Reciprocity, Black Solidarity, and Reconnection: A Conversation on Amefricanidade and Quilombo with Professor Camila Daniel and Runnie Exuma

September 7, 2022
Reciprocity, Black Solidarity, and Reconnection: A Conversation on Amefricanidade and Quilombo with Professor Camila Daniel and Runnie Exuma

This is an excerpt from a July 29, 2022 interview between Columbia University student Runnie Exuma, CSSD staff member Tomoki Fukui, and Professor Camila Daniel around topics of anticolonial epistemology, Black feminist practices, quilombo, Amefricanidade, dance, and Black solidarity. It has been edited and condensed for brevity. You can view the full interview here.

Tomoki Fukui (Tommy): I was really struck by all of the examples that Runnie provided me with of your work and of the way that you’re thinking about how migration and moving between different racial epistemic landscapes impacts people’s bodily experiences, and the ways that they form connections and solidarities with each other. I wanted to know a little bit more about what your current work is, what directions it’s been taking this summer. The last thing that I saw that you had made was from 2021, the Detrás de la Puerta. I’m curious to hear more about where you’re going these days?

Professor Camila Daniel (Professor Daniel): Yeah, I started collaborating with Latin American immigrants in Rio in 2011. In 2016, I expanded the collaboration to Latin American immigrants in Baltimore. This experience made me realize that I also needed to understand my positionality as a Black Brazilian anthropologist. I am currently changing my perspective in a way that I’m looking at myself and Brazil more now than I used to. I am transitioning to be more connected with Black communities in Brazil, and finding a way to do what I’ve been doing in the US, which is conducting research that is strongly connected with community organizing. I was doing that in Baltimore, and this is what I’ve been doing in Brazil, especially from the pandemic to now.

Tommy: I remember when I was speaking with Runnie about your work early on, she seemed very excited about the way that you think about dance as part of a Black feminist practice or part of an anticolonial epistemology. I wonder if you wanted to talk more about that because it seems like that must relate to why it has helped sustain you as well.

Professor Daniel: Definitely. Yeah, I do believe that. That makes me think about Victoria Santa Cruz. She was an Afro-Peruvian, dancer, choreographer, and intellectual. And even though she has a very philosophical way of understanding dance, she says that we should dance instead of talking and writing about dance. The more we talk or write about dancing, the less we are living the experience of dancing itself. Dancing completely changed my way of seeing myself as a Black woman, my connection with other people and the way I am in academia.

I just realized talking to Runnie and introducing Runnie to my world in Rio that all my close friends dance. All of them, all in different ways. And most of them are Black women. At some point in our lives, we all understood that we needed to nurture life despite the expectations of society. Moving our body in dance is our way of existing, not accepting the limitations that society puts on Black women.

Society is always requiring us, Black women, to do things for them, to help them, to take care of them, to give them answers. And we have very few moments that we can just concentrate on ourselves, be ourselves, and exist. So I think we all understand dancing is a space for us to exist. We are not producing anything, we are not going to get any money out of it. We are just gonna ‘be’. I do believe that dance is anticolonial for me and my Black friends. It is a way of not surrendering to the capitalist demand on Black women to be productive for someone else.

Tommy:  Thank you.

Professor Daniel:  I don’t know if Runnie would like to say [something], because she met me at Columbia and I’m sure she was there when I said in class that I dance [in Harlem] at least once a week to survive. Dancing in Black spaces is really core to me.

This dialogues with Lélia Gonzalez, who is a Black Brazilian intellectual, is her concept of Amefricanidade. Lélia analyzes the connections in Latin America made through Black people and Black cultures. They construct a continental sense of belonging not centered in whiteness. In Latin America, people spend so much of our time denying racism and supporting white supremacy. I just feel white spaces anywhere in the world are very tiring for me. So I prefer dancing and moving my body in Black spaces. […]

Tommy: Yeah. I don’t know Runnie if you wanted to say anything.

Runnie Exuma (Runnie): I wanted to just chime in and ask Professor Daniel a few more questions, having spent time with her the past couple of weeks. My first question was related to the work that you were doing on Lélia Gonzalez and Beatriz Nascimento in Columbia, and the conferences that you held at Columbia related to those two thinkers, and how you were able to bring in so many other Black women, Brazilian intellectuals to think with you, and present at the conferences. I first had a question about the story of how you discovered both Nascimento and Gonzalez, and the significance that they hold in your work. And also the significance of holding those conferences at Columbia, and the reason that you decided to plan it and make it happen.

