Visualizing Black Lives: An Author’s Response

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

Black Lives Matter protest, November 20, 2021, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Shutter stock)

The study of racial dynamics and Black identity in Brazil continues to be a rich area of scholarly and interdisciplinary engagement. Brazilian racial dynamics captured international interest due to its presentation of itself as a racial democracy where racial mixture rendered racism non-existent. Studies have examined how ideas of racial democracy maintained themselves in the face of widespread anti-black racism. Scholars have also identified the particular ways through which racism constrains Afro-Brazilians’ lives. The Black Movement or the Movimento Negro in Brazil is a social movement of individuals and organizations committed to recognizing racism in Brazil and pushing for policies and practices that redress and include Afro-Brazilians in universities, employment opportunities, and education, to name a few areas. Many Afro-Brazilians and others have known that Brazil is not a racial democracy or a country free from the challenges of racial inequality and racism. Media presents an opportunity to amplify this message and acts as a site of antiracist struggle, which I argue in my book Visualizing Black Lives.

When I was preparing for my study of Black activism in Brazil, I read the work of scholars like France Winddance Twine, Donna Goldstein, Robin Sheriff, Kia Lilly Caldwell, Christen Smith, Erica Williams and Keisha-Khan Perry. They have been foundational to my understanding of racial dynamics in Brazil and I hoped to build upon their work in contributing to this field. As I prepared to engage in ethnographic research I had to find a lens through which to examine my questions. The TV da Gente television network, the first network to center Black representation as part of its mission, was founded in 2005. It was through this network that I entered into the area of Afro-Brazilian media producers and their projects. Much of the scholarship on race, media, and Blackness in Brazil centers on mainstream media and is critical of how it centers whiteness. Afro-Brazilians’ media projects presented an alternative to the mainstream network of TV Globo and its rendering of Brazil through predominately white actors and upper-class families and lives. I pursued this topic through interviews, textual analysis, and participant observation with the Afro-Brazilian producers of these alternative programs. Examining Afro-Brazilian media demonstrates that they are agents of media production;  it also offers possible examples of media that challenge racism.

I am grateful for the opportunity to think with Andrea Allen, Gladys Mitchell-Walthour, Jasmine Mitchell, and Watufani M. Poe about Visualizing Black Lives: Ownership and Control in Afro-Brazilian Media’s arguments and contributions. They drew my attention to different aspects of the book and enabled me to see it through their eyes. The four commentators understood what was at stake with my argument on “antiracist visual politics” and communicated the complexity of Afro-Brazilian media’s images.

Andrea Allen discussed the book as an ethnography that traced life and actions as they unfolded in relation to media. Allen asserts that the ethnographic vignettes, “capture the multiple angles and perspectives that encapsulate Afro-Brazilian media production and the experiences of Afro-Brazilian content creators.” The media producers I included in the book articulated their experiences working in mainstream where they had difficulty integrating Blackness into these images and their turn to alternative media to take up a project of visualizing Blackness. They were well aware that the stakes of the invisibility of Black people in the media included low self-esteem, lack of a reflection or model, and an absence of narratives that affirmed their lives. They spoke to me about how they mined the depths of their own and others’ experiences to endow Black characters with stories that were more faithful to the real-life experiences of Black people.

Afro-Brazilian media producers created media that fomented anti-racism by enabling them to ascribe meanings to their own identities. Brazilian racial dynamics include the assumption that “money whitens” or the idea that as one ascends the class ladder their Blackness becomes less important as an identity marker. Gladys Mitchell-Walthour describes that “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.” Many of the producers and directors at TV da Gente (Our TV) chose middle-class subjects to feature. Their appearance on this television network aligned them with a Black media project and asserted that Black middle-class subjects do exist. While this can be read through the terms of respectability and uplift, in Brazil I argue that they visualize the experience that upward economic mobility does not shield them from racism and that middle-class people of African descent remain Black.

Beauty and aesthetics are critical in the projects that use media to draw attention to how racism operates in Brazil. Filmmakers created short films that depicted Black girls struggling with their appearances, particularly their hair, which did not conform to white beauty standards. Jasmine Mitchell writes that a “focus on gender dynamics is particularly useful in underlining how white femininity shapes standards of beauty.” Eventually, the child protagonists learn to embrace their own features. These films depict the transformation of Black children from victims of racism to seeing themselves anew and appreciating their own looks.

Humor was an important vector through which Afro-Brazilian media producers visualized their experiences with racism. Brazil’s idea that it is a country free from racism contradicts the everyday experiences Afro-Brazilians have with racism. Afro-Brazilian media included depicting scenes of racism to call into question assumptions that racism did not exist. These ironic engagements with the contradiction between national ideology and lived experience generated critical and often humorous engagement with racial dynamics. Laughter can come from amusement but it can also express anger, frustration, and the absurdity of denying racism in Brazilian public life.

Watufani Poe placed my work in a current Brazilian context where the film Marte Um or Mars One, directed by Gabriel Martins, was Brazil’s entry for the Best International Film for the Academy Awards in 2022. Poe writes “Martins’ tender and complex story about a young Black boy navigating dreams larger than the marginal space he is relegated to in Brazilian society pays homage to the traditions of Black media constructed through antiracist visual politics that came before it, many times with less funding and recognition.” Indeed, the director of Marte Um (Mars One), Gabriel Martins, is part of a production company of Black directors called Filmes de Plástico or Plastic Films. Marte Um (Mars One) joins the short films I discuss in the book that center Afro-Brazilian children and their dreams for the future. These films include Cores e Botas or Colors and Boots, produced in 2012 by Juliana Vicente, the founder of Preta Portê– Films. These Black child protagonists face challenges of racism that they must overcome to realize their dreams and create the lives they want. Afro-Brazilian child protagonists in films are tethered to the political projects of these directors that frame Black children as hope for a future where racial dynamics can be recognized and confronted.

Jasmine Mitchell states that “Visualizing Black Lives situates Afro-Brazilian media with the cultivation and distribution of new kinds of articulations and mobilizations of Blackness.” Indeed, the media presents a generative venue through which Afro-Brazilians can materialize their visions and understandings of Blackness in a country moving from privileging racial mixture to articulating a negro or Black identity category. The alternative media I examined in the book is now giving way to more mainstream forms of Afro-Brazilian media that are more broadly distributed. I take from this media an important lesson. As the reactionary backlash seeks to quell the advances of Black struggles in Brazil and the United States, whether the media is alternative or mainstream, it is imperative that we use the media’s capacity to foment antiracism by offering critical commentary, depicting how racism operates, or challenging racist structures

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Reighan Gillam

Reighan Gillam, Ph. D. is an ethnographer of Black visual culture. She is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Southern California. Her research examines media at the intersection of racial ideologies, anti-racism, and protest. Specifically, she focuses on the ways that Afro-Brazilian media producers create images that render Black subjects and their experiences in complex ways. Her first book, Visualizing Black Lives: Ownership and Control in Afro-Brazilian Media was published by the University of Illinois Press. Gillam’s next research project takes a transnational approach to the study of Black politics and culture. Her second book, entitled Diasporic Agency: Transnational Racial Leverage and Challenges to Exceptionalism examines how Afro-Brazilians engage African American people, culture, and performance. Gillam served as the Peggy Rockefeller Fellow at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation. She was elected to the Executive Committee of the Brazilian Studies Association.