Chantal James – The Evolving Black Atlantic
We asked Chantal James of la Rampa to write a piece on what the Black Lives Matter protests in Europe, or more particular; in Portugal have meant for the Black Atlantic. The piece is published in Common Ground, our annual magazine.
“When I moved to Lisbon from Rio de Janeiro in 2016, tourism was booming. Millions were flocking to Belém to eat the famous Portuguese Pastel de Nata (sugar custard pastries) while visiting the Monument to the Discoveries – a shrine to the “explorers and visionaries who established Portugal as the most powerful seafaring nation” and the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos – “a Gateway to the Age of Discovery and the Golden Era” (descriptions from official websites). In Lisbon, the Praça do Comércio – where Africans disembarked to be sold in the slave markets, and the narrow streets around Rua do Pouço dos Negros – a sixteenth-century informal burial ground for Blacks – were, along with the mercurial Tagus River, the preferred backdrops for sunset selfies. These sites and landmarks – evidence of heinous crimes against humanity – had been repackaged as innocent Disney-like attractions.
Rapid gentrification in many of Lisbon’s traditional minority neighbourhoods like the Madragoa and Santa Catarina was further exposing racial disparities. One only had to take the train out to Sintra to perceive how white Lisbon was. Africans and Afro- descendants came into the city in the mornings as domestic workers or manual labourers to return at night to their homes in government housing projects or informal land occupations that looked very much like favelas. During the summer, I witnessed a violent incident involving police and Black youths at a beach near Lisbon. The images of Black bodies pinned to the ground under military boots was yet another scene I thought I had left behind in Rio.
At the same time, the city was imbued with Black culture. Black DJs, many first-generation immigrants from Portugal’s former colonies like Angola were sought-after international stars of the night, drawing weekend clubbers from all over Europe. Afro house music was declared the sound of Lisbon, with Kizomba and Cape Verdean Morna coming close behind. Afro-Brazilian students riding the academic wave of affirmative action policies (established by former Brazilian President Lula da Silva) were part of the student bodies of universities across Portugal. Many were activists and used their voice and experience to strengthen Portugal’s burgeoning Black movement.
Even with an estimated 15 million people of African descent living within the European borders, I noticed many fallacies in the pluriversal image of Europe that I had envisioned from Brazil. Public debates about racism or colonial legacy outside academia were few-and-far-between. There was only one national narrative and one national identity, and this wasn’t the case only in Portugal. Other former European colonial powers like the Netherlands and Belgium were also suffering from collective amnesia rendering them incapable of considering how these singular narratives were harmful and excluded Black citizens and residents.”