Northeast: Pride and Prejudice

Image: Elyleser Szturm
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By BERENICE BENTO*

When the issue shifts from charity to politics, the crumb-giving Christian becomes a convinced fascist.

Death to Northeasterners. Illiterate. Damn. Flat heads. Starving to death. With unsurprising indignation, I saw hatred being spewed against Northeasterners on social media, shortly after the end of the first round of the presidential election. Unsurprisingly, because my whole life I've heard the same insults. Sometimes, without knowing that I myself am from Paraíba, the person who committed the insult asked for my complicity. Unsurprisingly because, in 2014, when Dilma Rousseff won the elections, part of the south and southeast spit out the same hatred that is now returning in full force.

At some point in my life, I decided to become what they said: I am from Paraíba. I took the insult as an identity element. They corrected me: you are not from Paraíba, but from Paraíba. No, I'm from Paraíba. This trick in the political struggle I learned from transviade activism. We need to deflate the power they think they have in producing fear and shame in us. In place of shame, mockery.

In 2014, I lived in New York. It was there that I decided I needed to write about my childhood and part of my adolescence in Rio de Janeiro and revisit the humiliations I was subjected to. There is still much to be said, but it takes courage. The title of my book of chronicles assumes my condition in Paraíba (Foreign: a paraíba in New York).

2022. Once again I am swallowed by childhood memories and the 2014 elections. On the one hand, hate. On the other, videos and texts that mention big names of artists, musicians, politicians who are from the Northeast. The messages usually end with “I am proud to be from the Northeast”. I believe that this strategy of responding to hatred with a list of big names and accomplishments does not manage to scratch the solid edifice of hatred against “Paraíbas” and “Baianos”. We are still triggering the same aggressor strategy that is based on geographic determinism. Tell me where you come from, and I'll tell you who you are, in the spirit of Euclides da Cunha.

We don't know exactly when the aversion of sectors from the southeast and south to the northeast began. This genealogy still needs to be done. When reading the Annals of the National Congress during the debates that took place in 1871 around the Lei do Ventre Livre (law that defined that the children of enslaved women would be born free), the discussions advanced towards a great division: the slave south versus abolitionist north. At that time, it was this regional binarism that worked. The final result of the vote in the Chamber of Deputies seemed to support the division. 61 parliamentarians voted in favor of the proposal and 35 against (27 from the south/southeast; 7 from the north and 1 from the center-west).

This seal of abolitionist north deepened with the advance of abolitionist movements and the enactment of local laws that freed people enslaved before the general law of May 13, 1888. On August 30, 1881, a group of jangadeiros responsible for the shipment of goods in the port of the capital of the province of Ceará refused to transport enslaved black people who would be taken from there to other provinces. On January 1, 1883, Vila de Acarape (renamed “Redemption”) freed the last slaves. Other abolitions followed in cities in Ceará (Pacatuba, Itapagé, Aracoiaba, Baturité, Aquiraz, Icó and Maranguape) and in Fortaleza the same happened on May 24, 1883.

These historical facts contribute to the narrative of the abolitionist north and the slave-owning south, especially when the political heir to the big house, Jair Bolsonaro, had an expressive vote in these regions. In common, we can also associate the figure of Lula to that of the jangadeiros from Ceará. But these representations are misleading. What actually led the northern deputies to vote in favor of the Free Womb Law project was the scarce presence of enslaved people in their stocks or squads (as the enslaved black population was called).

A considerable part was sold to southern farmers, mainly São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, who were experiencing the heyday of coffee cultivation. And celebrating the liberation of enslaved people is contributing to the policy of forgetting. The freedmen were abandoned by the State. It is as if the great general rehearsal of what would happen on May 13, 1888 was taking place there, which was characterized by the absolute abandonment of the enslaved population who were left to die.

The narrative of the abolitionist northeast was displaced from historical facts, gained a life of its own, became autonomous. Among the numerous materials that circulated on the internet in defense of northeastern pride, this image was recovered. I wonder to what extent this type of narrative does not spare the skin of contemporary northeastern slaveholders, embodied in businessmen (for example, the owner of Riachuelo) and end up including them in this “pure” northeast. They continue to practice all types of violence and disrespect against workers.

Even though hatred against northeasterners happens in everyday microinteractions, there are times when it appears in full force. However, these reiterations of hate contrast with images of national mobilizations when some type of natural catastrophe occurs in a northeastern city. One can see a wide mobilization to collect water, food, clothes. Although it may seem contradictory, those who now scream “dumb, flat-headed, starving” may be among those who donate to programs in the spirit of “Northeast Hope” in times of disaster. In the condition of miserable, hungry we want you.

Now, we are talking about serious things, about elections. And then these calango eaters want to cross the border from the kitchen to the living room? When the issue shifts from charity to politics, the crumb-giving Christian becomes a convinced fascist. And in the face of the election of a Northeasterner, elected by the majority of the Northeastern people, it remains to cry out for a military coup to return things to the right place. And this desire cannot be identified exclusively as the desire of Brazilians from the south and southeast. A considerable part of the northeastern elite would be at the forefront of this project.

In order to break the myth of the amalgamation of territory and identity (I am proud to be from the Northeast), it is necessary to bring other elements into the picture: social class, gender, religion, sexuality, race. But we are struggling and sometimes, we believe, we must resort to geographical essentialism as a strategy. This path, however, only reinforces that we are what the earth defines. In other words, to combat prejudice, we activate pride, but that same pride ends up reinforcing the notion of the Northeast as a homogeneous, undifferentiated whole, without singularity, in short, without its own face.

*Berenice Bento is a professor of sociology at UnB. She is currently a visiting researcher at the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of Brazil, year zero: State, gender, violence (Editora da UFBA).

Originally published on Cul magazinet.

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