Yesterday, Taliban gunmen in Pakistan entered a school in Peshawar, Pakistan and murdered 132 children on the premise. My thoughts go out to the families in Pakistan and children affected by this attack. Schools should not be war zones but safe places for children to learn and teachers to instruct. Support children’s right to learn by signing the Avaaz petition here.
I prepared myself for the wave of guilt I would soon feel. After walking up and down hills, looking at my tourist map, and asking for directions repeatedly, I had arrived at the church, Igrega Matriz de Santa Efigênia dos pretos (roughly translated as church of the Saint mother Efigenia of the slaves). I was visiting Ouro Preto, one of Brazil’s oldest colonial towns, now a UNESCO heritage site. Founded in the 17th century, Ouro Preto, literally black gold, became famous because of the discovery of gold in its hills by Portuguese soldiers. Soon after, the town filled with more Portuguese fortune seekers, bringing with them enslaved Africans to mine the gold for the benefit of the Portuguese crown. Three centuries later, the town continues to be an important cultural and touristic hub for Brazil. It has preserved cobblestone streets and a myriad of centuries old Portuguese-styled churches.
The day before visiting the church of the slaves I meandered through Ouro Preto’s city center, focusing on the praça de Tiradentes, a main plaza in the historic town. This plaza was filled with Brazilian and foreign tourists alike, and we stumbled over the cobblestones to peer into ancient
cathedrals and crevices of this preserved town. Visiting these more famous churches with throngs of tourists was overwhelming, and I wished to get off this highly trodden path. Little did I know that the next day my desire would be granted.
I set off early the next morning for the mine of Chico Rei, a famous enslaved African who was a Congolese prince that worked in the mines in Ouro Preto. Through his leadership and resistance to slavery, he bought his own freedom and helped to construct Igreja de Santa Efigenia. Now, he is a legend in black Brazilian history. Inside of the mine where he worked, I took a guided tour with a local from the area. Whereas yesterday in the city center I was unable to avoid other history seekers such as myself, I was the lone tourist visiting the former gold mine. Judging from the guide’s expression when I entered the mine’s premises, tourist interest in old colonial history did not extend to colonial slave history.
I descended into the mine. The walls were extremely low and tight, and a string of lights lit our path. As my guide led me through the mine’s tight passageways, my body flinched and my lips quivered. The mine was suffocating; I had to bend and to walk crouched to explore its depths. As my guide recounted the history of the enslaved Africans who once worked within these confines, I thought about the walls of dirt surrounding us, the weight of the town on top of us, and distance we had traveled from the sunlit filled entrance. I wanted to leave IMMEDIATELY. Embracing my fears and newly awakened claustrophobia, I listened and cried for the souls of my ancestors, millions of mothers, fathers, daughters, and children who forcibly kidnapped from their homes to build the economies of the New World and European metropolises. While slavery in southern USA differed from that of colonial Brazil in many ways, both forms shared sexual and physical exploitation and dehumanization of black bodies. I left Chico Rei’s mine sad, reminded of the brutality of human nature.
However upon arriving at the Igreja de Santa Efigênia dos pretos an hour later, my feelings of sadness were replaced with guilt–a guilt for admiring a church that represented the paradoxes of the slave trade in Brazil. The church, built by contributions from Chico Rei and other slaves was the lone place sanctioned for slave worship in Brazil. Sitting on the outskirts of town and 30 minute walk from the historic center, the church is only visited by people seeking its story because of its distance from other touristic buildings. Gazing at its hallowed gates, I marveled at its exterior beauty. The façade of the church was covered in a yellow and white paint with a stone trimming on each column (see picture). Inside the church, paintings of angels aligned the ceiling in colors of blue, pink, white, and green. This church was one of the most beautiful churches I had ever seen. It was an architectural masterpiece of grandeur and Catholicism, the sacred and the profane. But how could I admire this church when it was built by slave labor? How could I appreciate the architecture of a building that represented spiritual domination of Catholicism over enslaved African’s existing beliefs? In this moment, I felt reverence, pain, sadness, and beauty.
Outside, the courtyard remained empty of tourists except for 3 gentleman from the local community offering guided tours inside the church. Like the dearth of tourists visiting the church and the absence of the mention slavery in the description of Ouro Preto on UNESCO‘s page, forgetting and ignoring slave history in Brazil is an easy thing to do in Ouro Preto. Yet behind the majestic façades of government buildings and inside of gold trimmed churches are stories of years of human enslavement, slave resistance, and God. I pray that future tourists visiting Ouro Preto and other historic cities are courageous enough to embrace all histories, even those that make them feel uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and guilty.
