I arrived in Salvador a 21-year old black male, raised by the Indianapolis community that created me, to embark on a journey to discover lessons from another chapter of the African Diaspora. I arrived with a backpack of journals and cameras and a large duffle bag filled with clothes inappropriate for the tropical weather. I was drenched in sweat within minutes upon arrival.
During my first month here, I experienced a painful period of rapid growth; I met the woman who I’d be staying with during my time here, stumbled through every conversation with a basic proficiency in Portuguese, learned how to navigate the bus system (I got lost one evening and had to take three buses to get home), acclimated myself to customs and culture, and began capoeira classes at one of the most historic schools of Capoeira Angola in the world.
On the streets, gringos are easily spotted by baianos, or people from Bahia. To Brazilians, a gringo is anyone that’s not from Brazil – not just white people, as mainstream media suggests. I’ve been spotted by multiple people as a gringo on many occasions; my Portuguese accent is different, the way I dress is different, and even the way I walk gives my United States identity away.
In this identity, I’ve confronted myself about the perplexities of my own double consciousness. In the U.S., I stand apart from the mainstream ideals of the country and am ‘othered’ as a black male, and I fight against the ideals of white supremacy that the U.S. represents in the struggle for a better tomorrow. Here, my nationality carries a different, heavier weight, and the same ideals that the U.S. represents are the same ones that I am expected to carry on me. Although some days I am mistaken for a baiano, I am quickly discovered to be an American citizen, and am treated as such; prices for items such as cigarettes, beer, and sunglasses go up, baianos begin practicing their English phrases that they learned through American music and TV shows, and conversations begin to immediately shift towards politics. Specifically, how crazy and idiotic Donald Trump is.
While the luggage of an American identity has increased in weight, so has the luggage of being black. While this is an identity that I cherish, for this identity was shaped by the community and culture I was raised in, I learned about the weight of this identity in an international context. Down here, many of those unspoken rules I learned about being black in America still apply. While the nuances of racism are different, the structure still reeks of what is familiar: police brutality brought upon poor black populations by militarized police, economic inequity, sexism (machismo) especially against black women (misogynoir), and the list goes on.
The counterargument that I hear to these truths is the cleverly crafted lie of Brazil being a racial democracy. The multiple categories for shades of skin adopted by Brazilians to describe themselves were further divisions, and each one trying to stay as far away from “black” as possible. While the counterargument to reality was forged through a lie and also through racial mixing between Europeans, Africans, and Indigenous populations, the question that many ask in Brazil is “quem é negro?” or, “who is black?” But for me, whose blackness had been formed by a racial dichotomy fortified through segregation, lynchings, and generational enslavement, my understanding of who is black is seen through similarities in the oppressive systems of the state.
Nothing pierced through my inherent connection to the African Diaspora more than watching the sunset on the sands of Porto do Barra, heralded as one of Brazil’s most beautiful beaches. These same beaches were where European slave ships arrived from Africa, carrying enslaved Africans, tired, sick, and sweaty, with ankles and wrists bruised and calloused from heavy chains. I watched the sun slowly sink below the horizon, with all of the pinks and deep oranges brushed across the clouds. Looking out into the water, I wondered how much blood was trapped in the sand I stood on, and I imagined how many before me had found themselves in strange land, looking out and wondering if they’d ever see home again.
These are the thoughts that strike the deepest chords of my heart as I continue to navigate this city, picking up lessons here and there, and stowing them away in my backpack to share with my community upon my return.