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Blackness Re-visited and Re-visioned in the works of the


Black Arts Movement and Quilombhoje
Calling black people
Calling all black people, man woman child
Wherever you are, calling you, urgent, come in
Black People, come in, wherever you are, urgent,
calling
You, calling all back people
Calling all black people, come in black people,
come
on in. (Imamu Amiri Baraka, SOS1)
This paper began on my first journey to Salvador da Bahia, in August 2000. I was
invited to a meeting of poets and, by chance, it was a meeting between poets who are members
of the writers collective, Quilombhoje, and Sonia Sanchez. The meet and greet became a lyrical
exchange with each poet performing and, later, Sanchez responding in her own flowing,
rhythmical style. To the poets from Salvador, this was a moment to encounter an inspirational
source and for Sonia it was a moment to receive inspiration. As I begin to think about the
commonalties that allowed for the poetic voice to cross the language barrier, to seek each other,
and to find inspiration, I realize that this journey began at a much earlier time, and in quite
different spaces, but it was reaching for a common goal the essentialness of blackness and
through it the expression of self. The journey, I realize, is teleological and what is at stake is
Black peoples definition of themselves. In this paper, I intend to revisit the Black Arts
Movement as a comparative model in which to view the poets of Quilombhoje and its project of
black empowerment in Brazil. I see Quilombhoje as an extension of and a variant to the Black
Arts Movement, yet both have a common demand -- the entelechy of the Black subject.
We are undergoing a period in the theoretical wars in which almost any debate can be
quelled by suggesting that it is an essentializing notion, idea, construct. The term essentialist
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has come to signify that ones thought processes are not fully developed, that one has not
thoroughly given consideration to the matter at hand, that one is making sweeping
generalizations with little to no basis in fact, and that one, undeniably, is an underdeveloped
individual at best and, at worst, a specious intellectual, or a member of that unforgiven sect, the
Afrocentrics. With regards to the issue of race and race theorizing these attitudes take on an
insidious character, for it often couches critiques about the ways black peoples define
themselves. We have even reached the point in which one of our major theorists, Paul Gilroy,
writes a treatise against race. Of course, it is not a polemic against racism, and its pernicious
effects, but against what Gilroy terms, raciological thought (40). Against Race is in fact a
diatribe on identity and identity politics predicated on the issue of race, bringing us into direct
conflict with the essence of the projects of the Black Arts Movement and Quilombhoje. For
Gilroy, race-based discourse is an unfortunate legacy from the slave past that must be eradicated,
since it prevents linkages between subordinate groups. Yet the focus of Gilroys attacks are not
on those centers of power, individuals or institutions, that promote racism, but on the various
counter-hegemonic movements that seek to fight racists agendas by affirming racial solidarity
and advocating a black identity. Within these black collective movements, in particular the Black
Nationalist struggles, Gilroy reads an element of fascism, where myopic racial essentialism
meets militaristic tendentiousness. The truth from a biological standpoint is that racial
differences do not exist affirms Gilroy. Tracing advances in nanoscience, he advocates that we,
in like manner as this scientific trajectory, begin to see the body as a set of codes without its
racial marker. The irony of this cannot be lost, since racial discourse began out of pseudoscientific research, now science is used as the corrective font to racialism. Yet this scientific
knowledge cannot tell us how to address the racists perceptions of individuals and institutional
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forms of discrimination. It is assumed that once armed with this knowledge that race does not
exist, we will all suddenly live together in harmony and sing cum ba ya. The subtitle of
Gilroys text is Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line and this is exactly the
position in which he leaves us, in the realm of the imaginary, as he calls for a nebulously
defined, utopic, planetary humanism.
I daresay most oppressed people dream of a world where the behaviors and attitudes that
oppress them no longer exists and they can be treated with equanimity, dignity, and respect, but
we have not reached that world as yet. We exist in a world in which differences, in reality, are
not celebrated but made into points that promote xenophobia, and further racial, religious,
cultural, sexual and sexist intolerance. To validate Gilroys project, race is a social construct -that we know -- but it is not a construct developed by the groups who are currently subject to its
pernicious effects. Gilroy eschews taking on these racial identities in the name of empowerment,
yet he still fails to fully elucidate that within the history of the black diaspora, these identities
were not identities of choice, but identities thrust on the individual. Michael Echeruo, countering
the postmodernist tendency to consider identity as a state of constant becoming, points out that
identity is constituted not just from ones choices, but also from choices imposed on the subject.
What the history of the black diaspora teaches us, Echeruo states, is that black identity must
always be predicated on black experience, and to whatever additional extent possible, on the
experience of those others touched enough by black blood to identify themselves with it (11).
This is the point from which I will read the projects of the Black Arts Movement and
Quilombhoje, as projects of deliberate identification with blackness. These movements, I argue,
set out to confront white racism with the ontological fact of blackness, and in the process
generate a black identity, specific to their political positionings. The discourses generated in
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these movements are very much part of the racialized seeing, racialized thinking, and racialized
thinking about thinking that Gilroy eschews (40), but I also argue that these positionings are
part of an organic process, like Fanon suggests of negritude discourse, necessary stages of
development within the counter-hegemonic struggle.
Let us return to Barakas call from our epigraph. In SOS, Baraka sends out a call for
racial solidarity. By calling all Black people, he elides differences wrought by class
identification, gender, ethnicity, location, culture, language, and political affiliation. It is a poem