I finally figured out just what I have been missing in my life in Central West Brazil. On this past Sunday, I was traveling by bus with a friend back to my city of Campo Grande from a World Cup match in Cuiabá. On the fourteen-hour bus ride, I was questioned four times about my nationality and ability to speak Portuguese. These were not harmless inquiries but pointed interrogations to discover what in the world a non-Brazilian person of color was doing in Brazil. The first question came as an onslaught in the ladies’ bathroom at a rest stop. Not soon after I exited the stall, a fellow passenger quipped, “Are you Haitian” in Portuguese. I responded, “No,” and she asked again, as if I would change my answer and my nationality in a moment’s notice.
Minutes later, the waiter at the restaurant at this rest stop approached my Angolan friend and I speaking in French, under the assumption that we did not speak Portuguese and that we were Haitian or Senegalese. My friend responded in Portuguese, and the waiter laughed and smiled. He proceeded to recount to us stories of immigrants from Senegal and Haiti who had come through his restaurant without paying and his brute response to their not paying. Implicitly he was warning us, the two black bodies in his restaurant what would happen if we decided to abscond our monetary obligations. Later on this same bus ride, an older Brazilian woman sitting across the aisle from us asked if we were Haitian. Completely forgoing any travel etiquette, she stood and waited for our answer. We responded with our respective nationalities and conversed about Brazil before she sat down again. Finally our bus arrived to Campo Grande.
I was missing anonymity. Not anonymity in the Western sense where no one knows my name or cares to know my name but anonymity to board a bus, walk down the street, go to the grocery store, or enter my apartment building without being asked if I am Angolan or Haitian. Anonymity in the sense that people stop asking to touch my hair or feel the need to recount stories of the last Angolan/Haitian/African/black person whom they were friends with or raised their children or was their favorite black actor on TV. I take no offense in being Angolan or Haitian; I take offense in the assumption of nationality because of my physical appearance. I want to be anonymous. I want to belong.
Living outside of your home country comes with rewards and challenges, and one of them is representing and answering for your home country. I enjoy speaking about South Carolina, my African-American identity, and my family. But when these inquiries come from a place of preconceptions and stereotypes about black immigrants in Brazil, my desire to share and embrace is destroyed.
Dear Central West Brazil, I know you are unaccustomed to foreigners living in your lands, but please stop reminding me that I am not from ‘round here’, as we would say in South Carolina.
I am not an exhibit at the World Fair. Get to know me for who I am and for who you think I should be.
There is nothing new to me about being the other, the outsider, or the one different from all the rest. As I have previously blogged about, my early childhood experiences at a predominately white public school jolted me into an early understanding of my race and class. Regularly, I was the only black student in my honors classes, and I prided myself in being able to count the number of black students in my grade on my two hands. Three years later after leaving the hallowed gates of this elementary school, I began high school, and my otherness began anew. Though my urban high school was diverse on the surface with a mix of White, African-American, Hispanic, and South East Asian students, I remained as the only or one of two black students in my Honors and Advanced Placement classes. Whereas my outsider status had once isolated me as a young child, in high school it empowered me to excel in my classes and extracurricular activities. If I would be the only black student, then I would be the smartest, the most brilliant, and the most talented black student my school had ever seen.
Fast forward two years to when I began college at my alma mater, a small private White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) institution in my hometown. Again, I was one of few students of color of a student body of peers who graduated from the South’s best private and public schools. While my collegiate environment appeared to reflect that of my high school, I realized that college would be no idealistic part two sequel to high school. My former elementary classmates whom I had known from third grade to our senior year quickly shed our childhood allegiances for those of money, power, and family connections. They were the “in” girls and boys; I was the nobody. On the surface, we were equals. We graduated from the same high school, passed the same Advanced Placement exams, and were accepted into the same college. Yet, college is where our paths would divert. My high school classmates were second, third, and even fourth generation graduates of our alma mater; their grandparents, parents, and siblings were proud alumni of our institution. I was a first generation college student. They spent their summers at camps mingling with our new classmates from around the South. I spent my summers working and saving money for college. Their families already had existing social and business relationships with each other. Mine did not. A decade later, I still remained the other in my southern hometown.
