loved, used and disillusioned as his culture is appropriated with a smile. As such, apathy is the biggest killer of Black advancement in Brazil as many find it easier to deny their blackness altogether if they had a white Avó (grandmother). This attitude will not get rid of the favelas.
A racial democracy cannot exist if individuals do not first recognize and then seek to reform racial injustices. Luckily, political and cultural movements in Salvador de Bahia are on the forefront of establishing Black pride, identity and empowerment. African Americans who travel to Brazil in search of the great Racial Democracy are often sorely disappointed to find that here too; racism and the effects of slavery bear its ugly head.
African-American travelers to Brazil are like any other. They come to see Rio, an urban city with much natural beauty, and Bahia, home to the colorful Bahianas and acrobatic Capoeristas on the streets of Salvador. Yet, familial ties to Brazil allow the country to hold a special place in the African American heart.
Black Brazil and Black USA are like identical twin sisters who were raised in different families. Since the departure from mother Africa their time in the New World has been remotely different yet vaguely familiar. Luckily, the world becomes smaller through economic empowerment and advancements in media and technology. Travel helps the two lost sisters of Africa find one another creatively, politically and spiritually. African-Americans visit Brazil in droves at the prospect of finding a home away from home.
* Stevonne Ratliff is a Californian and Afro-American writer and business woman that has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Years ago, she used her unemployment checks to start her own natural hair and skincare line Beija-Flor Naturals in 2009 – Beija-Flor is a hummingbird in Portuguese.