New Afro-Brazilian literature, writes ALLAN DA ROSA, is a literature of discovery and sprawling charm.
The writer, community educator, and historian Allan da Rosa unpacks Black and peripheral aesthetics in literature with a focus on writing that traverses Brazil’s complex social history. Whether textually, through discussions, at saraus (soirees), or in everyday life, da Rosa is in the thick of things, examining the urgent desires in the fissures, styles and themes that Black writers and writers of the periphery proclaim with substance and in a broad scope, while maintaining an awareness of the inevitable dilemmas present in the trajectories of this literature springing forth from contexts lacking in privilege.
It is a literature attentive to the tactical scheme of its time, becoming a window.
Words embroidered by Black hands, that sneak around and persist in urban crevices, signaling at the top of winding stairs or with their feet deeply in the muck. The periphery is a fertile pavement, fighting for a history that takes homeboys into account, this water in so many basins. It is a literature attentive to the tactical scheme of its time, becoming a window. One that won’t slip easily into an intense praise of speed that manifests itself everywhere — on train lines, on keyboards, in impatience. (A delicate time in which pieces with 10 or 30 lines are called “long”… but we’ll come back to these mumblings later). Literature that considers our contradictions, our love for the backyard and for the street, our growls and the licking of our paws, because following the pack without thinking about the sniffing isn’t hard.
There’s a Congolese saying that teaches: “Together we are strong, but in a crowd we’re hypocrites.” Literature that ruptures the edges of the predictable, that plays with form, prime for a letter sent from jail, for riddles, for a bitter sip of spit, for staring at the ocean. That dances inside every human being, among the petals and barbs of that which is fashioned between the “individual” and society. That doesn’t yield to the heavy pressure of the moment: that of writing to be “liked.” Which is to say, literature that doesn’t content itself with a poster’s image, but rather with the words in its veins. A letter calling for hands at the street fair, for the morning sun on a Sunday in the favela, for the quiet of flashes sparked by a library’s intimacy: this fertile garden. That is recited at saraus, also leading to doubts macerated in anger, led by cries, shouting and screaming. That gets sweaty in the singing, in the harmony between the trumpet and the drums, but that seeks out melody and rhythm in the very words of a text and makes an instrument of the electric imagination and labyrinths in the heart of the reader. Populist misery is writing merely to please.
It is by now a traditional temptation in Black art, understandable from south to north after legalized slavery, and it is shriveling and drying up in militant clichés. Can a verb be a cousin once removed from the majesty of the berimbau? That in pitch, tone, and resonance opens up various meanings for each different person listening, whether by the wheel and skin of time or by the conditions in the city, the beat of the drum, wire, coins, and calabash warning that it is going to set off or stand guard, to play slyly or to cut something off at its knees. Like revealing secrets without killing off the mystery. Literature that gives accounts of reflections on what constitutes community, idealized as though at some point in history it had been homogenous, presented as though it were not incredibly complex. There are so many points of view and the distance between belief and skepticism is vast: can a text be a home? If so, is the roof there for good or are we looking at one night in a hotel? There is much wisdom and spillage emerging in the lyrical malocage of Akins Kinte’s texts, in Jenyffer Nascimento’s cutting, scintillating chronicles, in the snares of Dinha’s laconic irony, in Fábio Mandingo’s pen and in his bitter, gloating labyrinths, in the mischief of Salvador’s postcards, in the malice that sways against the passing of time in Walner Danzinger’s pieces, in the majestic shenanigans and heartache of the alleys traversed by Maria Tereza’s weary feet.