Ironically, I thrived in this stifling, super-white environment and identified more with my blackness than I ever had before. I joined an organization for students of color and constantly reminded school administration that our institution needed to be more inclusive for students from all economic, social, and religious backgrounds. I cut off my chemically straightened hair and let my natural, kinky hair grow out for the first time in my adult life. I traveled abroad to countries with Afro-descendant populations to learn about the histories and struggles of “black” people across the globe. Campus social life was suffocating and reinforced my outsider status. However in my town, I found welcoming places like my beauty shop, my church, and social gatherings at a neighboring collegiate institution that validated my worth as a human being and as a black woman. On campus, I would never understand or acquire an affinity for seersucker pants or 80’s rock-n-roll music. In church, however, my lips could easily sing along to three part harmony of the latest gospel song, or at the Greek step show my hips could effortlessly fall into the familiar rhythm. Being the outsider was manageable because I could leave campus and refill on my blackness in familiar, empowering environments.
If you read the title of this post, “Being the black ‘other’ in Brazil”, I am sure you are confused why I am discussing in depth my experiences in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I painstakingly recount a childhood and adulthood in the South to demonstrate my intimate cognizance of being and thriving as an outsider. Nevertheless, none of these experiences could prepare me to counter these same feelings in Brazil.
Stay turned for part two..
A little over a year ago, I decided to quit my full-time job as a Spanish-English translator and English for Speakers of Other Languages Teacher at a school district in South Carolina and follow a quiet, but persistent dream to move back to Ghana, where I had recently lived during my graduate studies. When I turned in my resignation notice, I breathed a sigh of relief for my courage but cringed at the thought of sharing the news with colleagues, close friends, and family. Would they think I was crazy for giving up a guaranteed job in a field that I loved? How would my parents react to their college graduate losing her state funded retirement plan, nice health insurance policy, and income? Yet, as I began to share my decision with my school principal and friends, I realized no one cared but me. That’s right. No one cared about my decision but me. Everyone was actually excited to see me move back to West Africa and take the next step to advance my career. Seeing everyone’s reactions (or lack thereof)helped me to realize I was who I had been waiting on. For months, this desire to move back to Ghana occupied my thoughts and dreams, but I was too afraid to listen to them. I thought people’s perceptions of me and my decisions, not my own thoughts, mattered more than following my gut. Boy was I wrong.
As I write this post today, I am staring out the window my apartment in Campo Grande, Brazil. I recently moved here to begin tenure as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Brazil (more to come). Never could I have imagined that a simple but calculated decision to uproot my entire life again to West Africa would set in motion events and opportunities I could never plan for. I applied for a Fulbright in fall 2012 to teach English in Colombia. I advanced in the competition but after landing in Ghana in March 2013, I was notified that I was an alternate. I really wanted the Fulbright, but I accepted that I would make a life in Ghana interning/looking for jobs/working and building a life that I loved. And that’s what I did. I interned with World Education Ghana, an organization that sponsors literacy and education projects in resource-poor areas of Ghana and moved in with my best friend from my master’s program. Four months into my stay in Ghana, Fulbright offered me a position in Brazil, which is of course my favorite country in the world. I jumped, I screamed, I replied yes, yes I will go. 6 months later, here I am.
Day by day, I am getting better at this listen to Regina thing while letting life run its course. If there has ever been anything you have wanted to do, who are you waiting for? We all have different “rat races” that we blindly flow. Have the courage to do you because you are who you have been waiting for.
Beige brick buildings. Suburban trucks filled with carpooling moms. Parents walking their children to school. I stared out of the car window as my mother pulled up to Pine Street Elementary School. Within a ten-minute drive across town, the wailing sirens, drunkards loitering around the neighborhood liquor store, and lingering smell of Beacon fast food dissipated. The air was crisp and silent. This place was perfect. My mother and I were now in Spartanburg’s most prestigious neighborhood, and I, little eight-year-old me was attending their prized public elementary school. Pine Street Elementary would be my academic home for the next four years.
When I think of most coming-of-age stories, tales of first kisses, first dances or after prom activities come to mind. For me, however, I became an adult much sooner than the chronological end of my childhood. On August 15th, 1996 during my first day of third grade, I realized that I was poor and black in the South.
Before that day, I lived a relatively sheltered life. My single mother raised me on a strict diet of church, private school, and family. We attended a small predominately African-American non-denominational congregation. I went to school at a small private Presbyterian school near our neighborhood. Though I was one of three black students at the school, color and class were not conscious parts of my life. I played with my classmates at school, I went to their birthday parties, and I laughed at their jokes. We were friends who happened to have different skin tones and hair. At home, I lived with my mother most days and spent weekends with my dad, step-mom, and little sister. I was a content, happy, and confident little girl.
