On Saturday, November 23, Odarah Culture and Mission organized a discussion among some of the most vocal figures during the chaotic 2018 elections. Held at Lapa‘s Center for the Theater of the Oppressed, the discussion panel brought together Renata Souza, a Rio de Janeiro state representative from the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL); Thais Ferreira, PSOL’s first alternate state representative; and Jota Marques, a community educator in City of God in Rio’s West Zone. The event featured a powerful political-poetic intervention by Gleyser Ferreira—described as a “force of nature” by Odarah’s founder Fabíola Oliveira, who also mediated the discussion.
The discussion achieved more than just its aim of analyzing the recent elections. Doing away with the kind of language usually associated with political debate, the conversation explored more personal issues and made way for reflections on life and death. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a conversation among black Brazilians, the discussion was more about death than life.
Fabíola Oliveira began: “We are dying. Killed either with a shot to the head or as the result of racist violence. How lucky we are to be here together. It is a blessing and a gift for us to be united here with one another.”
Renata Souza of Complexo da Maré was elected state deputy with over 63,000 votes, making her the most-voted candidate from the PSOL. She reflected on the attitudes towards black female candidates that she came across in the run-up to the elections: “According to the racist, sexist logic of political pragmatism, we, as black women, will always be in competition amongst ourselves for votes. According to arguments like these, poor black women like us are all the same. But we were brave enough to prove this wrong. We ended up taking votes away from white men.”
Five state representatives were elected from Renata Souza’s party. Of these five, three were black women from favelas: Renata Souza, Mônica Francisco, and Dani Monteiro. And that’s only including those who received more than 130,000 votes. As a result, perhaps one of the most positive lessons learned from the 2018 elections is that, contrary to common racist beliefs, there is, in fact, space for multiple black women in politics.
“According to the racist, sexist logic of political pragmatism, we, as black women, will always be in competition amongst ourselves for votes. According to arguments like these, poor black women like us are all the same. But we were brave enough to prove this wrong.” – Renata Souza
This goes against the notion that we can do away with structural racism in society by making room for black figures one at a time. How often do we hear about “the” black writer, “the” black journalist, or “the” black actor? They’re always the first one or the only one. Before Marielle Franco, it was Jurema Batista. And Benedita da Silva before her. This is why the 2018 election was so special for Rio de Janeiro. This time, three black women from the Left were elected at once.
This is perhaps the only cause for celebration following the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president and Wilson Witzel as governor, as well as the election of thirteen representatives from the Social Liberal Party (PSL) to the Rio de Janeiro State Legislative Assembly (ALERJ)—cause for concern among members of Rio’s vulnerable communities. The black women who were elected as state deputies overcame the fear and suffering inflicted upon their communities and put themselves forward.
In the context of the current narrative of Marielle as the “seed” that gave way to this movement, Oliveira warned of a pitfall: “It’s important we don’t fall into the trap, fomented by [the dominant culture of] whiteness, that leads us to believe that the appearance of these women was sparked by Marielle’s death. In reality, the continuous struggle of black movements in marginalized spaces gave rise to Marielle, Renata Souza, Thais Ferreira, and Dani Monteiro. This movement is the result of the efforts of those who came before us. Marielle didn’t just appear in 2016, she had been involved in the struggle for a long time.”
Thais Ferreira’s success was perhaps the most surprising of all the black female candidates. She won 24,759 votes without any financial backing from the party—more than well-known figures in the party like Jean Wyllys, who was re-elected to federal Congress with 24,294 votes. Accompanied by her sons João, 2, and Athos, 5, Ferreira spoke of her initial concerns about getting involved in Rio’s political scene.
“I was very worried back then because of my children. It was difficult to find the courage to speak. There I was, placing myself in danger when what I want most is to be able to watch my children grow up and leave a legacy that they can continue. If I can run for office, if I can become the first alternate state representative, then my son can then go on to become president. But when he’s elected president, I don’t want him to be bitter. That’s why we need politics to heal us. It’s not about being joyful. We’re not here to play around. We’re here to form a quilombo [a space of black resistance]. We need politics to heal us,” Ferreira said. While she spoke about death and danger, her kids ran around, brimming with life. On a few occasions, they even managed to distract from the seriousness of her words.
“We need politics to heal us.” – Thais Ferreira
Jota Marques, who works as a public educator in City of God and who was the only man on a panel otherwise comprised of women, took his role in the discussion seriously. Marques believes in education as a force for change and stressed the importance of engaging with micropolitics within education and in favelas. He openly criticized the Escola Sem Partido (“Schools Without Political Parties”) movement to remove all political debate from schools, saying: “When I visit a school, it’s crazy. There are all these kids in different groups, and you see the most vulnerable students, including women, suffering from violence. Then comes ‘Schools Without Political Parties’ to further fragment things, making them unable to relate to one another. It’s not about finding common ground. You end up with an even less structured educational process, reinforcing kids’ belief that the violence that they endure and practice is okay. So when we discuss the political process for the black community, we do so against a backdrop of chaos.”
Odarah Culture and Mission
While Fabíola Oliveira originally founded Odarah with the aim of allowing black entrepreneurs to sell their wares and share their experiences with one another, she recalls that a particular incident changed this. Nowadays, Odarah is more than just a meeting place for the entrepreneurs—who would gather there with their earrings, capulana sarongs, sweets, and books. The focus is now on discussing emergencies.
Odarah Culture and Mission also has a base in Taquara, in the West Zone, at the house where Oliveira lives with her partner. Described as a direct action program for vulnerable youth from favelas, socio-educational juvenile detention centers, and shelters in Rio de Janeiro, Odarah can be seen as a sort of quilombo. “The quilombos were places where the wounds of our enslaved brothers and sisters were healed after they had fled their masters. They were also fed and many of them then went on to form their own resistance groups. This is what micropolitics is about—generating and sharing knowledge.”
When asked about the future of the black community, Oliveira replied, “I expect the worst to happen. It’s a difficult question for me to answer because I’m a pessimist. I don’t have my fingers crossed. I expect the worst. We can see policy changes and escalating tensions affecting minorities across the world. Brazil isn’t an isolated case. The masked racism we see in Brazil is the worst kind. And if things do get worse, we won’t have anywhere to run to—we’ll need to stand together as a community.”
Rithyele Dantas is a journalism student from Morro da Cruz in Andaraí. Dantas is a photojournalist and has worked as a community educator and parliamentary assistant in Rio. She is also founder of the blog Jornalistas Pretas, a project she believes vital to guaranteeing human rights.