When Black Women Pay for Black Liberation With Our Lives
Black women have been killed for our beliefs for as long as Black people have been demanding the right to breathe.
Our battles make us fugitives in our own countries.
Two of Nascimento’s most well-known and extensively researched pieces—“Kilombo e memória comunitária: um estudo de caso,” or “Kilombo and communal memory: A case study” and “O conceito de quilombo e a resistência cultural negra,” or “The concept of quilombo is Black cultural resistance”—look at the presence of quilombos as alternatives modes of existence: safe havens where Black men and women could relearn to love and care for each other without the beast of slavery and all the mental and physical horrors that came with it. They existed not outside of slavery, but as a result of it, so its shadow constantly hovered over those who were able to escape.
Nascimento wrote: “The fact that [quilombo] existed as a loophole in the system in which blacks were morally subjected, projects a hope that similar institutions may act in the present alongside several other manifestations of reinforcing cultural identity.”
She believed that quilombos could—and did—have practical use in the contemporary landscape, so that the ways Black inhabitants protected each other inside them, they could and should do on the outside. It’s this interconnectedness of Black livelihoods in a self-sustaining environment that Nascimento obsessively and methodically studied. She traced direct and indirect correspondence between the Imbangala communities of Angola and the quilombos of Brazil, specifically those scattered in the country’s North-eastern region. She was most prolific in the mid ’70s until the early ’90s, compelled by Brazil’s slow-growing Black consciousness movement, and in response to the country’s military dictatorship which started in 1964 and ended in 1985.
This twenty-one-year government saw the disappearances of dozens of writers, activists, and artists whose work on racial equity, gender, and political repression was deemed treasonous to the state. Nascimento was undeterred. She continued traveling across Brazil, participating in conversations on Blackness in South America’s largest country, on the roles of Black women in movement building, and on the failures of academia in understanding and protecting Black and Indigenous learners. The work was fraught, tiresome, and ultimately dangerous.
Nascimento spent her life writing about Black autonomy as a collective endeavor, and Black love as paramount to that success. Five years prior to her murder, she wrote her essay, “A mulher negra e o amor” or “The Black Woman and Love.” It details how colorism, misogyny, and the violent sexual legacy of slavery continued to have far-reaching implications in the ways Black women experienced intimacy—specifically with male partners.
She wrote: “Living in a multi-racial society, which favors a whitening female aesthetic as the ideal (from mixed-race to white women), their emotional transit is extremely limited. There is little chance for her in a society in which sexual attraction is impregnated with racial models.”
In Nascimento’s estimation, as long as darker-skinned Black women were disproportionately brutalized, harassed, and victimized by their male partners, Black autonomy would always be an unattainable dream. In this, her scholarship and her activism all pointed towards the same end: freeing all Black people from oppression, by first liberating Black women from the violence of a male-dominated society and misogynoir.
Black women have often paid the price for seeking the bare minimum respect with their lives. Those deaths are heavy with the reality that, for us, acts of resistance and demands for change are neither exhilarating nor a revelatory stage of growth. They are neither stunning nor exciting. They are exhausting down to the bone. Our battles make us fugitives in our own countries and keep us from our families for years. They make us outcasts and—when the majority becomes marginally aware—our mistrust makes us traitorous cynics. Nascimento had chosen a life of service, and her death was a collective loss for the women and students she had worked alongside, and those who admired her work. We lost not only a friend and mentor, but a brilliant thinker and dedicated researcher.
When Nascimento publicly addressed Viana, I don’t think she imagined that it would be the battle that would lead to her death. For a woman who’d lived a life dedicated to making visible the wrongs that had been erased, calling out domestic violence was instinctive, a reflex. It wasn’t as much a battle as it was a necessity. So much so that when she was finished, she still felt comfortable meeting with the man a week later to have a discussion.
