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African Americans pursuing roots and shared history in Brazil…

March 30, 2008 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( Semaj Williams, a stress-management consultant from New Jersey, feels Brazil in his past, and his present.

It’s very clear to me that in another life I was Brazilian,” said the hulking Williams, seated on the shaded patio of a colonial convent-turned-upscale-hotel. “I’m sure of that: Brazil is one of my places.”

He is one of thousands of U.S. visitors, virtually all of them African American, who have journeyed to the cobblestoned lanes of this northeastern Brazilian town in pursuit of roots and a shared history.

With its varied and exotic attractions, Brazil has long been a travel mecca, drawing more than 700,000 U.S. citizens annually. But the big attraction for many black Americans is Brazil’s flourishing African heritage, most evident here in Bahia state, where vast slave plantations once serviced Europe’s craving for sugar and tobacco.

The different African traditions have certainly been better preserved here,” said Paulette Bradley, a marketing manager who was visiting with a group from Atlanta. “It seems that African heritage was more diluted in the States.”

Black Americans’ increasing advance into the middle class has created disposable income, leisure time and a multibillion-dollar tourism boom. Brazil may not yet rival Africa as a ”roots” destination, but those keen for a cultural encounter are converging on Bahia.

There’s a shared sense of the African diaspora culture, of being a product of the slave trade,” said Lisa Earl Castillo, an American scholar in Salvador, the capital of Bahia.

Despite barriers of language and culture, many African American visitors speak of a sense of empathy and identification with Afro-Brazilians. Folk practices still thriving here evoke for many the specter of slavery and its aftermath, calling to mind wisps of oral tradition passed down by long-dead grandparents and great-grandparents.

A must-see on the African American itinerary is this picturesque colonial town and its mid-August spectacle, the festival of Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte, or Our Lady of the Good Death. It is a classic incarnation of religious syncretism: Roman Catholic elements imported by the Portuguese coexist with Afro-Brazilian devotion, specifically the belief system known as Candomble.

Today, agencies specializing in African American tourism book rooms months ahead, filling hotels here and in Salvador, a two-hour drive to the southeast. Package deals with stops in Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere are built around the festival in mid-August.

It is a date of raucous celebrations to the beat of drums and brass bands, including a vigorous samba de roda, a traditional dance performance in a circle. Afterward, participants feast on feijoada, the iconic, bean-based Brazilian soul food dish.

African-inspired rites unfold parallel to the feast of the Assumption, which marks the Catholic belief in the assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven.

Preserving belief here is a unique society: the ”sisterhood” of Boa Morte, mostly elderly black women who have kept their ways over the decades, even as similar social groups dating from the era of slavery disappeared elsewhere in Brazil.

Among other things, the organizations are said to have helped slaves buy their freedom. The groups’ connection to the Roman Catholic Church provided a measure of protection, even as members continued to revere their African orixas, or deities, linking them to Catholic saints.

Somebody built up a wall in the United States, and the African Americans are unable to see their history,” lamented Marcos Reis, a tour guide who lectures on the mingling of European and African customs. “Here in Bahia we were able to keep our orixas.”

For many visitors to this humid, verdant region along the River Paraguacu, the sisterhood is reminiscent of secret women’s associations in Africa and storied underground slave societies in the U.S. South.

Brazil has been an incredible classroom for me,” said Wande Knox Goncalves, a teacher from Pasadena, Calif.

When she was specializing in African studies at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in the 1970s, Knox recalled, a wizened professor told her: “If you want to know about African continuities in the New World, you have to go to Bahia.”

She made her first foray here in the early 1990s. Boa Morte blew her away.

It brought together everything I had studied about the continuity of African culture,” Knox said. “These women were revolutionary. And they looked like your grandmother or your mother or your auntie! It was an incredible thing to see.”

She returned to Brazil, and married a Brazilian here in 1995. Every two years, Knox organizes visiting groups from the United States.

We African Americans talk about our connection to Africa, but we don’t have that much evidence for our connection,” Knox said. “But we go to Brazil and Cachoeira, and it’s all so evident, and meaningful.”

The annual influx of African Americans has become a significant income generator for the Boa Morte custodians, helping the women finance a refurbished visitors center.

”We’re very pleased so many come from so far to share our joy,” said Adeilde Ferreira, 61, a sisterhood elder, seated among celebrants in the visitors center.

Many of the African American visitors are surprised to find that the elaborately made-up statue of Our Lady of the Good Death, hoisted through town every Aug. 15, depicts a white Virgin, more Lisbon than Lagos.

But the venerable matriarchs of the sisterhood, with their billowing, wedding-cake dresses, vivid hairpieces and flowing bracelets and necklaces, do not disappoint. They attend a Catholic Mass and then join a rollicking procession, many donning silver-colored turbans that shimmer in the sun and appear like finely crafted sheets of aluminum foil.

These women kept their tradition, their clothing, their language, the religious practices,” said Renee Padmore-Baccus , a hospital worker from Brooklyn. “You come here and you can see what slavery was like.”

She traveled to Brazil with her mother, Cynthia Padmore, a retired nurse. A photograph of one of the Boa Morte sisters in a magazine inspired their voyage.

‘I saw that picture and I said, `I have to see these women,’ ” Padmore said. “That was the birth of our trip here.”

Both mother and daughter came away hailing a shared pan-American experience of African-ness.

This is a direct link to what my parents taught me,” said Padmore-Baccus, whose father is from Jamaica, mother from Trinidad. “You need to listen to the old stories, the old traditions.”

For Semaj Williams, the fascination with Brazil began with the 1959 film Black Orpheus, a tale of Greek myth, working-class struggles and amour fou set amid the steamy hillside shantytowns of Rio at Carnival time.

I saw Black Orpheus when I was very young, and it affected me,” Williams recalled at the former convent where he and perhaps 200 African Americans were having lunch, signs on long tables identifying each participating tour group. “I decided I needed to go down there and check this out.”

Williams has made frequent trips to Bahia, working on a documentary about the sisterhood and immersing himself in their traditions and pageantry. With time, he says, the allure of the African past embodied by the sisterhood has intensified.

”These women are just so impressive,” he said. ‘I tell people: `If you never had a grandmother, come down to Cachoeira. You’ll find a bunch of grandmothers.’ ”


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