A literature observed that also grows stiff when understanding is hampered by talk of a group of Black people entering universities; it winds up being misunderstood, given the squareness of the format or the vice of using terminology miles away from the ears of the slopes, alleys, and wagons. Lives that we paint, that carry us, scooping us up and shining in intimacy and in literature that ensnares us in style, this magnet, this pleasure. Reflecting the times or acting as a thumb under our hammer when we build our desks. That lives sharply in the skin of the text, without thousands of codes to solve, without truth hidden beneath tons of detritus and ornamentation. That brings fundamental questions to the crossroads and that gives posters hanging in the window or on a Facebook wall the maximum slip. Literature that treads, that has weight, sifting the crystalline out of the wet earth and hard asphalt of our inner fervor. That at the heart of our loneliness shows us how from within we are intimately entangled with both yesterday and tomorrow. Comparing, identifying, and surprising us with what is grounded in the here and now and cunningly facing what doesn’t fit in this scheme. An immense but necessary kind of cunning, the force of thought. Beyond the blackness of snapshots or what rattles the audience and invites their applause, beyond the “militancy” that shows up in times of YES X NO on social networks and their virtual gallows.
There are times when the Ku Klux Klan and South African apartheid sum up what lynches us, and there are times when they don’t. And it is in these problems where the traps lie, the arguments of those who still spew the same tired logic claiming everything is a class issue. The chasms between the subjective, between “feelings” and handcuffs, so constricting and concrete. The ever-present violence that has a color and an accent as well as a postal code and quick feet. Tripping over our contradictions. It is there that this literature might be a source of nourishment, with its unexpected plots and turns. Adding to our deaf ears and strengthened there by the blood of rap, blues, and jazz, and of the pulse of drums and poetry of fire and serenity, from the quilombagens of the Brazilian slave revolt to today, what constitutes African history in the Americas, full of gaps that don’t fit easily on the flag. Strengthening our doubts. Reflecting on this together. Without giving any more gold to the barons, whether from our minds or our pockets. On these Brazilian paths, not fleeing from these ideas of “racial democracy,” of harmonic racial miscegenation, and of “we are not racists,” which don’t deserve two minutes of reality or two centimeters at the cemetery, from the revolving door, chains, textbooks, or TV shows. And not even from the simplistic idea of a biracial society that might take into account realities and arguments from the US but that doesn’t always come to a boil in the thousand crevices and ledges here, in these Brazils of our ruptures and mirrors.
Faced with a system which constantly implies that we are something between animals, robots, and merchandise, thorns between the remote control and the uniformed nightstick, Black literature dances in the ancestral challenge of organizing its own system and sharing its values, ethics, and philosophies, combining the mission to cry out with the gift of being able to ask. Clearing the fog and fostering understanding of the whys and ways of our existence, doing what we do, braiding with reason and spirit the coordinates of time and place, the notes composed in our hearts and the maps of desire. With subtlety in the undergrowth or with an ax sharpened to perfection and care for each line. As was already much discussed by Black writers in the 1980s, in meetings with a hunger for building critical thought fomented in the schools and in the kitchens of Rio de Janeiro’s state-run children’s homes, which led to the book Criação crioula, nu elefante branco (Creole Creation: Naked White Elephant). This blow to literature, which was tied up with prepared speeches and which got mucked up with clichés, by unforeseen twists, also yielded the singularity of works by Cuti and by Conceição Evaristo, which today give off the heat of having traveled lonely roads in the company of those who don’t see, but read.
Black and peripheral literature is a literature of discovery, loss, mistakes, vacillations, and a sprawling smattering of charm, from the bathroom’s stink to the dancehall’s perfume, from the grinding, sweaty happiness in the ankles of someone backing away from a kiss still on the lips, from the uniform sticky with grease to learning to eat with chopsticks. It is a literature that becomes literature, vital, a sweet mango in which we smear our intelligence and which is always made new when it becomes entangled in the head and heart, wrists and belly, in the calluses on fingertips and in the thick of hair. Through vibrant webs or through fragments of the Black Diaspora, whether strong or shrinking, here and there with lineages, composition, the possibility of leaving clichés behind by observing, creating, stylizing – and diving deeper, with pleasure and fire, into the many spheres of retaliation and into the history of each piece of straw in our nests.
Allan da Rosa is a writer, popular educator, historian, and member of the Capoeira Angola group Irmãos Guerreiros.
Text commissioned by O Menelick 2° Ato