To Walk Amidst Collapse

∞ Cíntia Guedes, “To Walk Amidst Collapse” (2018)

We were surprised by the storm that arrived at dawn, as not even at the peak of summer had it been so hot in Rio as it was that week. Hours of vigil, in the wake of the execution of Marielle Franco and Anderson Pedro Gomes, we remained seated on the sidewalk nearby. We sustained our astonished bodies with difficulty, under a sky that prepared itself to collapse. 

Each of us was being careful not to speak too much, knowing words were well on their way to losing meaning. The fact is, nothing that we knew up until that point would do much to serve us. The necropolitical machine[1] does not pause. History transforms us into witnesses of its nefarious episodes, re-enacting them daily. The black body is left with an impossible question: Is this our life?

Marielle was a black woman. A lesbian, human rights defender—and an inhabitant of the Maré favela complex, one of the largest favela complexes in Rio, and one with an extremely high level of violence. In 2016, she was elected in her first candidature with more than 46,000 votes. This made her the fifth most voted-for councilwoman in the city in the 2016 election, though she did not get to complete two years of her mandate.

The days of mourning carry on. More than a hundred days have passed and there has been no response at all to the attack. In public demonstrations, between lowered flags and large silences, unorganized screams across protests call for justice. We invest all of our energy into these demonstrations, leaving little time to take care of ourselves.

Even if we were to find plausible answers for the councilwoman’s death, and punishment were to be properly carried out, the task of facing the worthlessness of our lives will remain up to us: black women.

Many look to the history of Brazil’s fragile democracy to try and understand what is happening and to search for possible ways out of this situation. Since February 2018, the state of Rio de Janeiro has been under a military and federal intervention. The memory of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985 seems parallel to the current moment in the media’s manipulative narrative of the recent occurrences, the expression of collective mourning quickly processed as sellable media content.

Marielle had recently been elected rapporteur of the Representative Commission of the Chamber of Councilmen in Rio, created with the goal of closely following the federal intervention in the state’s public safety. A week before her murder, she had denounced the 41st Military Police Battalion of Irajá—also known as the Battalion of Death—for their abuses against the inhabitants of Acari.

It is not possible to ignore the relationship between this murder and the dystopic scenery populated by characters from the worlds of drug trafficking, militia, police, and the institutional politics of Rio. Nevertheless, the equation of simple cause and effect does not address the fact that Marielle’s execution was not a result of a specific political regime. The episode continues to be understood in relation to a racial war, inaugurated in this continent by the transatlantic slave trade and at no point discontinued.

In the last decade, young black women have been killed twice as often as white women. This runs parallel to advances in measures of inclusion through identity politics, such as the system of quotas used in universities. This image expresses the complexity of forces that sustain racism as a structural problem. To give an end to black lives, far from being an episode of exception, is a rule that sustains the world as it is.

What the execution of Marielle reminds us of, in an irrefutable way, is that a black life continues to be expendable, even if supposedly included in systems of representation. It is not in vain that the image of Marielle came to be indistinctly appropriated by different media. Both the so-called progressives, and the notably conservative, used her smiling face to serve their own interests, while repeating the same anti-racist rhetoric.

The mourning that we carry is appropriated by a heroic media narrative, one that removes political engagement from the problem and makes use of the image of the black woman as an icon of force and courage, but within an equation that does not guarantee the actual integrity of black lives.

The experience of a racialized body and the blackness that it carries is a lens through which we can understand how racism functions in service of capitalism and colonialism. That experience is also subjected to current economies, which perpetuate the vulnerability and the frequent disappearance of the black body. Especially, as it was the case for Marielle and for so many others, when the black body is from a favela and of a lesbian woman.

The risk analyses carried out by human rights organizations do not account for the expendability of the black female body. We do not fit into that calculation, because the presence of our bodies in the public scene represents the constant possibility of death, of the subtraction of life. Moreover, the bureaucratic structures that control the mechanisms of protection do not take the ethical effects of racism into consideration.

Marielle did not feel threatened, a statement her allies continue to assert. When all that we possess is a body with no value, we accept fear as commonplace in order to continue inhabiting this same body. “Fear is something we have, but don’t use,” –Margarida Maria Alves, a trade union leader related to the Ligas Camponesas[2] used to say.