So that’s the first set of questions, and then the second set of questions would have to be in relation to the work we’ve been doing with the community of Horto with Emília, and also working with the Quilombo (Boa Esperança) here in Rio, and why that’s work that you decide to participate in, too.

Professor Daniel: Okay, that is nice, because Runnie is my connection with Columbia and Brazil. When I went to Columbia, I was really aware that it was a really important opportunity for me as a scholar. But I wanted it not to be important only for me, but also for other Black women in Latin America. […]

Black women were in the forefront of everything that I did at Columbia. They were also the forefront of the syllabus that I taught there. The first time I read Lélia Gonzalez and heard her concept of Amefricanidade was in 2015. It really blew my mind. I had been collaborating with Peruvians since 2011. Thinking about connections in Latin America, and how the continent is constructed, was really important to me. But I was like, Wow! My dissertation could have been so different if I had heard about Amefricanidade and Lélia Gonzalez before. Lélia Gonzalez published a paper about Amefricanidade in 1988. I was born in 1984. I went to university in 2002. From 1988 to 2002 was a long process. There is no reason why I never heard about Lélia Gonzalez during my whole university life. I pursued my Ph.D. in the same university that Gonzalez was working at when she passed. She was the head of the Sociology Department. The same department that I went to for my Ph.D. Even there, people didn’t talk about her. Up to now, not only Lélia Gonzalez, but also so many other Black intellectuals, are still taken for granted. The work of learning about them is really an activist work: not reproducing the mainstream social sciences, or any other science in Brazil still committed to white supremacy. […] I took so long to learn about Black Brazilian intellectuals, […] And the reason why I didn’t know them was because I was still focused on mainstream academia, which means white.

But there are lots of Black students and professors all over Brazil, and even abroad, doing so much with her name and her concept. When I was at Columbia, I thought: “Okay, I’m going to have resources at Columbia. So everything that I’m going to do there will be Black women”, as a means to making Amefricanidade not only a theory, but a political strategy of fostering Black women’s connections in the world.

[…] I wanted the audience abroad to learn that there are a lot of Black women producing knowledge in different dimensions of life. I wanted to explore the resources that Columbia had. […]

The conference was the possibility of putting in dialogue Black Brazilian women who are living in the U.S. and who are inside the U.S. community, and also Black Brazilians who are still here in Brazil, whose knowledge is still not incorporated into white universities in Brazil.

Columbia plays a very important role in giving visibility to Brazilian intellectuals. For example, one of the main ideologies to silence racism in Brazil is “racial democracy”. One of the intellectuals who constructed the  “racial democracy” framework was Gilberto Freyre. He was a Master’s student in Anthropology at Columbia. He took classes with Franz Boas. He wrote Casa-Grande & Senzala in 1932. He went to Columbia in the twenties.

Tommy: Hmm!

Professor Daniel: So I felt that Columbia has this debt with Brazil because we are still struggling so much with the myth of racial democracy. I felt, Well, I’m gonna be at Columbia, […] I can explore a little bit of these resources to open up this platform to other people to hear these Latin Black women who are producing knowledge. […]

I hosted several events, and all of them – yeah – all of the events I hosted at Columbia was with Black women. Most of them were Black Brazilian women, but also we had a panel with an Afro-Venezuelan  and an Afro-Peruvian scholar.

Tommy: […] When I was looking at Detrás de la Puerta, I really noticed that it was a way of dancing that you could feel the sense of joy that was being shared, you could feel a sense of freedom, and mutual encouragement, and it seemed very reciprocal. And so everything connects back to dancing, but within these relationships that are based on reciprocity instead of on trying to consume Black women in different ways.

Professor Daniel: Yeah, I think one thing I’ve been talking to Runnie, is to me to be a Black anthropologist is reciprocity. […] If Peruvian immigrants decided that they didn’t want me to be part of the community, I wouldn’t have my dissertation, I wouldn’t have learned how to dance Afro-Peruvian dances, and maybe I would have taken longer to learn Spanish. […]

Most of what I constructed in my career comes from the relationship I constructed with [Peruvian immigrants in Rio] since 2011. I wouldn’t be a Columbia professor if I didn’t have this very particular trajectory, which is a Black Brazilian anthropologist studying race from Peruvian immigrants’ perspective. This is something very unusual and was only possible because Peruvians accepted me as part of the community…

Sometimes, scholars forget that first, most of the knowledge that we learn and write about comes from the community. Especially in anthropology. Even the concepts. Lots of the concepts are native concepts. They are not ours. And secondly, we need to listen to people in order to give them back what they want, what they believe is useful for them. As a Black woman, people are always trying to extract things from me. As a Black scholar, I don’t wanna do the same. That’s why I believe that Black women’s standpoint can be very powerful. My experience in life is strongly related to the experience of communities who are dealing with anthropologists who are expecting to extract things from them. So I don’t want to do to them what people try to do to me very often.

