There's a slang word in Brazilian Portuguese that has come to describe the fierce style and unapologetic verve of a new generation of black Brazilians: tombamento. It comes from the lyrics of black Brazilian rapper Karol Conká and refers to a combination of winning, dazzling, and honoring history. Or, in Beyoncé parlance: slaying. And tombamento describes the young dancer whose graceful stomps and fiery twists made a university event hall vibrate with pride in September on Rio de Janeiro's wealthy south side. Twenty years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a ceremonial Afro-Brazilian dance routine to pack a main room with black Brazilians at the prestigious Catholic University of Rio, a historically white institution.
Now, it was accompanied by endless hollers of "Queen!"
The performance was part of the launch of the university's first black newspaper, run by a group of mostly women who call themselves the Black Cloud collective. "It's time to recognize and carry with us the contributions of black Brazilian knowledge," said twenty-year-old journalism student Gabriele Roza as she presented the inaugural issue, calling for the inclusion of more black scholars in university curricula. "We can and we will tell our stories."
Brazil is the country with the largest black population outside of Africa; ten times more enslaved Africans were brought here than to the United States. But prejudice led many Brazilians of color to avoid identifying as black. A 1976 census famously listed 136 terms Brazilians used to describe themselves, including such hues as "coffee" and "cinnamon." "Whitening" of black families through interracial marriage was praised by elites, visible in an iconic Brazilian painting of a joyful black mother delivering a lighter child. And the benefits of lightness were real. Due to poor public education, prejudice, and a lack of financial access in neighborhoods far from jobs and opportunities, black Brazilians lagged behind whites in almost every statistic. They still do: Their average income is less than two-thirds of their white counterparts'.
"I didn't consider myself black until a few years ago," says 25-year-old Luana Fonseca of the Black Cloud collective, snapping selfies with friends. "I'd straighten my hair and try to fit in, because otherwise, you feel like you won't succeed."
As far back as the beginning of the 20th century — just after Brazil abolished slavery — this hesitance to claim blackness was something Brazil's black activists fought against. In those days, too, black newspapers were a tool; they publicized initiatives nationwide to build black pride while also naming and shaming the inequalities along the color line. These papers covered the rise of the iconic carnival band Ilê Aiyê in Salvador, quick to remind Brazilians that the national rhythm samba was born from African drumming and dance styles. They gave roots to black activist collectives that bubbled before the start of Brazil's dictatorship in the 1960s, such as a national political network for black Brazilians and an influential Rio theater group that dealt with themes of racism. But those groups' work was dramatically suppressed by a 20-year military regime that specifically targeted black leaders.
Now, says twenty-year-old documentary producer Mayara Donaria, "We're trying to pack years of civil rights into a short span. It's all squished together."
O Globo's Flávia Oliveira, one of the country's few black columnists at a major newspaper, says the forward motion of the current moment is possible because black activists were protagonists in ending Brazil's dictatorship, drafting a new constitution, and founding the leftist Worker's Party, which ruled for thirteen years. During that time, race-based affirmative action was implemented for public colleges and public jobs, and basic social-welfare programs were codified benefitting poor heads of households — mostly black women.