Knowing that we were capable of surviving an entire history of exploitation and extermination, black women are seen as courageous, and that is what we are. But if we are non-existent, what can we do to address the lack of security?

The trauma inherent in black lives is a quotidian event, impossible to measure by social vulnerability markers, or resolved in dynamics of representation and visibility. The blackness that covers our bodies is a landscape of time superimposed in layers. It carries traces of a past that does not cease to repeat itself. It imposes on us the difficult task of capturing the present, work that we do ceaselessly in order to stay alive in this world. It is about walking without any guarantees, amidst collapse.

In the weeks following Marielle’s death, I spent time in meetings with black activists who were directly affected by Marielle’s execution: groups of women of distinct ages, places, and socioeconomic situations. On these occasions, I noticed that many of us found it immensely difficult to cry, something I had considered to be a very particular experience. The sensation of a tightened chest and a scratched throat took over our days. It is not a new sensation, although it has been aggravated since her murder.

The bodies of black women are a depository of historic Western barbarity, of an ancestral mourning that pushes us towards the inevitable work of undoing and redoing everything, because nothing else is viable. So, we must lean on one another, work together, knowing that our task surpasses the time of our experiences. In the streets, during the protests, we would greet one another with great complicity, as if we could no longer ignore our kinship. We had been given a message of power, whispered in our ears, carried, and disappeared with the wind.

In Portuguese, luto (mourning) is the first-person conjugation of the singular form of luta (meaning fight), which facilitates the edifying pun. However, on the path between mourning and fighting, it is necessary to be attentive to how the mourning takes place, to give it the time that it requires, the dedication, the acceptance, the crying. To open up, then, to a sensitive repertoire of what has been taken by our colonial history, sterilizing ourselves from our own narratives, ending any possibility of imagining other futures for blackness.

Observing the recent public mourning, the image of the black woman is reaffirmed as a fortress that, as soon as it collapses, must be restored by the women themselves. Without deliberation, knowing that we are capable of it, we re-emerge for one another. However, the fact that we survive cannot be an excuse for the continued vulnerability of our bodies to not be addressed as the structural problem that it is. That is the wound that opens up.

What remains invisible, beyond resilience, is the blackness that covers us and mediates our relationship with the world. This blackness that offers the possibility of making a cropland for radical empathy out of the risk carried by black bodies: a shortcut or escape route for experiences of aquilombamento.[3]

Seven days after the execution, homage was paid to Marielle and Anderson at the Casa das Pretas, where she carried out the last political event of her life. Maybe it was due to the rain that attendance at the event did not exceed 1000; we counted 200 people in the streets, and that was before the rain gained in intensity. Because it rained so much, it was not possible to capture the protest in images, and there were no flags, speeches, or screams of order. We danced and played music while we got soaked. We shared ancestral languages. It was there that I understood that the language of the storm in which I begin this text would not be a cliché if it was a manifestation to Oyá,[4] sharing her rebellion with us and giving us the chance to mix our tears with the water of the world.

We need to respond to the systems that the political forces subject us to, but also respond to ourselves, in a low voice and with great care: after all, how will we go on?

[First published at Arts Everywhere]

[1] Necropolitics is the use of social and political power to dictate how some people may live and how some must die. Achille Mbembe was the first scholar to explore the term in depth in his article of the same name.

[2] Ligas camponesas was a movement precursor to the fights for the right to the land in Paraíba State, in Brazil, during the dictatorial period (1964-1985). The movement originated what is today known as Movimento Sem Terra (the landless movement).

[3] Aquilombado is a term used to designate the enslaved person who, once successful in his/her attempt of escaping, would take refuge in the quilombos. The term is similar to marrons, which is used in countries in Central and North America. Currently, aquilombamento is a widely used term amongst the black Brazilian militancy, as a way of defining gestures that strengthen and centralize black experience in spaces and in relationships.

[4] Oyá is an Orisha (a form of spirits) of winds, lightning, and violent storms, of death and rebirth, taking different names around Latin.

Cíntia Guedes lives in Rio de Janeiro and holds a doctorate from the Communications School (ECO) of Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) where she is now a professor at the Art School (EBA). She carries out a number of different activities in dialogue with artistic practices. Her academic and artistic research examines themes of embodied memory and the production of subjectivity from decolonial and anti-racist perspectives.