[…] I should explain why I’m talking a lot about myself. … I understand being decolonial is acknowledging the place that I am in the world, that things are not casual… there are relations, there are forces, there are networks that make things possible. That’s why I’m always talking in the first person. Just to make things clear. I don’t want to sound like because I’m a Black Brazilian who taught at Columbia that I am a superwoman. I’m definitely not a superwoman. I was blessed enough to have lots of people supporting me…

Professor Daniel: Tommy, there is another question that Runnie asked me about the work that I’m doing now in Rio. […]

One of the panels I hosted (at Columbia), the Amefrican dialogues, was  about environmental racism in Brazil with two Black women who are community leaders in two favelas in Rio. Actually one of them’s a community, it’s not specifically a favela. And a Black scholar, who is also a friend of mine, who is writing her Ph.D. dissertation on environmental racism in Brazil with these two communities… We hosted this panel, and this is how Runnie heard about Comunidade do Horto. […] when Runnie told me that she was thinking about coming to Rio, I told her, “Well Communidade do Horto is needing help to reopen their Facebook account… So that would be a way to support their struggle.”

So my work with the community, I feel like I’m not doing research with them. I am supporting a community that is struggling. …I’m doing activist work. […] the things that I read and my ethical practice as a Black scholar makes me committed with this community.

And the other work that I was invited to support is with a Quilombo community… There is one Quilombo community near Areal, Rio de Janeiro. They have the project of constructing their own museum. So they are in the process of creating the collective awareness of their own history, and elaborate their archives… they also want to develop a specific school curriculum for the quilombola children.

I have a student who is working there. She invited me to go to the Quilombo. Since that, I’ve been talking to the Quilombo, and asking them how I can support. I am in this process of learning about them and learning about their struggle.

Several other people has been doing research there. I am trying to understand what happened to all this research. The community has been making the same demands for many, many years. What happened to all this research? […] I’m now trying to understand the relations between the scholars who have been there, the local politicians who understood that the quilombo is important and are trying to make the quilombo more visible, and the community – what they really want. And also the internal conflicts they have. I am in the process of understanding the community and asking them. I’m constantly doing that, asking them, “How can I support? What can I do?”

And one thing that I’ve been thinking: connections are very important. Nobody does anything alone, especially if we are people of color. We are not gonna do anything alone. This is the modern society ideal that doesn’t make any sense for people of color. […] One thing that I always remember is that when Runnie told her parents—Runnie, you can tell it better than I.

Runnie: Yeah, I can talk about it. One of the reasons why I was really excited about visiting the quilombo was because of the process that they have of making rapadura. Rapadura is basically condensed, unrefined sugar. I was asking them how long it takes them to make, and the whole process of cutting down the sugar and milling it, and everything takes about the whole day, but the full process can take up to a week.

And I remember telling my parents that, especially as I was planning to go to Rio. I’m Haitian, and my parents are Haitian migrants, and our whole history, from my great-grandmother and my great-grandfather on both sides, they have always been farm workers and doing farm work has always been a part of my family. It’s something that my mom grew up with, which is why, to this day, we can be walking somewhere, and she’s able to identify all these different plant types, and the season that they grow. Things like that that I’ve always been really curious about.

So once I said the word rapadura, because the word is so similar to the word in Haitian Creole, which is rapadou, my dad got really excited, and he was like, “My grandfather used to make this on his farm, and he used to teach me the whole process of making it.” He grew up with that. And so when I was coming here, he just gave me the message that once I go visit the quilombo I should just learn as much as I can. That’s what he told me. “Go and learn. Learn everything; learn as much as you can,” and also to bring some back for him, because I guess that’s one of the things of migrant experiences. There are certain foods that you haven’t had in years, but they cultivate so much memory and knowledge for you, and they bring up so much for you.

So that was my plan number one when I got to the quilombo, and I told the people there the story, and they were like, “Wow, I didn’t know.” Even just the similarity between the words and the two languages. You know, it was really cool but it’s also, the experience of going and realizing the similarity and practices of this one place in Rio compared to Haiti, and how all of this is just kind of Blackness and diaspora in effect, and we’re all connected by this terrible history, but, and there’s this beauty, and in the in the spirit of Amefricanidade, seeing certain practices repeat throughout the Americas, connected by this [inaudible] Blackness, it’s been cool. That was a really top experience for me.