of Pan-African import, as it confers a seamless, undifferentiated identity based on the
commonality of blackness. For the poem implies a shared experientiality predicated on the
blackness of being: ones epidermalization as suggested by Fanon,2 which within Western
discourse, is the outward manifestation of the backwardness and primitivism of the black
person.3 Baraka thus assumes that all blacks have experienced the stultifying effects of racism
and, as such, have a shared sensibility of what it means to be the despised other. He emphatically
affirms that blackness is, it exists within the individuated being of all black people and those who
accept this axiom willingly respond to the call. The poems profundity is that it is just a call, yet
what it evokes in the mindscape is the common oppression, the need for a common vision and, at
the time, the growing visibility of a vanguard of resistance to the negation of the black subject.
Like a griot, setting the stage for the story to come, Barakas SOS attenuates the reader to the
enlightenment to come. He sends the call and it is the task of poets, writers, of all black peoples
to respond.
It is Sonia Sanchez who directly answers that call in her poem, blk /rhetoric:
whos gonna make all
that beautiful blk / rhetoric
mean something.
Like
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i mean
Whos gonna take
the words
blk/ is / beautiful
and make more of it
than blk / capitalism.
u dig?
i mean
like whos gonna
take all the young / long/ haired
natural / brothers and sisters
and let them
grow till
all that is
impt is them
selves
moving in straight /
revolutionary / lines
toward the enemy
(and we know who that is)
like man
whos gonna give our young
blk / people new heroes
(instead of catch / phrases)
(instead of cad /ill / acs)
(instead of pimps)
(instead of wite / whores)
(instead of drugs)
(instead of new dances)
(instead of chit/ ter / lings)
(instead of a 35 bottle of ripple)
(instead of a quick / fucks in the hall / way
of white / americas mind)
like this, is an S O S
me, calling . . . . . . . . . .
calling. . . . . . . . .
some / one
pleasereplysoon.
(Sanchez, blk / rhetoric 15-16)
Sanchezs call questions the ways in which belonging to a group or community transforms ones
consciousness into an active, agentative form of solidarity. It queries exactly what are the limits
of black identification, how will this collective identity be constituted, and how will this identity
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become established doctrine instead of mere rhetoric? Embedded in her inquires are the issues of
power and authority, and in whose hands they will reside, will it continue to be toward the
enemy, the unnamed white establishment, or will it be young / long/ haired // natural / brothers
and sisters, those who embody an alternate vision of black empowerment, predicated on a
revaluation of their individuality and cultural dynamics outside of the purview of racists
interventions? For within these polemics lay the political imperative of the movement, black
self-determination and nationhood (Neal 184). Philip Harper, however, sees within this poem
the limitations and ultimate failure of the black nationalist project fundamental to the Black Arts
Movement and, that is, its inability to negotiate the differences within the black populace. He
argues that the main thrust of the Black Arts project is an issue of articulation, giving voice to
black consciousness, rather than providing a concrete framework to overcome social divisions
(Harper 238-39). While Harper is correct in saying that this was indeed a project of articulation,
what he fails to consider is that this movement was a necessary interrogatory of the normative
standards set by the white, Western aesthetic order that marginalized the black subject and
harnessed his/her creative vista
It behooves us at this point to trace the development of the Black Arts Movement in order
to address its framework and trajectory. To give a set date to its inception is difficult, since it was
a hydra-headed movement formed within diverse locations and through multiple organizations.
Urban centers from Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia,
contained principle members who were attached to community based political and cultural
programs. If we must date the movement, its institutional inception, according to Mike Sell,
begins with the founding of the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BART/S) on April 30,
1965 (59). BART/S was the creation of the poet LeRoi Jones, who would soon change his name
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to Amiri Baraka. Disillusioned with the avant-garde, Beat scene in Greenwich Village, Baraka
turned to Harlem to create a repertory company that would bring the black experience back home
to itself. Building on the performance based platforms of local groups like the Black House in
Bay Area, the Muntu reading group in North Philadelphia, and the Umbra Poets Workshop on
the Lower East Side in New York, poets, musicians, critics and activists came together to debate
and disseminate the word (Sell 59-60). But it was from within BART/S that came the seminal
articulation about this new era of creativity that enjoined its artists to return to the black
community, to dialogue with it, and produce art from within its context:
The black artist can give his people Truth, Beauty and a sense of themselves as masters
of the planet. The Black Arts will try to give all black men the sense of themselves that
the artist has. And an artist is a man that must be free, so the Black Arts is a place where
freedom will be shown as actual, and the force of its being must make all black men want
this freedom so badly they will do anything for it. (quoted in Thomas 69)
In the eyes of the artists, the movement was not just a project of articulation as Philip Harper
suggests, but one of reflection, reflexivity and representation. It demanded a collectivity
predicated on the spiritual and artistic values of the community; it connected to an African past
rediscovered through explorations of West African orality, and the Yoruba religion coming out
of Cuba, to outwardly manifest into an interruptive political and aesthetic discourse. It is due to
its discursive and performative strategy that the movement is linked to the demands of Black
Power, and the creative force implied in the development of a Black Aesthetic. In Larry Neals
seminal article, The Black Arts Movement, he defines both Black Arts and Black Power as
nationalistic concepts, wherein [o]ne is concerned with the relationship between art and politics;
the other with the art of politics (Neal 184). By imbricating the artistic and the political, the
Black Arts Movement can be likened to decolonizing strategies, where a recuperated culture is

