One year ago today, Micheal Brown a young black man, was shot by a white police officer. His dead body was left for hours on the street. I imagined he baked in the sun. Many saw this act comparable to the lynching of the supposed past. Out of this horror, came a resurgence of energy, a remembrance that to be black in the United States of America is to be in a war zone. Black people must have forgotten this when Obama was elected, but we started to remember as more stories of police officers killing black youth in cold blood gained media attention.
I came to Salvador that same month. I was teaching at Freedom Schools, a nationwide initiative born out of Freedom Summer, dedicated to educating poor children, most of whom are Black and Latino. Drenched in modern American politics, I was excited to be in Brazil, a place where I would have to learn how to speak again and listen to understand in a new language. Hopefully what I learned would be new. I wasn’t expecting the black experience to be better here, just different. A different black experience would be refreshing for me.
And it was. And it wasn’t. For me as a black girl born in the states, born speaking english, carrying a blue passport, Salvador was a land of delicious secrets. Customs that I had glimpses of in my panafrikan childhood were broadcast in wide screen here. In Salvador, Bahia, I learned why certain women wear all white on Fridays, that it was really okay to dance whenever and wherever you heard the drum, and that saying “ashe” at the end of a sentence isn’t pretentious. These were the ways that Salvador was “different” for me.
But then Salvador was exactly like home. High concentration of black folks. One of the poorest cities in the country. A reputation of being crime ridden. Poor public education. High murder rate. Ravishing drug use. Rapidly gentrifying. I’m talking about Salvador, I’m talking about Baltimore. I connected with and was accepted by the people here so swiftly and profoundly, because I understood were I was. I was in a predominantly black city in a urban environment. People live to die here. Police can empty clips into black flesh without second thought. The history of the black struggle is taught in underfunded community programs. Shit is fucked up.
But. We survive. Ainda. We know nothing but survival. People in Baltimore have a sarcastic humor that endears us to each other. People in Salvador are unabashed in their physical affection. We both dance. Whether it’s “samba da roda” or “rocking off” We have not let go of our heritage. We have not let the colonizers take the essence of who we are, although they never stop trying. They stay pressed. We stay glistening in our melanin. That beautiful melanin, my physical passport issued straight from the motherland, coming with guidance and love from my ancestors has made my experience in Salvador what it’s been. An initiation into magic. Black Girl Magic in fact. I see cycles and stories in my life now. I feel the presence of my guides more here than I ever have. It was a reason that the riots in my city, happened while I was far from home. I had the unique experience of watching it thousands of mile away.
I felt so hopeless, so scared, but I never felt alone. During that week, Baltimore was Salvador, Salvador was Baltimore. The riots were all over the news and the people of Salvador stood in solidarity. I was sitting in a barbershop in the center of the city when an old man walked in and commented on the news. It had been non stop coverage of the riots. He looked in awe at the images and said loudly in his Bahiano portuguese, “We need to do that here!”
Yet, historically Black Brazilians, specifically in Bahia, have. The history of resistance is strong in Brazil. Brasil has it’s blacks slaves to thank for it’s independence from Portugal. They been bout that life. At the moment, it looks as if Afro Brasilians are losing a battle, but the war is not yet over. I feel the exact same way when I think about my country. Despite the fact that I’m still living in a war that my ancestors worked so hard to end, I feel uplifted when I think about the admiration my city received during the riots.
There is now a mural dedicated to Micheal Brown and Freddie Gray in Barbahlo, Salvador, Bahia. I wasn’t home during the riots. But I got to be here to watch black brazilians marvel at these young black men from the states. They saw them beautiful, which they are. The sad part is that for Freddie and Micheal, had they ever dreamed of leaving the country, I don’t think they imagined it would be as martyrs, as symbols of a movement. But they are. And they get to be immortalized. I got to witness it. Thank you Salvador. Thank you Baltimore.