Learning With Lélia Gonzalez: In Defense of the Afro-Latin Feminism
This weeks Guest Blogger, Jacqueline Santos, is visiting by way of Brazil. In honor of Women’s History Month, it seems appropriate that we share the story of Lélia Gonzalez. Jacqueline Santos, has a B.A. in Social Sciences by the Pontifícia Universidade Católica (PUC) of Campinas and currently is pursuing a Masters Degree in Social Anthropology at Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP). Her subjects of interest and research are hip-hop culture, Black movement, and Black women.
Lélia Gonzalez was an activist of the Brazilian Black movement and an outstanding intellectual primarily responsible for the development and practice of black feminism in Brazil. In Brazilian lands, many African-American intellectuals are seen as important references for activism and academia. For that reason, I think it’s important that sisters in America know more about the activism and scholarly productions of Brazilian women. Angela Davis, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Patricia Collins, Kimberly Crenshaw, and others are names present in our discussions about women black and feminism. I hope that Lélia Gonzalez can also contribute to this subject matters.
Born in 1935, Lélia Gonzalez overcame difficulties of gender and race, a similar story for most Black intellectuals in Brazil. Being a black woman in Brazil means facing a reality of social vulnerability since the social inequities have “color” and gender. However, Lélia Gonzalez challenged this reality graduating in History, Geography, Philosophy, and holding a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology. At the same time, Gonzalez made use of her intellectual knowledge to attack racism and sexism, trying to put together political actions and scholarly production. She was a member of Unified Black Movement (MNU), organization that changed the history of Black activism in Brazil in the 1970s.
Before presenting Gonzalez’s thought, it’s necessary to remind you, that black womens history in Brazil was an instrument for the liberation of Black people in slavery. Brazilians sistersthought, articulated, and led movements seeking the conquest of citizenship. An example of this can be found in the history of “quilombos” (marrons), places of Black resistance where life was without slave labor. The existence of African religious communities, and the development of political and practical strategies in order to reach the freedom of other slaves. To learn about this history, I suggest the book “A História das Mulheres Negras no Brasil” (The History of Black Women in Brazil), written by Shuma Schumaher and Érico Vital Brazil.
Although Black women have a history of secular resistance in Brazil, the feminist movement, led by a majority of white women, gave small importance to the demands of this segment. Therefore, organizations of Black women were born inside of the black movement. Lélia Gonzalez, in her article “For An Afro-Latin American Feminism”, says that awareness of Black women in relation to the social oppression occurs before anything by race, and that the roots and common cultural and historical experience between us and black men ultimately strengthen our political ties, “(…) was enslaved within the community that developed political and cultural forms of resistance which now allow us to continue a centuries-long struggle for liberation”.
We can identify the struggle of black women in Latin America beginning with the crossing forced by the Atlantic ocean (Middle Passage), when contact with the colonizer was marked by physical, moral, and symbolic violence, but also by resistance and creation of alternatives for survival in the New World. Latin America, largely colonized by Spain and Portugal, had experienced the construction of hierarchical relationships that favored white men and their descendants. Even before the colonization of the New World these two countries had experiences of wars based on race where ideologies of social, sexual, and racial categorization were used to organize the hierarchical structures of their societies. These ideologies were imported and reproduced in their colonies in the Americas, as Gonzalez teaches us.
The position of Black and indigenous women in the continent was built from operators which played with ideological, racial, and gender categories. Due to this social standing women belonging to these two racial groups were the ones who suffered most from discrimination and inequalities. The experience of colonization has left a challenge for Black women in Latin America and the struggle for basic living conditions. Meanwhile, the need to rebuild their identities has been marked by the stereotype of inferiority imposed by the White European colonizer.
According to Gonzalez, “racism in Latin America is sophisticated enough to keep blacks and Indians in the subordinate condition within the most exploited class, because its most effective form of ideology: the ideology of whitening, so well analyzed by Brazilian scientists. Transmitted by means of communication and the traditional ideological systems, it reproduces and perpetuates the belief that the ratings and values of white Western culture are the only true and universal. Once established, the myth of white superiority proves its efficiency and the effects of violent disintegration, fragmentation of ethnic identity produced by him, the desire to whiten (“cleaning the blood” as they say in Brazil), is internalized with the consequent denial of their own race and own culture.”
Something really interesting about Gonzalez is that she was able to share common experiences with black women from different countries of Latin America and brought those experiences to a national debate about the condition of black women and colonization. She was one of the few black women in Brazil who had the opportunity to be on the agenda of international discussions of the feminist movement into contact with organized Black Women in Latin America and the African Diaspora as a whole. From this experience, Gonzalez advocated the construction of an afro-feminist agenda in Latin America since Black women in different contexts were subjected to similar conditions of inequality and discrimination. Also, following Gonzalez’s perspective, another point in common between Black women from Latin American it would that colonization process was responsible to create a ideological/racial system that uses skin complexion (“cor” in Portuguese) and gender as body marks that allocated these women in a social space of inferiority.
Afro-Latin American feminism was built on the common experience of those Black women who share, in different contexts, gender and racial oppression. At the same time, gender and race are social markers of difference, which articulate and guide their struggles. For Lélia Gonzalez race, gender, and class can be understood as interrelated elements responsible to produce the lived reality of these women and, for this reason, should be put together in their struggles for recognition in the different societies they are inserted. Teaching that “race, social class, and gender” are articulated categories, Gonzalez anticipates the theory of intersectionality, which is currently subject of debate in Brazil in the studies of Black women.
This short article covers only a little bit of Lélia Gonzalez’s thought among the sea of contributions she had made to our activism..
GONZALEZ, Lélia; HASENBALG, Carlos. Lugar de Negro. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Marco Zero, 1982.
GONZALEZ, Lélia. Mulher Negra. Rio de Janeiro, 1984. Available on:http://www.leliagonzalez.org.br.
GONZALEZ, Lélia. Por um Feminismo Afro-Latino-Americano, 1988. Available on:http://www.leliagonzalez.org.br.
RATTS, Alex & RIOS, Flávia. Lélia Gonzalez. 2010. Selo Negro.