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seen as an essential factor in the substantial and psychological overthrow of dominant


ideologies.4
Critics such as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Houston A. Baker, Jr. find fault in the Black
Arts Movement overt politicization, considering that it occludes its aesthetic quest. Aesthetics
becomes defined as politics, they suggests, which manifests into strident, discordant concepts of
nationalism, without any critical assessment of the project of community building, within a set
national structure (see Gates 56, Baker 178). Critiques also focus on the gross hyperbole of the
movement and, as David Smith characterizes it, the work is often marred by the swaggering
rhetoric of ethnic and gender chauvinism (3). Smiths main critique, however, centers on the
movements aesthetic project for it corresponds to the notion of an essential blackness, a true
nature common to all black people (96). This brings us back into the realm of Paul Gilroy,
who we must agree with on this point that any discourse based on race does contribute to the
cycle of oppression. Yet, neither Gates, Baker, nor Smith fully elucidates that these discourses,
when they are generated by the oppressed, reflect the anxieties, rage, hopes, and dreams for
alternate realities. They are representational texts of black experience and emotional outrage in
the face of continued white domination. They are forms of radical resistance that undermines a
systemic codex of representations constructed through the ages to consolidate power in a white,
Western hierarchy. According to Clyde Taylor, for the outsider who has no determining power
over this codex, radical resistance is the highest form of the politics of representation. Hence, it
is not enough to say no to these codified forms of oppression, or hurl inflammatory language, but
this form of resistance must decode a system of representations that dates back centuries (219220).

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One of the major objectives of the Black Arts Movements is to debunk whiteness in all its
forms, from its aesthetic hold over art to its importance in the minds of black folks. Whiteness
defined in this movement is in direct opposition to blackness. These terms are not subject to
explicit meanings and set categorization, for they are emotive and parabolic, yet the actions and
reactions they evoke are concretely located in each persons psyche. The question then is, how
does one define, give a set meaning to a psychic identification? It becomes an impossibility that
lends itself to critiques of essentialism because the terms used are bound to the constrictions of
language, and cannot relate to the fulsomeness of the beingness of ones epidermalization.
Whiteness is power and blackness is powerless, and even with the current generation of black
millionaires in the U.S., we know this on a psychic, intrinsic level, for it is imbedded within and
through every discursive and representational field in our global economy. This relational divide
between identity and difference is intrinsically political and the Black Arts Movement as a
political collective makes connections possible within the disparate relations of black peoples.
Reflecting on what binds them, what makes this kinship possible, allows them to create
connections that are at times imaginary, but nevertheless persuasive, potent and transformative.
This is the reason why a poem such as Amiri Barakas, Black Art, is key to understanding the
cohesiveness of the movements aesthetic and political intent:
Poems are bullshit unless they are
teeth or trees or lemons piled
on a step. Or black ladies dying
of men leaving nickel hearts
beating them down. Fuck poems
and they are useful, would they shoot
come at you, love what you are
breathe like wrestlers, or shudder
strangely after peering. We want live
words of the hip world, live flesh &
coursing blood. Hearts and Brains
soul splintering fire. We want poems
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like fists beating niggers out of Jocks