Professor Daniel: […] This amazing possibility of learning different experiences of Blackness, and learning about the diasporic connection of Blackness. I didn’t know about Haiti so I am learning too, through Runnie. I really had no idea about that, and also for them [the quilombolas] to realize that what they are doing is important for them. There is a connection with other Black people, so they learn how great this connection is. … I’m not romanticizing. […] They have lots of struggles. But despite the struggles, they are cultivating ancestral connections that make them part of the diaspora, and that is really life-affirming.

Tommy: I notice this recurring theme of learning about the connections that were already there? They are coming into more and more awareness. That seems like such a central and important part of what is being produced by your work and the way that you are both forming these relationships to people, to communities. […]

Runnie: That’s a huge part of having worked with you the past couple of weeks. I think I’ve seen, even in visiting the Quilombo, and posting the performances of capoeira and whatnot. There are a lot of people who reached out to me who were like, “Oh, my gosh! This looks like Puerto Rican Bomba,” which is another style of dance and performance, and, all these other people being like, “I’m from x country in Latin America, and this is something that we have here, too,” and being able to make the connections.

And also with the rapadura, I started looking it up more, and it has different names in different parts of Latin America. I think it’s called piloncillo in Mexico, and then in Colombia it’s called panela, and it’s all these Black Latin American Caribbean people having their own practices for making it, and different words. It’s really cool.

Professor Daniel: And that is exactly what the concept of Amefricanidade is. Being able to see this Black connections despite—despite violence, despite the project of erasing everything that is Black. We still have these connections even though we might not be aware of. So for me it’s so powerful, because the work of trying to make Black people fit into a white world in Latin America and in the Caribbean and in the diaspora is so oppressive. But there are still resistances.

Tommy: […] Are there final thoughts that you or Runnie wanted to share?

Professor Daniel: I do believe we are able to construct connections that are not centered in whiteness, and that are life-affirming. And academia, even though it causes a lot of problems, can also be a means of constructing alternatives of living, of being together, of… creating reciprocity and alternatives of life that are not centered on coloniality and capitalism and individualism… My process of claiming my humanity and my existence is also what moves me to do my work as a researcher, and question the centrality of whiteness in academia and in the political world, and use academia as a resource to other possibilities of life.

Tommy: [Reading from chat] Runnie says, talk about what you see yourself doing next.

Professor Daniel: …I do wanna do more activist research in Brazil and Rio… This week I hosted an event at my university, for the international day of Black Latin American Caribbean women. I talked, Runnie talked, and one of the speakers was a student of mine. …she started a samba space, a space to preserve the samba in Três Rios, in the town where I work. […]

One thing that Runnie has been asking too and I forgot to relate to, is the concept of Quilombo from the Black Brazilian historian Beatriz Nascimento.  In the eighties she constructed a different meaning for Quilombo. Before Beatriz Nascimento, Quilombo was considered any community of enslaved people who escaped from slavery. Nascimento defined quilombo not as a specific place encapsulated in the colonial horizon. But Quilombo is a way that Black people develop a different philosophy of living which is centered in Black solidarity. Quilombo is a philosophy real not only in the Quilombo itself, but also in other Black spaces, such as the favelas and the samba schools. Sambas are these Black connections that Black people support each other. For example, if someone has no food, then that person who has more will give to the other one. And one person takes care of the other person’s kid. So all this Black solidarity is what she calls Quilombo… Thinking about this concept, I want to study the samba schools in Três Rios as a Quilombo, as an ethical philosophical way of living Black lives. This is what I’m doing now. At some point, I want to connect the samba schools in Três Rios with the Quilombo, the actual quilombo. Well, everything is actual quilombo, but Quilombo Boa Esperança, the Black rural community I am collaborating with.

These are my goals by now. But I also have an artistic political goal […] to start a Black dance collective.

Tommy: I feel like there’s so much more to talk about, even with just the expectations around ethnography and the like amount of work that that is, and how the model of colonial ethnography really sets that up. But yeah. I also wanna be respectful of your time, for both of you. I really appreciate you both taking time to be here and Runnie like, thank you so much for you know, facilitating this and doing all of that work. I really appreciate it.

Professor Daniel: Thank you so much. Thank you, Runnie, for so supporting Tomoki in their process of organizing this interview, and also Tomoki for not giving up even though I’m not in Columbia anymore. This interview is also a reminder for myself that I’m doing a nice work.