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Students portray Black Lives Matter movement in US and Brazil through art

Nearly seven years ago, a new hashtag appeared. It was summer 2013, and George Zimmerman had just been acquitted after fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black teenager. The new movement #BlackLivesMatter quickly became a national sensation.

However, movements to protect the lives of Black individuals are not exclusive to the United States, nor did they begin just in 2013.

For the Spring 2020 semester, Professor of History John French teamed up with Silvio Luiz de Almeida, Mellon visiting professor in the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, to examine race and the Black Lives Matter movements in the United States and Brazil in their joint class, Black Lives Matter: Brazil-USA.

Almeida, a Brazil native, serves as an associate professor of law and philosophy at Mackenzie Presbyterian University, and as an associate professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation School of Business Administration, both in São Paulo, Brazil.

Almeida’s presence played a significant role in sophomore Christopher Simmons’ decision to enroll in the course. 

“Being able to hear from these people—what they’ve actually had to go through and physical things that they’ve had to do and experience—is something I appreciate,” he said.

Simmons also said that he had been following the U.S. Black Lives Matter movement and was interested in learning about its global presence.

In several ways, the U.S. and Brazilian Black Lives Matter movements are similar. In both nations, “racism is an enemy of democracy,” Almeida said.

However, the two movements are also quite different in some ways. Notably, French said that many students were shocked at the extent of racial genocide in Brazil.

“It’s been fascinating watching [the students] struggling to understand the Brazilian case after understanding the U.S. case,” French said. 

But Almeida stressed the importance of making the Black Lives Matter movement a narrative of what he described as “vitapolitics” rather than necropolitics, or politics of fear and death. The struggle against racism must show hope, he said.

Another difference the professors noted is that Brazil defines race by phenotype, rather than genotype. According to French, two-thirds of the Brazilian population is of African descent, so not all of those people can be considered Black; the categorization is instead based on appearance. Meanwhile, people of African descent are a minority in the United States and can thus more simply “all be part of the Black population.”

The diversity of racial definitions demonstrate that race is not a fact, Almeida said. Rather, racialization is a process.

In order to publicize some of these key takeaways, the class is hoping to open a gallery exhibit in the Franklin Gallery @ History in the Classroom Building. Students would have worked together on the exhibit in these last few weeks of the semester, but now they are creating individual posters. French noted that some of these posters will make it into the gallery in the fall.

For his poster, Simmons is focusing on how athletes are using sports as a platform to stir action in the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“Sports adds a new audience and following toward the issues,” he said, noting that some people who follow sports would not otherwise be following the movement via traditional news media.

Simmons said that having the gallery aspect will leave a physical and lasting impact on himself, other students in the class and the viewers. He explained that this class is not about memorizing information, but rather learning and synthesizing global issues and then producing something real.

Though French said that the project is still very much an evolving work in progress, he and Almeida both hope that the exhibit will have a video component, as well as some sort of additional performative aspect, which is being worked on over the summer.

“It’s important to emphasize the performative character of Black Lives Matter,” Almeida said. “It’s possible to work with many, many forms of cultural manifestation—for example, dance, sports, music.”

Almeida added that the different backgrounds and interests of students will be extremely enriching for the gallery. 

“All can be joined in the exhibit,” he said.

Correction: The gallery exhibit won't be in the Franklin Gallery at Kenan, but rather the Franklin Gallery @ History in the Classroom Building. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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