or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
of the owner-jews . . .
.
We want poems that kill.
Assassin poems. Poems that shoot
guns.
(Jones 302-3)
In Black Art, poetry is a form of liberation; it is no longer trapped or locked into the text. Its
aesthetics are predicated on content, not on form. It is, therefore, performative, alive and active.
Its textuality transforms to a physicality because these poems must shoot guns, they must be
dagger poems, they are fists and fire, poems that kill. At times the poem becomes an anti-white
invective, but its function is not hatemongering, it is an interruptive strategy to represent the
daily dynamics of interracial antagonism, which it seeks to combat. Marked by the radical
resistance to which Clyde Taylor refers, this movement and this poem challenges canonicity,
and the predications that the white way and its rules of aesthetics and order are the only way.
Yet, Taylor also points out that radical resistance must affirm as well as negate, if it is lost in
negation it conveys defeatism because it cannot envision an alterative strategy to oppression
(223). In the last stanza, we see Barakas affirmatory vision that conjoins Black Power, Black
People and Black Art:
We want a black poem. And a
Black World.
Let the world be a Black Poem
And let All Black People Speak This Poem
Silently
Or LOUD
The collective identification calls for a revisioning of the power dynamics. The quest is for a
Black World, where Black People are no longer oppressed because of their epidermis. It is not a
world of black and white unification, but a world in which the black voice has preeminent space
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and place, and this is why the movement is so often challenged and lambasted, because its vision
is predicated on replacing, not co-existing with the purview of whiteness and its institutional
order.
Even though this explication of the movement focuses on its poetic texts, it was a
movement centered on performance, and the majority of its texts came out of the theater. Its
intent was performative and it decried LOUDLY and stridently, we want a black world, and what
that world will consist of will be worked out later. The Black Arts Movement was the artistic
complement to the radical political factions organizing in the urban ghettos. It attacked the
materialism of American culture, values, and aesthetics; it decried the use of the text, specifically
the novel as the height of literary production; and, as an alternative, it reevaluated and promoted
an aesthetic based on West African oral cultures, African American music, orality, food, style,
and values. It is from these points that we must approach Quilombhoje.
Quilombhoje is the name of the collective of poets and writers located primarily in So
Paulo, Brazil. The groups reach however extends to the major cities of the country such as Rio
and Salvador. The name is a combination of quilombo, the name given to communities of
runaway slaves who lived as free, and hoje, which translates to today. The quilombo as a space
of resistance to enslavement and Portuguese hegemony stands as an evocative reminder of the
courage, self-sufficiency, self-actualization and organizing force of Afro-Brazilians. It has
become the trope used to signal the continuance of resistance ideologies and the desire for
empowerment. Organized in 1981, Quilombhoje formed as a collective to promote AfroBrazilian participation in literature through poetry readings and debates. The group developed
out of a climate of political change for Afro-Brazilians. From the period of 1964 to 1985, Brazil
was under military dictatorship, but the economic successes of its redemocratization strategies
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eluded the black middle-class in So Paulo, who still found themselves outside of the
mainstream of economic and political progress. In 1978, the Movimento Negro Unificado was
formed to address the exclusion.5 Influenced by national liberation movements in Portuguese
colonies in Africa, and the civil rights and Black Power movements in the U.S., the movement
promotes a race-based solidarity to insert into the Brazilian political terrain (Andrews 164). In
contrast to the Black Power movement, the Movimento Negros fundamental goal is to gain
admittance for blacks into the economic and political state, not to change its formation.
The 1960s was a decade of profound change. It saw the rise of the civil rights movement,
the cultural revolution in China, decolonization of African nations, the advocacy of black
separatism by the Nation of Islam, specifically during the phase where Malcolm X was its
advocate, and the insurgency of Black Power, all of these contributed to the politicization of the
writers in the Black Arts Movement. When exported around the world, the amalgamation of
these ideologies, found like-minded advocates amongst Afro-Brazilians. Combining with their
history of struggle, it emboldened the creative voice and, in 1979, in tandem with the Movimento
Negro, a new literary movement began through a series of texts, Cadernos Negros (Black
Notebooks). The founders of Cadernos Negros envisioned an artistic collective, and the
notebooks became the vehicle to publish the works of Quilombhoje.
Aspiring to interconnect political action and cultural expression, emphasizing black
awareness through literature (Oliveira 69), Cadernos Negros and Quilombhoje were seen as the
artistic arm of the Movimento Negro. Like the Black Arts Movement proponents, these writers
came from the educated middle class, and they sought to redeem the ways in which black people
were represented. By naming its publication Black Notebooks, it made public its agenda, for
not only did it accept the denigrated label, Negro, but it endeavored to reinterpret its meaning
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into an affirmative form of identity. Rather than limiting the project to its textual origins,
Quilombhoje expanded it into a performative, community-based, participatory experience.
Aesthetics is a major source of discord between the Brazilian white population and AfroBrazilians. White Brazilians imbibe ideologies of the dominant aesthetic and within their frame
of reference anything Black is bad.6 This is particularly apparent in regards to the black subject.
In fact, after the end of slavery in 1888, Brazilians codified their whiteness through a policy of
embranquecimento, whitening, where they promoted miscegenation and immigration of
Europeans to Brazil to lessen the black population. This policy has its ideological manifestations,
in that, the black being was thought to be too ugly, primitive, uncultured and gross, to become
part of the Brazilian nation and so, s/he had to be whitened through her descendents. Even
though this policy officially lasted from 1889 to 1914, its effects are still apparent today, since
most Brazilians, black and white, believe that to be whiter is to be more beautiful and it
guarantees more opportunities in the society (Twine 87-94). Therefore, Quilombhojes aesthetic
project like the Black Arts Movement is predicated on negating the negation of the black subject.
The irony is that the points of aesthetic representation, which the Black Arts Movement fought
over and against in the 1960s, are the same issues that Afro-Brazilians are currently fighting
against. Through Quilombhoje, we see the ways in which a counter-discourse is currently being
constructed to combat the epidermalization and societal negation of the black subject. This is
where Gilroys position against race abysmally fails, for he does not address these racist
ideologies that keep blacks bound to the discourse of blackness.
The points of attack against Afro-Brazilians, much like the attacks against AfroAmericans, are their intelligence, their looks and their culture. The black being is viewed as less
intelligent, as stated before ugly, and with the preponderance of African culture forms in their
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midst, too backwards to contribute to the modernization of the Brazilian nation. To be called
