SALVADOR’S EBONY GODDESS, RESISTANCE AND BLACK BEAUTY
February 21, 2019
Photos by Heitor Salatiel for AFROPUNK
When Daniele Nobre, 30 years old, stepped on the stage with her hair styled as her crown — adorned with shells and small LED lights — dressed in African clothes, dancing to Ilê Aiyê (the first Afro-Brazilian bloco), a strong symbol of Afro-Brazilian resistance shined like a fucking diamond.
The feeling wasn’t new to her, it was the eighth time that she participated of the “Ilê Aiyê Black Beauty Night,” an important contest that celebrates its 40th edition, but only in 2019 did this young woman have the chance to become Queen of the Carnival. The Ebony Goddess contest celebrates Afro-centric notions of beauty, rather than the prevailing standards of beauty in Brazil, a country famous for plastic surgery and slim supermodels.
Daniele, like most Brazilian Black women, was a teenager that didn’t find herself beautiful. Daniele didn’t see people who looked like her on TV and in magazines. So, she persisted in her dream to become the Ebony Goddess, the woman who carries the noble title which combats this lack of Black representation.
To understand Brazilian media, which is riddled with racism, it is helpful to travel back in time and understand a little bit about Brazil in the 1980s. There was a successful, blonde children’s TV personality named Xuxa Meneghel. Xuxa had stage assistants who were also blonde like her, called Paquitas. In that time, it was the dream of every little Brazilian girl to be a Paquita. This childish desire caused great frustration for Black girls who could never ever be a Paquita, for obvious reasons.
The Ebony Goddess contest resists these inherent racist notions of beauty and celebrates the authentically Afro-Brazilian beauty and experience. The Black girls, whether on stage or in the audience, are empowered with their grace and ancestry.
While that event was taking place in Salvador, another epic event was taking place in all Brazilian residences that were watching Jornal Nacional, the most important news show. For the first time, a Black woman, Maria Julio Coutinho, was presenting the news. The event was celebrated on social media and remembered during the contest of the Ebony Goddess.
These revolutions were highlighted by Professor Helio Santos, president of the Baoba Diversity Institute. In a video screened during the contest, he remembered that this resistance is the Ilê brand and carries a particular kind of knowledge. “It is a model of beauty, of self-esteem, of unity. Without any stone, Ilê made the greatest revolution in this country, which is not political but cultural, “he points out.
The Ilê’s projection and years on the road are not enough to attract the attention of governments and entrepreneurs. The president of the bloco, Antonio Carlos dos Santos, known as Ilê’s Grandpa, recalls that every year there is a difficulty to prepare the carnival. “Entrepreneurs need to rethink the distribution of funds. That will only change when we Blacks take over. Organizations such as Ilê Aiyê will need to behave like political parties, to stop having such meager support and to continue this construction of transforming that city into the real Black Rome,” he says.
At the end of the contest, Daniele Nobre was crowned Ebony Goddess. “I never thought about quitting,” she says. “I stopped last year to prepare. I returned thinking that I wanted it to be different this year and the Orixas enlightened me. I was able to improve my dance, come with clothes and hair that won the jury. Now my goal is to represent this Afro-Brazilian beauty and empower other girls.”
The singer Gilberto Gil, who was the minister of culture, says that the festivity represents a spontaneous and legitimate manifestation of the social segment of Bahia. “Brazil has absorbed much from African cultures. Brazil is today, outside of Nigeria, the largest Black population in the world. This is the bright side of this presence of Black people, although all this is subject to a certain commitment, resistance, ” he says.
In a country that is primarily Black yet corrupted with systemic racism, the occupation of these spaces are achievements to be celebrated. More than a beauty contest, the selection of the Ebony Goddess is a political act, which makes all of us Blacks stronger and also more beautiful. We also left the event feeling like Ebony Goddesses. And yes, we are.