Blackness in Bahia: Me, Brazilians, and a New Sense of Self Recognition

Pelourinho, Salvador de Bahia

Salvador de Bahia has been very good to me.

Arriving from the colder and more fast pace São Paulo, Salvador de Bahia gave me a chance to slow down and soak in the beauty around me. My group and I stayed at the Monte Pascoal Pria Hotel Salvador, only minutes from the beach. The weather was great and the people were great too. The energy in Bahia that received me was so warm and friendly. It was also lighthearted and calm.

Traveling here has felt like an ancestral homecoming. Salvador de Bahia is a state in Brazil that is predominantly Black. In fact, approximately 85% of the population is Black. As I mentioned in my previous post, Black Brazilians make up a majority of the Brazilian population as a whole, and they are largely concentrated in Salvador de Bahia. The African presence is undeniable. During the slave trade, Brazil imported (re: stole) 4 million Africans. For context, the United States in comparison, had roughly 500,000 slaves. The Portuguese brought more Africans to Brazil than any other country that used slave labor. Brazil was also the last country to end slavery in the Western world in 1888. The influence of Africans are directly tied to many Yoruba traditions of Western African countries. Two evidences of this diasporic bond that I witnessed was through food and religion.

Candomblé is an Afro-Brazilian religion that originated in Salvador de Bahia. It has some similarities to Yoruba religion. As someone who does not practice this religion, knowing that the ancestors brought and molded Candomblé in Brazil, and both Voodoo and Santería in the Caribbean, I felt a yearning that I have not always had before. As a Haitian-American, my parents strongly vilified folk religions like Voodoo and I grew up in fear of them. Traveling to Salvador de Bahia and exploring the history of Candomblé has begun a process of demystifying my ancestors. I hope to learn more about their practices to better understand where I come from. I am not sure if I acn fully describe it, but I felt the presence of my ancestors in Bahia. I felt divinely connected to Black people in Bahia. On our first full day in Bahia, we went to the Museu Afro-Brasiliero UFBA. There I saw a memorial dedicated to Marielle Franco, a Brazilian feminist and political activist who was assassinated earlier this year. In the neighborhood of Pelourinho, we went to Balé Folclórico, an artistic representation of Candomblé and Capoeira, the martial arts form that Afro-Brazilians created to fight off their oppressor.

Later that night in Pelourinho, we spent some time dancing in the streets to live music. I felt like I was in a Brazilian version of Ernie Barnes's famous painting, "The Sugar Shack." I cannot stop raving about the beauty I witnessed while I was here. BLACK PEOPLE, WE ARE SO SO LIT!! WE ARE LIT GLOBALLY!! Never before in my life have I spent time in a place that is so concentrated in blackness in full; not just a black neighborhood of a predominantly white town or city like in the United States. Truly, I was in awe of the blackness around me. There was so much variety too. All of it felt beautiful. Having grown up in suburban New Jersey, I rarely saw healthy representations of black beauty and worth. Bahia felt like a rejection of the Gisele Bündchen version of Brazil that is projected to the rest of the world. Living in NYC, it feels like Black beauty has a specific aesthetic. In Bahia, the existence itself is the aesthetic.

Salvador de Bahia is also home to the Steve Biko Institute. Founded in 1992, this organization aims to foster and promote Black consciousness. Students of the Steve Biko Institute take a free course that helps them prepare for the national university entrance exam (ENEM) AND are taught a robust curriculum regarding Black identity, Afro-Brazilian history, and the Black diaspora. The Steve Biko Institute fosters self love, self acceptance, and Black pride. We got the chance to meet with a few students who described how Black consciousness classes helped them realize they are in fact Black. The Steve Biko Institute is now an institute of higher learning, so soon they will be offering college level courses.

Representation on this level has had a positive impact on me. Being in Bahia, I felt seen. Like my beauty was legitimate. It gave me a confidence that I have not had before. This feeling is something I hope all Black Americans have an opportunity to see some day. I would love to one day take Black high schoolers on an exchange to Salvador de Bahia specifically. Blackness in Bahia felt magnetic. There was something here in me that I have never really felt before. I felt my own desirability and my own beauty. My confidence sprang up here to be fun, flirty, and free.

In Bahia, I felt light. It was as if nothing could weigh me down and hold me back. Bahia felt limitless.

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