black in Brazil, Negro, is an insult and folks who in the U.S. could only be black, identify based
on the color of their skin and the texture of their hair. Hence, color identification replaces race
identification and Brazil has become known as a country of mestios. The public discourse of
mestiagem, namely, that everyone is mixed race and therefore equal, has come to replace the
concept of embranquecimento. Yet, it is primarily the Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Indian population
who claim this mixed-raced identity, whereas whites maintain the purity of their bloodlines (see
Twine 108-109). Since skin and color are points of attack, they naturally become the points of
defense. It is only appropriate that one of the first poems published within Cadernos Negros is
called Identidade:
Nasci de pais mestios
Fui registrado como branco
Mas com o tempo o cor escura se fixou
Negro, Negrinho
Voc e Negro, sim
A primera ofensa!
Eu era Negro sem saber
Adolescente, ainda recusava minha origem
Aprendi ser o Negro passivo, inferior
Reagia; sendo esta raa assim,
No sou Negro no!
Recusei a herana africana
Desejei a brancura
Mas tarde soube
A inferioridade era um mito
A passividade uma mentira
O conhecimento trouxe a conscincia
Aceitei minha negrice
Me assumi!
Encontrei uma bandeira
Negritude!
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Identidade resgatada
Ser Negro importante
se indentificar com minhas raizes.
(quoted in Oliveira 84-85)7
(I was born in a racially mixed country
I was registered as white
But with time darkness permeated my skin
Black, Black boy
You are Black, yes
The first offense!
I was Black without knowing it
Adolescences, and still I denied my origins
I learned to be a passive, inferior Black man
Resisting: being like this race
No Im not Black, No!
I rejected an African heritage
I wished for whiteness
But later I knew
The inferiority was a myth
The passivity a lie
This knowledge brought consciousness
I accepted my blackness
I owned it!
I found a banner
Negritude!
Identity redeemed
To be Black is important
It is to identify with my roots.)
(translation mine)
Within the poem, its author Jamu Minka, undergoes a crisis of consciousness, he transforms
from the figure who imbibes the discourses of embranquecimento and mestiagem, to one who
embraces his blackness. In finding his poetic voice, he finds his identity, and he uses it to
chronicle the racialism within this nation. In the first stanza, he identifies his parents as mestios,
mixed-race, and tells us he is registered as white. Like the former apartheid system in South
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Africa, from the moment of birth in Brazil, one is classified by color, and the birth certificate
encodes that classification into a set form of individual identification. It is not surprising that the
subject era Negro sem saber, and denied his color and origins because he longed to be white.
In the fourth stanza, he begins the act of transformation, and he forms what Chela Sandoval
refers to as an oppositional consciousness by denying his inferiority. But he is not trapped
within his negation, he develops a newly formed identity predicated on negritude, the
valorization of blackness and the black subject. The poem encodes the beginning of this journey
of consciousness that Quilombhoje hopes to engender within the Afro-Brazilian populace, to
transcend their self-abnegation and arrive at the point of entelechy, where blackness simply is.
Stuart Hall in New Ethnicities speaks of two movements that overlap within the
identity formation of Black Brits. The first occurred when the term black was coined to describe
their common experiences of racism and marginalization. Blackness became the homogenizing
framework to unify communities marked by ethnic and cultural differences, to generate a
monolithic counter-hegemonic identity. The concern of this phase was to overcome the negative
figuration of the black subject and the battles fought were for access to the rights of
representation by black artists and culturists. Positing alternate affirmative images of black
peoples, the corpus of this phase centered on changing, as he terms it, the relations of
representation (Hall 223-224). The second phase is marked by a shift from the relations of
representation to the politics of representation, which recognizes that black is an essentially
constructed term. It inevitably leads to the end of a solely race based discourse because it no
longer needs the monolithic character of the essential subject, but opens to the processes of
formation that result from the debates generated from within the historical and actual experiences
of diversity and differentiation amongst black peoples (Hall 225). I find Halls argument to be
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more nuanced that Gilroys assumption that race discourse can simply end when the black
subject no longer applies it to himself or herself. Within Halls framework comes the recognition
that these aspects of representation are historically laden and located within particular contexts. It
implicitly suggests that the points of contestation develop organically. In relation to Brazil, we
are in the first phase of this discursive encounter, the relations of representation inscribed well
in the poem, Identidade. As an affirmatory narrative it is emblematic of this stage, for it attests
to this need to recuperate and revitalize the demeaned black subject, and insert her/his voice into
the prevailing canonical order. In order to reach the second phase, characterized by a dialogic
interplay between the forces of class, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, one must draw from an
equally strong center of discourse. Before the black subject can enter into the debate centered on
belonging in relation to issues such as gender and class politics, s/he must disarm herself of the
inferiority conferred by her blackness. The relations of representation have to be reconfigured
for her to demand a place in the dialogue. A self-negating subject is simply an object of
fetishization, stereotyping, and exploitation. A self-aware subject cannot be willingly objectified,
nor completely defined by political, economic, and personal agendas. Like the Black Arts
Movement, Quilombhoje aims to interrupt the ways in which these dominant ideologies are
imbibed and become self-defining within the psyche of the black subject, in order to propel the
dialogic encounter towards the second stage, the politics of representation.
Quilombhoje too is lambasted for its lack of aesthetic vision because of its overtly
political aim. Its aesthetic forms also stand in contrast to the Brazilian canon, which valued
Parnasssian and Symbolist aesthetics. Since the overt expression of a black identity is of little
value within the dominant society, the minor critical attention given to the group disparaged its
political content. Emmauelle Oliveira also notes that within the first series of Cadernos Negros,
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the political intent of the collective overrides its concerns with grammatical correctness and
appropriateness of language (102). In answer to their critics, the poets began a dialogue between
their present works and those of their canonized predecessors such as Castro Alves, Lino Guedes
and Solano Trindade, with the goal of bringing an aesthetic complexity to their works. Poems
such as Somos Canto, by Mrcio Barbosa, written in the epic style favored by earlier writers,
thus becomes part of Quilombhojes register:
Debaixo de nossa pele
E dentro de nossas veias
Correm rios africanos
Somos Canto
Somos o riso de um atabaque
Feito do couro Negro
De nosso corpo
E da voz
Que nascem em nossas almas
.
E assim
Cantamos tambm
Por isso, comos canto, somos canto
E em nossos olhos
Brilham os sis
Que queimaro a hipocrisia
Em nome da vida
Ah. Somos Canto. Canto. Somos Canto
(quoted in Oliveira 127-28)
(Underneath our skin
And inside our veins
Ran African rivers
We are Song
We are the smile of an atabaque
Made from black leather
From our body
And from the voice
That birthed our souls