Transferring from a private school to a public school with an elite, majority white student body quickly eroded my childhood confidence and puerile naiveté. Because of the rising cost of private school, my mother could no longer afford to fund my education, resulting in my transferal to the public school system in our town. To maintain my level of education, my mother petitioned school district officials to allow me to attend the best elementary school in the district instead of the school in our black, working class neighborhood. Permission was granted, and I was officially a student a Pine Street Elementary.
My first days at Pine Street were magical. Every morning, I woke up excited to don normal clothes in place of my plaid private school uniform (pictured above). No longer could I name my future teachers or recognize my school mates because my new school was so big. Plus, we did not have to memorize bible verses or attend chapel every morning. I was in public school heaven.
Little did I know that the doors of this heaven would soon be restricted for me. Weeks and months passed and I never received a birthday party invitation or play date invite to my white classmates’ events. Though we were friends, our friendships ended daily at 2:30pm when the closing bell for classes rang. I was not one of them. I was an outsider. Their parents were college professors (at my future alma mater), doctors, lawyers, and businessmen who ran our Southern town. My parents were a contractor and a secretary. Their mothers worked full-time at being-a-mom[dot]com and being the first car in the carpool line at our school. My mother struggled to balance night shifts at the hospital and picking me up on time daily. The economic differences between my classmates and I were stark. I came to the conclusion that I was different. They were the sons and daughters of the affluent. I was the daughter of “the help”.
Quickly my external comparisons turned inward. My normal clothes no longer excited me because they were not name brand. My pressed hair irritated me because it could not maintain its straightness in the rain like my classmates’ blonde and brunette hair could. My lips were too big, and I hated them. Nightly I would stare in the mirror and cover my teeth with my lips and smile to create the illusion of smaller lips. My nascent hips, a cursed gift from my mother, effaced all hopes I had of being a skinny size zero. Thanks to my nappy hair, big lips, and big hips, I was hopelessly black and ugly.
Today, as I sift through a box of childhood pictures as I pack for my upcoming departure to Brazil, my fingers pound my MacBook keyboard as I battle the volcano of emotions and memories erupting inside of me. I am angry that Pine Street robbed me of a sweeter coming-of-age story. I am sad that little Regina could not see her beauty and worth until college. I am confident in the woman I have become and am becoming daily. Thanks to college and two years of living in Ghana, West Africa, I have been reborn again. I am now hopefully: Southern. Black. Beautiful. I belong here.
Two and a half years ago, I entered the University of Ghana Legon as master’s student in African Studies. While most of my American peers were entering law or medical school in the USA, I thought of myself as a brazen cavalier trudging off into the unknown exotic country of Ghana in a charming West Africa. While I knew I had much to learn about Ghana specifically, I thought I already knew everything about Africa. First there was colonialism, which lead to war and extreme poverty across the continent which brought about the need for “developed” countries to give humanitarian aid to these poor African countries. I was naïve. I had fallen for the poor-war-torn-in-need-of-aid Africa trope.
Last night, President Obama reveled us again with this same old story of Africa in his State of the Union address. In his hour long speech, he mentioned Africa twice.
The first mention: “In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali, we have to keep working with partners to disrupt and disable these networks”
The second: “Across Africa, we’re bringing together businesses and governments to double access to electricity and help end extreme poverty”
Judging from his speech alone, I could conclude that Africa is plagued with terrorism and poverty. But that’s just one story of Africa, a narrowly defined trope that fails to capture the multiplicities of Africas, peoples, cultures, and stories on the continent. There’s the barbie doll maker in Nigeria, the agricultural entrepreneur in Ghana, group of women proudly blogging about sexuality and sex on the continent, and the pan-African high school training tomorrow’s generation of African leaders. These are a just a few examples of African ingenuity, voice, and empowerment on the continent. Not to negate the current crises in the Central African Republic or South Sudan, but the story of Africa(s) is greater than political turmoil and bloodshed. There are many more stories.
If there is anything I have learned from my master’s program in Ghana is that there is great danger in saying Africa is (fill in the blank). Dear Mr. President, the next time you speak about Africa(s), leave the tired Africa tropes at the White House. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie contends in her TED talk, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Africa(s) has many stories to tell. Will you listen?