Viana shot her in front of witnesses, and was on the run for a little over a week before finally being captured and detained. He had already spent over ten years in prison for attempted rape. After his arrest, he attributed killing Nascimento to drugs and alcohol dimming his inhibitions.
Writing and reading Nascimento at the same time that young activist Oluwatoyin Salau was assaulted and murdered is terrifyingly unsurprising—separated by a continent and twenty-five years, one current, the other a part of past memories. Black women have been killed for our beliefs for as long as Black people have been demanding the right to breathe. It can be—and often is—the state, of course, but too frequently still, it’s those closest to us who cause harm. Those who should be our comrades. But regardless of who is doing the killing, the possibility of violent death for Black women is a constant reality, because to be a Black woman who resists means to be an inconvenience. At the least we lose our jobs, but at its worst, it’s our lives that are bartered because our voices were too loud.
Every time I have seen Salau’s image on my timeline or in a story, I have felt the need to tell her I was sorry. So, so sorry for the loneliness and panic she must have experienced in her final moments that I can’t even begin or want to imagine. Sorry that she is no longer here. It’s a futile apology, but every time I have seen her face, before quickly scrolling past another thinkpiece, it’s the least I feel compelled to offer.
Another Black woman—a Black girl—who has become a hashtag, whose name everyone now knows as a result of brutality and loss. Salau’s life has quickly become a cautionary, sobering statistic. Nineteen years of experiences reduced to headlines on misogynoir, call outs on anti-blackness, and empty do-better platitudes during a time that millions of us will remember as volatile, unceasing but ultimately cyclical. A too-familiar legacy of violence against Black people.
In the case of Salau, the grief of the thousands of Black women from around the world has been held in the digital sphere. We feel so deeply the loss of someone who moved through the world in the same body as our own. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have morphed into virtual memorials and indictments of the casual brutality committed against Black women. Amidst this, I found my way to Nascimento’s daughter, Bethania Gomes. Gomes is now a mother herself, but was just twenty-one years old when her own mother was killed.
“After her death, I went through so many hard times. Before, I was a regular girl, but after, I had PTSD and anxiety that I had to work for years to control,” she told me. “Because it’s not like my mother just died. She wasn’t sick. She was assassinated. And when I heard all I did was scream.”
To be a Black woman who resists means to be an inconvenience.
Gomes has also taken to remembering her mother in public. On her Instagram page are photographs of her mother with her short afro, which was always perfectly coiffed. When she wore headwraps, the colors were playful and rich. And when she spoke, her face was expressive and her intensity still palpable.
The various photographs of Salau shared in recent days show a girl who liked shimmering highlights on her cheekbones, and bright pastels around her eyes. It’s these little things that remind us of these women’s fragility and humanness. Because as easily as Black women are cast aside, so quickly too do the empty mantras “to do better,” “to love our Queens,” and to, “protect Black women” emerge. These statements are meaningless because when you’re not enraged at our death, what are you doing for the living Black women around you?
At this particular moment, revisiting Maria Beatriz Nascimento’s prescient writings on self-sustaining Black communities driven by racial pride and love are as timely as they are a reminder of her absence. In quilombos, she saw an environment where violence against Black women, in its verbal and physical states, was not only obsolete, but the antithesis of what the space was meant to be.
Created for and by Black people, quilombos were a place where any type of violence against each other, and most specifically those most vulnerable was in direct opposition to their meaning. She championed their existence and moved from place to place so she could bring this “alternative system,” to Black people all across Brazil and the diaspora.
Nascimento and Salau should be here, but instead all we have is the legacy of their work, helping us trace the lives that were lived, and use it to continue the work they were never able to finish.
Tari is a journalist and photographer from Zimbabwe, based in Brasil. Her work has appeared in Vice, The Globe and Mail, Rookie Mag, Noisey, SYFY, Broadly, The Fader, New York Magazine, Flare Magazine and Hazlitt. You can find more of her on Twitter @FungaiSJ.