And so
We also sing
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For this, we are song, we are song


And in our eyes
Shines the suns
That will burn the hypocrisy
In the name of life
Ah. We are Song. Song. We are song)
(Translation mine)
The song/poem is about the continuity of the past to the present. It becomes a lyrical chant that
connects the African past, to the history of racism in Brazil, and the desire for self-actualization.
A collective voice, marked by the identifying marker, somos links the skin and the veins, to
the African past and the Brazilian present. Fanons epidermalization is re-presented as an
affirmatory phenomenon that hearkens to an African origination. That African past is further
recoded in the cultural iconicity of Brazils present through the atabaques, the drums used in
Candombl sessions. As a mnemonic reminder that links the past and present, it reveals that the
connection to Africa, to the source of this blackness, is also visceral and sensory and cannot
always be textually duplicated for intellectual scrutiny. But the poem is about the future, as the
poet tells us that em nossos olhos / Brilham os sis / Que queimaro a hipocrisia. In other
words, the myth of Brazil as a racial democracy will fall by the wayside and the longed for desire
for full inclusion in the nation will be realized.
Other dialogues with the canon prodded experimentations in language and structure. In
the same mode as the Black Arts Movement, this was all part of the collectives quest for its own
unique aesthetic voice to parallel its political objectives. A prime example is found in Esmeralda
Ribeiros, Mulher. Taking inspiration from the experimental movement, Concretismo, Ribeiro
creates a poem that registers both as an oral and a visual text. Concretismo relies on the
abstraction of the word and graphic representations are generated on the page using
typographical designs. Therefore, variegated colors, different fonts, word repetition and
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positioning, shape meaning and intent and, according to Oliveira, form a constructive and
deconstructive binary, to create a visualization of verbal codes (179-80). Ribeiro constructs
Mulher like an inverted triangle, a figural pubis on the page:
MU

MU

MU

LHER

LHER

MU

LHER
DO

LHER
SEM

HEMISFRIO NEGRO

DEFINIO

AO

SEM

HEMISFRIO SUL
MU

LIMITAO

LHER

MU
LHER

FORA
GUERREIRA
NA
LUTA AFRICANA
(quoted in Oliveira 190)
The fragmentation of the term mulher speaks to the fragmentary identity of the black woman,
who is in the process of constructing her own identity. Evolving from separate but interrelated
identities, from the conjunction of past and present, do hemisfrio Negro, / ao hemisfrio sul, //
sem definio, / sem limitao, she has limitless potential. Descriptors such as fora, /
guerreira, hearken to her place in the struggle for liberation. They evoke the spirit of Dandara,
the female warrior, who was Zumbis right hand in the building of Palmares.8 Figuratively
transforming the embodied struggle unto the written page, Ribeiros mulher is the agent of her
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own discourse and identity. She has taken the subject position and is ready to fight for her
rightful place in society. Thus, she constructs her identity by asserting a particular way of being
in the world that extends outwards beyond her representations.
Members of Quilombhoje, however, found that these aesthetic experimentations could
not fully represent their politically charged intent. Returning to their original maxim of content
over form, they found that their grammatical and syntactic imperfections carried the weight of
their political engagement, therefore, the texts became the doubled signifier for their resistance
of, not just the present day, oppressive and offensive representations of the black subject, but of
the history of negation found in Brazil. Clyde Taylor suggests that resistance is formed around
the imperfect narrative, for it gravitates to the unconventional, imprudent, and anarchic. It
stands outside the purview of the conventional as its function is to double and decode received
knowledge. Its intention then is to reject set definitions and redefine its own categorizations
(254-261). This imperfect form best describes the aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement as the
artists re-visioned and redefined language, syntax, and structure to create a way of
communicating illustrative of their politically charged content. Thus, in a poem such as
blk/rhetoric, the elision within the signifier black, the fragmentation of lines, and the
conjoining of words, speak to a creative process that attempted to bring music to the page and
create an art form to which the masses could relate. Inflected into the critiques of Quilombhojes
imperfect narratives are stereotypes about the black being, who is considered uneducated and
illiterate and, as such, cannot speak the Portuguese language correctly. In using this imperfect
form, Quilombhoje simultaneously recovers the voice of the black underclass and gives it
political resonance, to debunk the authorial claim that white Brazilians hold on the Portuguese
language and, by extension, Brazilian society.
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Quilombhojes questioning of form and content must be understood as part of the


