Black in Brazil: Why Bahia is a Must for Every Modern Black Traveler
Traveling while black. We’ve all been there, and many of you reading this are living it right now. And if you happen to have grown up in a place that isn’t inherently black, like say the United States of Amerikkka or the United Kingdom (of colonialism), then you may be intimately familiar with the zero sum burden that accompanies your skin tone in places rooted in white supremacy. I say that you “may” be aware of this particular onus, because it differs from the obvious burden of blackness of which we are all acutely aware. That one we become painfully aware of far too early in our innocence, that one we can see with our eyes, quantify with statistics, and rail against in unified resistance. The zero sum burden, however, is different. Its weight is imperceptible, yet its nature is insidious. It taxes your spirit and weighs you down day in and day out, and you don’t even notice it until you step into the glory of a place that is predominantly and unapologetically black. Because within hours or even minutes of being in a magical black place, you feel that weight you didn’t know you carried lift from your shoulders, and you begin to gain all the things lost to you in white spaces. I’ll never forget the first time it happened to me, over a decade ago, when I went to my father’s homeland of Nigeria. Then again when I went to Morocco. And most recently just before the turn of spring, when I realized a dream deferred in Bahia, Brazil. I stepped off the plane. I inhaled the salty and humid air with a vibrant smile, and before day’s end, everything shifted.
For perspective, it’s important to note I embarked on this journey, not on my own, but with a well-known black travel group. I needed both to experience Bahia as authentically as possible, and to share that with my skin folk. Since full-time adulting in the Republic is a total time suck, I felt it was best to outsource the logistics and let the cultural immersion specialists do their thing. Fast forward to where I left off, and where the shifting of everything began. As I disembarked from my plane into a sea of brown faces and gleefully struggled to find my fellow gaggle of brown travelers, the unburdening of my spirit was set in motion. You know the feeling you get when you connect with a tribe member while gallivanting in far off and new places? Imagine, multiplying that by 13, and you’ll start to understand the elation I felt as I learned names and hailing cities and shared familiar laughs with a group of total strangers, who felt like instant friends. In the hours to follow, I was enraptured by sights, sounds, and flavors that were technically new, yet delightfully familiar. As I sat at the table for our welcome dinner, surrounded by new faces, serenaded by local musicians and enticed by the aromas of palm oil and stewed chicken, one by one, my compatriots and I became released of our imperceptible burden. We laughed louder, interacted with each other with greater familiarity, and before the night was over, danced freely as band members coaxed us from our chairs.
The liberation of our spirits only continued with each experience. A two hour, “this ain’t for tourists” samba class was simply transformative. Like most black girls who grew up in the 90s, I took African dance classes. While it goes without saying that after school dance classes literally cannot compare to samba lessons taught by professional Afro-Brazilian ballerinas, the real difference was that in the past, I was just going through the motions and having a good time. Whereas in Bahia, I literally connected to my ancestors—to my ancestry, compelled and mesmerized by the rhythms of half a dozen drums. I, along with several others in the group, including our instructor, shed real black girl tears as we reflected on the #blackjoy that passed between us in that class.
I loove youuuu in a place, where there’s no space or time
I’ve loved you for my life, you’re a friend of mine….
I’ve wanted to go to Bahia for over a decade, for no other reason than because it’s the home to the largest population of the diaspora outside of the continent, and as such, is deeply rooted and proudly connected to its West African roots. But I just could not anticipate how healing it would be to not be othered or fetishized while walking along the path of discovery. This might possibly have been the most significant piece of my humanity that I gained from that zero-sum dynamic of blackness, especially while traveling. I had not realized, until I walked around the streets of Bahia, unbothered and unnoticed, that every trip I’ve taken outside of the continent, I have mentally braced myself for the inevitable stares, innocuous or otherwise, that comes with being a black face in a foreign (or domestic and homogenous) white place. That realization makes me sad in this moment, but it put a lightness in my step while I was privileged to be an honorary Baiana. There was a magic that came with walking among European architecture, yet blending in with the locals, and I was overwhelmed by the beauty of seeing so many variations of blackness reflected back at me among the faces and magnificently coily crowns of the people of Salvador. All of these factors allowed me to be unencumbered while discovering the idiosyncrasies of Bahia’s culture, so proudly steeped in Yoruba traditions, and reveling in its beauty that was born in pain. That is what I didn’t know what I was looking for. The full recognition of my personal connection to the Pan-African diaspora.
Like most socially conscious people I am over stimulated and generally overwhelmed with all that ails this world. What’s worse is that I find it hard to disconnect from knowing and learning, especially in these deeply concerning times. As you might imagine, therapist or not, this makes for an agitated psyche. But Bahia was transformative. It was as if the moment I arrived, I walked into an alternate reality, where black was right, winter was summer, and joy was possible. This was yet another massive return in the zero-sum game.
In the course of seven days, my time never seemed like scheduled segments, but like moments that overflowed from one to the next and so on. That week in Bahia was the first time, since the election when whatever was happening in the outside world ceased to be. For seven glorious days, being black felt like being free. I forgot who the president of the republic was, and I didn’t care. All of the mess faded to the background, and I communed with like-minded and similarly exasperated women (and one young gentleman, shout out to Derek!). We laughed, we cried, we danced, we celebrated. Even while learning that the cobbled stone streets we walked every day, which once ran red with blood from the backs of the slaves tied to the whipping posts in the Pelourinho Square, I dared to revel in #joy, #freedom, and #magic. I’ve been traveling for seven years, two of which I spent living in Spain, and never, not even in Nigeria have I had this full of an experience.
We’ve all heard the cliché phrase that “home is where the heart is”. For us members of the diaspora, with our arduous history and existent displacement, home can often feel like an open-ended question of where and with whom do we belong. But Bahia, for all of her past, her present, and her future, is the home whose siren’s song you are implored to follow. Bahia is the home that sets out to find you, and reclaim you as one of her lost children from the continent that is the mother to us all. She will restore your spirit and bestow upon you your natural birthright of unfettered joy and sovereignty. I know this, because or one glorious week, I was magnificently free.
We all were free.
Bernadette is true Jersey girl — impatient, unfiltered, and infamously averse to mayonnaise. Her affinity for the finer things in life include high-end leather boots, jamón ibérico, and all things bourbon. She and her miniature poodle Kona, currently reside on the wrong side of the Atlantic in Baltimore, MD. But Madrid is their spirit city, and they plan of finding their way back in the future, this time for keeps. You can find more of her work here.