Recognizing Black Elderhood

“pela igualdade, gente boa se atrai” (Lunna Campos, Flickr).

In Pedagogies of Crossing, writer M. Jacqui Alexander asks us to observe the sustenance that lies sometimes in plain sight. She writes of an old man etched into rock in a park on the street where she lived in Harlem. Noticing him only after seven years, she says, “The challenge…is to see him in the present and to continue to know that he is there even when I cannot see him. Rock holds memory.” Similar to Alexander’s stone man, Mestre Conga’s devotion and weathering summons us to reconcile what is needed and what is missing in these troubled times.

“Mestre Conga,” or José Luiz Lourenço, carries the title Sambista of the Old Guard—a title inherited from his life-long love and commitment to the Brazilian musical form of samba. Born in 1927, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, Mestre Conga played a central role in Belo Horizonte’s—the state’s capital—smaller universe of samba schools and carnival eclipsed by the opulent processions of Rio. He laments the underfunding and overshadowing of regional diversity by Rio’s highly commercialized yearly event. Conga fluidly recounts the origin of Belo Horizonte’s samba scene and carnival, and attests to its dissolution over the past decades. His cultivation and preservation of the region’s tradition won him awards as participant, musician, and historian. His presence and reflections on matters beyond the city, however, make him more of a living treasure and an embodiment of elderhood in need.

Mestre Conga’s recognition came later in life, especially in the years after I interviewed him in 2007. A 2013 documentary, O Inconfidente do Samba, tells his story and articulates his views on the regional samba tradition. I met him while I was conducting fieldwork with the Meninas de Sinhá, a group of older Black women from a peripheral neighborhood in Belo Horizonte who sing a form of call-and-response songs from the Brazilian countryside. Eighty at the time, Mestre Conga collaborated with the women and invited them to parade in the 2006 carnival. He showed up at group rehearsals on occasion, observing, quietly singing along, and conversing with the women about music and customs of their generation. He resonated with their work, sharing how hearing their music, once hummed by his mother as she cooked and cleaned as a domestic laborer, “[took him] to another time and place. The [songs] are so beautiful they bring the sadness of [our] childhood.”

Like so many of his generation in Brazil, including the Meninas, Mestre Conga left the interior of Minas Gerais with his family at age four, settling in an economically poor neighborhood in Belo Horizonte. When I asked how he came to samba, he recalled dancing as a teen at a local bar with friends. He connected this early experience to his re-immersion in the world of music and dance post-World War II, when the censures of the Vargas dictatorship (1930–1945) ended and the salons reopened. He publicly explained, “When the war came, popular protests were forbidden. Carnival stopped until the conflict ended.” Following the war, he began dancing and playing samba, and the rest of his story coincides with the history of samba schools in Belo Horizonte. YouTube clips and pieces published detail his trajectory as a performer and preservationist. My hope was to glean from Mestre Conga, as well as from the singing group, what this generation, in rapid disappearance, might be willing to convey about sustaining Black life.

Conga’s connecting of his mother’s and the women’s song inflected his celebration of music with the realities of racial and economic strife felt by so many in Brazil. This linking enveloped the silences between the words he used to describe his earliest days, the hard work of his childhood, the limited resources, and the exclusions. What was not said reflected this generational history as it was a way of relating to all that had occurred. There was a resolve in his voice, not fully stoic, but one that embraced his many years and the changing times. He philosophically noted, “We never get everything in life…. There is always something more to learn.”

And when asked about his secret to a long life he pragmatically said, “have friends” and “don’t lose sleep” over worry. He attributed his own vitality to having no addictions, to not fighting or being aggressive. He said, “This is what gives us a little more life.” Above all, he noted, “Music is excellent and essence because it brings memory, enthusiasm, and in some moments, it brings sadness, but it is the link that gives us sustenance; it encourages us in everything.” Conga offered music as a balm and necessary constant to survive the structural forces he signaled as eroding human relationships and causing alienation.

Music was Conga’s metaphor of choice and his descriptions of the transformations in samba extended his insight into Black perseverance grounded in a deeper cultural intelligence. He spoke of samba’s dispersion, reconstitution, and interplay in the global sonic field and its underwriting by Afro-diasporic traditions. Bossa Nova for Conga was samba without percussion and a high-end export to the global jazz market. Mexican and Cuban boleros were samba’s long lost relatives. Such musical reunions and travels affirm his belief, even his faith, that “nothing kills samba.” For Conga, some of his most valuable learning came from “the wisdom of the culture”; he understood that the symbiotic and mutual dimension of his connection with music was found in “the roots not just the rhythm….a movement of Africanity.” He said, “People don’t know the force we have, the cultural knowledge that we have, we haven’t yet the wisdom to take advantage of this, because it is an art.”

Conga is now 91 years old. His generation and the way it holds the world are fading. Since I spoke with him, Brazil has undergone its deepest recession and massive political corruption scandals resulting in the impeachment of its first woman president Dilma Rouseff and the incarceration of former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” de Silva, both members of the Worker’s Party. This social, political unrest climaxed this past October in the presidential election of Jair Bolsonaro—a hard right populist and nationalist, known for a pro-military and pro-privatization agenda, as well as for overt racist, misogynist, and LGBTQ-phobic ideology. Brazil’s redemocratization is now visibly threatened.

Figures likes Conga remind us of the wisdom available in these seemingly impossible times. He invites us to see the resources at our disposition, the lineage from which we come as an ever-present teacher, non-physical and powerful. We must grapple with the metaphors of his music and his ways of life, proverbial lifelines and songlines for the challenges of today and tomorrow. These are not straightforward, easily deciphered, or complete, but complements to the activism of Black Brazilians like the slain Marielle Franco. All is needed.

Working with older Black people in Brazil, I was confronted with the trends in youth-centered and increasingly tech-focused societies to disregard the intelligence in the process of aging and wisdom traditions. Scholarship by Angela Davis and Robin D.G. Kelley, to only name a few, poignantly recognizes and details the elders who contribute to our collective well-being and visioning. Indeed, elders and the aged are readily acknowledged and venerated within Black writing and within musical and spiritual teachings in Brazil. My proposition is that our scholarship would be enhanced by a nuanced theorization of Black eldership, how it is recognized, the forms it takes, and the ways it serves today across the diaspora. I draw upon Stephen Jenkinson’s inquiry into the concept of elderhood not as a mere function of years (albeit aware of them), but as deeply needed cultural work, embodying and instructing a sense of humanity concurrent with these treacherous times. This proposed investigation of Black elderhood, beginning with the aging, considers what they recognize about the past and present, and what we may lose and should not forget. It is a remembrance and appeal for Black wisdom studies.

Poet Nikkey Finney writes, “I know you seen ’em/but don’t know if you knew/how much you was looking at.” In these lines from her poem “The Goodfellows Club” in her collection Rice, Finney lays out the values and traditions of her people, embodied by Black men of different ages and generations, and carried by a shared lineage. She preserves the wisdom of these men in metaphors and verse, rendering them a longevity in writing that enables us to savor the textures of what Black South Carolinians impart through the metaphor of a grain of rice. “May we know the fullness of plain rice and how simple and delicious a meal it can be with plain words.”  Similarly, people like Mestre Conga ask that we not lose sight of the wisdom in the practices that sustain Black life in Brazil and beyond, as simple as the food we eat and the music we sing.

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Celeste Henery

Celeste Henery is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of race, gender, and health. Her work explores what it means to feel well in a world crosscut by inequality. She is a Research Associate in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.