processes of identity formation. Its distinctive language confers a sense of belonging to the group
and, by using Afro-Brazilian speech patterns, it incorporates this larger segment of society into
its orbit. This solidarity through language lends itself to more active forms of communal
belonging that finds expression in political form. It is at this point that this self-definitional form
challenges power and authority. It can no longer be categorized as a counter-discursive strategy,
for it has become self-authorized and self-actualized. It is in a poem from one of the most recent
members of the collective, Christiane Sobral, No Vou Mais Lavar Os Pratos, that we see the
actualization of the Afro-Brazilian subject, after she challenges her negation and demands her
rightful place in society:
No vou mais lavar os pratos.
Nem vou limpar a poeira dos moveis.
Sinto muito. Comencei a ler. Abri outro dia um livro
e uma semana depois decidi.
No levo mais o lixo para a lixeira. Nem arrumo
a baguna das folhas que caem no quintal.
Sinto muito. Depois de ler percebi
a esttica dos pratos, a esttica dos traos, a tica,
a esttica.
Olho minhas mos quando mudam a pgina.
dos livros, mos bem mais macias que antes
e sinto que posso comenar a ser a todo instante.
Sinto. Qualquer coisa.
No vou mais lavar. Nem levar. Seus tapetes
para lavar a seco. Tenho os olhos rasos dagua.
Sinto muito. Agora que comencei a ler quero entender.
O por qu, por qu? e o porqu.
Existem coisas. Eu li, e li, e li. Eu at sorri.
E deixei o feijo queimar
..
Passou do limite, passou da medida
passou do alfabeto
Desalfabetizou
No vou mais lavar as coisas

Depois de tantos anos alfabetizada, aprendi a ler


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Depois de tanto tempo juntos, aprendi a separar


meu tnis do seu sapato.
minha gaveta das suas gravatas.
meu perfume do seu cheiro
minha tela da sua moldura
Sendo assim, no lavo mais nada, e olho a sujeira
no fundo do copo. Sempre chega o momento
de sacudir
de investir
de traduzir
No lavo mais pratos.
Li a assinatura da minha lei urea
escrita em negro maisculo.
em letras tamanho 18, espao dulpo.
Aboli.
No lavo mais os pratos.
Quero travessas de prata,
Cozinha de luxo
e jias de ouro. Legtimas.
Est decretada a lei urea.
(Sobral 18-19)
(No longer will I wash plates
Nor will I clean the dust from the furniture.
Im very sorry. I began to read. The other day I opened a book
and a week later I decided.
No longer will I carry the garbage into the bin. Nor clean up the
mess of leaves falling in the backyard.
Im very sorry. After reading I understood
the aesthetics of the plates, the aesthetics of the traits, the ethics,
the static
Look at my hands when they turn the page
of the books, hands that were very soft before
and I feel that I can begin to be in all instances
Im sorry. Whatever.
Im not going to wash. Nor carry. Your rugs
to dry clean. I have eyes flooded with water.
Im very sorry. Now that I began to read I want to understand.
How come, why? And the reason.
Things exist. I read, I read, I read. Until I cried.
And I left the beans to burn

