Afro-Brazilian Resistance Through Black-Owned Media

This post is part of our online roundtable on Reighan Gillam’s Visualizing Black Lives

São Paulo SP Brazil November 20, 2015 People participate in Black Consciousness Day in São Paulo (Shutterstock/ Cris Faga)

In Visualizing Black Lives: Ownership and Control in Afro-Brazilian Media, Reighan Gillam makes an important contribution to the growing academic literature on the myriad of ways Black Brazilians resist white supremacy and racial domination. She argues that Afro-Brazilian media producers are engaged in antiracist visual politics. These politics counter prevalent notions of Blackness in mainstream media that represent Afro-Brazilians as criminals, maids, favela residents, and evangelicals. Afro-Brazilian children are not immune from these stereotypical images, as they are stereotyped as criminals. Relying on textual analysis, semi-interviews, and participant observation, Gillam examines how Afro-Brazilian visual artists, such as producers and directors’ experiences of exclusion when working in mainstream media, inspired them to produce visual media that allowed them the freedom to show how racism operates in society and how resistance also takes place. Gillam argues that Afro-Brazilian producers engage in Black resistance through “antiracism visual politics” as they create images of Blackness that counter-hegemonic whiteness.

Gillam’s research focuses on TV da Gente, a Black-owned network, which, although short-lived, was a powerful example of Afro-Brazilians controlling the narrative of Black life in Brazil and providing a more expansive notion of Blackness and Black people, including Black middle-class professionals. She also examines Afro-Brazilian producers of short films and a YouTube series. These various forms of media are modes of Black resistance. The TV da Gente network featured shows ranging from talk shows to a show featuring a judge. In her study of some of the programs of TV da Gente as well as interviews with the producers of these shows, she finds Afro-Brazilians produced images of middle-class Afro-Brazilian professionals that challenged the idea that middle-class status whitens one’s identification or that when an Afro-Brazilian becomes middle-class, they are no longer viewed as Black. Because many of the producers previously worked in mainstream media where they were the only Afro-Brazilian or one of the few, they knew that their class and education did not prevent them from being excluded and ignored when they proposed their ideas for shows and experiencing other forms of racism. However, they also knew that mainstream media rarely acknowledged the existence of Afro-Brazilian professionals before TV da Gente, so they highlighted Black professionals as talk show hosts, judges, doctors, and attorneys—challenging stereotypical representations in mainstream media.

Through this effort,  these Afro-Brazilian show producers expanded the represented notions of Blackness in media.

Gillam also examined three short films and does an excellent job demonstrating how they represent the challenges Afro-Brazilian girls face when they are exposed to hegemonic whiteness as the beauty standard in Brazil. Exposure to these white hegemonic notions of beauty and unattainable standard occurs in everyday situations (such as schools and hair salons) and are normalized. Short films such as Jennifer and Cores e Botas or Colors and Boots focus on the experiences of Afro-Brazilian girls—especially their feelings about hair when society’s aspiration is straight hair. The protagonist in Jennifer wants to have her hair straightened, but her mother does not allow it, while the Afro-Brazilian girl, Joana, wants to become a paquita,  a child dancer, on a show featuring a white, blonde woman, Xuxa. Joana wishes for blonde hair and ties yellow ribbons in her hair. Joana’s middle-class Afro-Brazilian parents do not directly address the issue of race and Black hair aesthetics. In the film, the mother of the protagonist (Jennifer) does not allow her daughter to straighten her hair. Yet, by the end of these short films, both girls find value in themselves and embrace their individual aesthetics. Another layer worth noting is that these short films address class status. In the two short films mentioned, they show that despite Jennifer being from a single-parent, working-class family and Joana being raised in a two-parent middle-class family, the two face similar challenges. These filmmakers provide a view of Black girlhood where girls have agency and can be empowered by embracing their physical features. Viewers, including young Black women and girls, can be empowered and accepting of their own Afro-Brazilian appearance, which is another form of visual antiracist politics.

Gillam’s work is a brilliant example of the importance of Black people telling their own stories and how it serves as a form of Black resistance. Much like Jefferson Santos’s assertion that his film “A Formação do Olhar” or “The Formation of Looking,” is a radical act as he centers Afro-Brazilians and produces the film without a lot of support, having a Black director with a film that features Afro-Brazilian actors is Black resistance. In the United States, we are in a moment where there is an attack on the teaching of Black history. This English-language book about Afro-Brazilian visual artists demonstrates why it is important to learn about how racism operates in society and in the lives of African-descended people; whether that be in Brazil or the United States. Visual artists that assert Black ownership in media production are engaged in what Gillam defines as “antiracist visual politics, as they bring the issues of racism and counternarratives of Afro-Brazilians to the screen. Bringing the voices of these visual media artists and producers to an English-speaking audience, Gillam also engages in progressive Black politics by highlighting one of the many ways Afro-Brazilians are fighting against racism.

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Gladys Mitchell-Walthour

Gladys Mitchell-Walthour, Ph.D. is a Dan Blue Endowed Chair of Political Science at North Carolina Central University. Dr. Mitchell-Walthour studies racial politics in Brazil, affirmative action, and the intersection of social welfare, race, and gender. Her research has found that a sense of Black group identity has a positive relationship with voting for Black politicians and supporting affirmative action. Her current book, “The Politics of Survival: The Political Opinions of Social Welfare Beneficiaries in Brazil and the USA,”' will be published by Columbia University Press in 2023.