It passed the limit, passed the measure


passed the alphabet
Illiterate
No longer will I wash the things
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..
After so many years being taught to read and write, I learned to read
After so much time together, I learned to separate
my sneakers from your shoes.
my drawer from your ties
my perfume from your smell
my canvas from your frame
Being so, I wont wash anything anymore, and I will eye the dirt
in the bottom of the cup. The moment always arrives
to shake
to invest
to translate
No longer will I wash plates
I read the signature on my golden law
written in black capital letters
in size 18 font, double-spaced
I abolished
No longer will I wash plates
I want silver bars
Fine cuisine
And gold jewels. Legitimacy.
Decreed in the golden law
(Translation mine)
Sobral embodies the voice of one the most disenfranchised member of the society, the black
maid, and she declares, No vou mais lavar os pratos, she will no longer be the beast of burden
for the privileged in society. She will no longer accept the role of cleaning the dirt of others.
Ironically, she declares Sinto muito, she is very sorry, but this is a tale of empowerment and
the apology is only an ironic signifier to show that she no longer values the dominant discourse.
She generates parallels between a esttica dos pratos, a esttica dos traos, a tica,/ a esttica.
For she now understands that her servitude is tied to her aesthetics, which through the discourse
of embranquecimento and mestiagem confers on her an inferior position in society. Linking
illiteracy, desalfabetizou, to a lack of identity, education becomes the point of enlightenment.
After years of subscribing to a system racial abnegation, her education gives her the ability to
conjoin her present condition with a history of servitude and exclusion. It enables her to resist
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and say, No, to her continued disempowerment. Yet, she is not lost in the negation, having
found her voice, she decouples herself from the oppressive social order, aprendi a separar / meu
tnis do seu sapato / minha gaveta das suas gravatas. / Meu perfume do seu cheiro / minha tela da
sua moldura. By separating her sneakers from their shoes, and her canvas from their frame, she
symbolically revisions the act of self-awareness and begins to create her own identity outside of
imposed categorizations. Her education has led her to understand that she is free, li a assinatura
da minha lei urea / escrita em negro maisculo. / em letras tamanho 18, espao dulpo. Aboli.
Paralleling the intent of Quilombhoje, to develop the oppositional consciousness of AfroBrazilians, this moment is a moment of clarity, for she now knows that she is a self-actualized
subject and not an object of the gaze and desires of others. Voicing her desire for legitimacy, and
inclusion in polity of Brazil, she longs for travessas de prata, / cozinha de luxo / e jias de
ouro, the materiality of everyday life, since this is the promise connoted by the Golden Law.
Sobrals subject has symbolically decolonized her mind, to demand her rightful place in the
nation. She is now ready to begin Halls second phase, and enter the politics of representation
and that is the ultimate goal of Quilombhoje, to enter into the debate of what constitutes
Brasilidade, Brazilianness, from the vantage point of an equal.
Conclusion
We are mired in our histories and attempts to theorize beyond that are utopic at best.
Simply history helps to define where we are in the world, but it does not have to limit our present
interactions, nor leave us without hope for the future. History is our lesson, it tells us what went
wrong and what was right in human relations. It is a fact that these historical triumphs and losses
determine who currently controls the political order and the sphere of representations. The
history of the black subject in the last 400 years, while nuanced and different based on space and
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place, is overarched and orchestrated by the disparities between white and black peoples. The
demands for white power have meant an all-inclusive subjugation of black peoples political,
economic, and cultural systems. This has led to a systematic replacement of these organizations
with Eurocentric modalities, which simply do not fit. This is point in which groups such as the
Black Arts Movement and Quilombhoje enter the debate. They enter at the point where blacks
are kept outside of the prevalent political, economic and social order. Using culture to address
politics and economics, they implicitly understand that within the Western canon, the signifier,
Art, is simply a metonym for white.9 Thus, they enter into the relations of representation as
it is the first stage that has to be overthrown to achieve full empowerment. To the critics of the
movements, their performative interrogations may appear as simple inversion that replaces
Black for White. But they become powerful interruptions of white, Western narcissism, in
relation to the black Other they imagine. Aimed at black peoples, they resist the histories of
negation and re-vision the order of power. The Black Arts Movement imagines a Black World,
and Quilombhoje desires inclusion into the existent structural framework of Brazil, but
commonly they seek the self-representation and the self-authorization of black peoples. The
meeting between Sonia Sanchez and the Brazilian collective was not by chance; it was organized
by a young, black, female scholar, who understood the impact of such a dialogic undertaking.10
For it was not just a meeting between poets, it was a meeting of two seemingly different worlds,
two different epochs, whose commonality transcended these spatial and temporal divides. They
communicated through translation for neither side could speak the language of the other. As the
poetic voices communed, the question of blackness was no longer an archaic, essentialist query.
It was one that took on an immediacy and urgency fueled by their collective, lived experiences.
This was a historic moment for these Afro-Brazilian poets, who, for the first time, were meeting
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and interacting with the lived dream --a canonized predecessor and, for Ms. Sanchez, this was
a moment to see the fulsomeness of her impact, through those who embody the collective quest
for a black identity in a context outside of U.S. race relations. This moment demonstrates the
ways in which the local quest for agency of the black subject becomes a collective quest for
black peoples, who are girded by axioms of white normalcy. In the eyes of all of these poets, and
the unknown voices they speak to and represent, to be against race is therefore to be against
racism because it remains the collective dilemma. Hence, as we began with Sonia Sanchez, let
us end with an excerpt from her epic poem, MIAs:
so i plant myself in the middle
of my biography
of dying working dancing people
their tongues swollen with slavery
waiting and i say
yebo madola [come on men]
yebo bafazi [come on women]
--------------------------------let there be everywhere our actions
breathing hope and victory
into their unspoken questions
summoning the dead to life again
to the hereafter of freedom.
cmon. men. women.
i want to be free
(Sanchez, MIAs 76-77)

In Randall, Black Poets 181. According to Philip Harper, it is significant that SOS occupies the epigraphic
position in the text, Black Poets, because it is an emblematic poem that tells of the intent of the writers during the
Black Arts Movement (235).
2
See Fanon, Black Skins, White Mask. In the chapter titled, The Fact of Blackness, Fanon speaks of ways in
which he is defined by his epidermis. He states that I am a slave not of an idea that others have of me but of my
own appearance and through that appearance he is conferred with an identity that demonizes and degrades the
black being (116).
3
See Robert J.C. Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race, which chronicles the ways in
which racialist fictions became encoded and aided in the promotion of Western hegemony.
4
Primary examples include the remarkable texts, Return to the Source by Amilcar Cabral, where he argues for the
place of culture in the struggle for national liberation; and, Ngugi wa Thiongos, Decolonising the Mind, in which he
centers the issue on the recuperation of language as a key factor in decolonizing strategies.
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Published under the title, Movimento Negro Unificado: 1978-1988, 10 Anos de Luta Contra o Racismo, nthe
movement set out its agenda through a compilation of position papers, referenda, and conference papers.
6
The former Minster of Transport, Eliseu Padilha, is said to have remarked: O Brasil s gosta de dois pretos:
asfalto e Pel (Brazil only likes two blacks: asphalt and Pele). In an interview with the sociologist, Vilma Reis, on
February 11, 2001, she confirmed that the Minister did indeed make this statement.
7
The following three poems were taken from the unpublished dissertation of Emanuelle Oliveira (2001). Since they
are excerpts from the first volumes of Cadernos Negros, they are not readily available.
8
Quilombo dos Palmares was an independent kingdomcreated by runaway slaves from about 1597 to 1694 and its
leader Zumbi, in the Afro-Brazilian psyche, symbolizes resistance to all forms of oppression. In the film Quilombo,
directed by Carlos Diegues, Dandara is his general, confidante and female alter ego. Quilombhoje finds its roots
within these revolutionary beginnings and takes the name of the quilombo to encode its resistant ideology.
9
The thought of Clyde Taylor, in Mask of Art, inspired this section and I take from him my understanding of the
ways in which the positionality of Whiteness can be viewed as a signifier and purveyor of all facets of
representation.
10
That scholar is Rachel Harding, who wrote the text, A Refugee in Thunder: Candombl and Alternative Spaces of
Blackness.

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