Friday, August 11, 2017

José Ferrão
2017 SUSI Scholar on Journalism and Media
Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The journey to what one Athenian referred to as the “black people’s Mecca in the U.S.” started at Rio International Airport when I took a Delta flight. To my amazement, almost all of the flight attendants with two or three exceptions were African Americans, a kind of human landscape you never see on a Brazilian aircraft. In my country, black people are commonly assigned with cleaning jobs and entertainment. You often see them holding floor cloths and brooms, but very rarely leading a flight crew. You see them holding a microphone and playing the drums, but when most Brazilians check a prosperous entrepreneur out who happens to be black, they think there must be something wrong. An outrageous, sad and shameful reality.

I was loaded with stereotypes - and probably still am - when I boarded that plane. One can never be fully aware of the cultural jolt awaiting them, but I did have some background conception of Atlanta, as I had changed planes there some years ago. This time it was different, though. My African Brazilian friends from Salvador of Bahia and the years I spent teaching at one of our leading universities that adopted affirmative action have both helped me become at least more, I can say, insightful about these issues. For it is mine as well. After all, a country's heritage is something everyone takes part in, be it samba, soccer or ... slavery.

The landing in Hartsfield Jackson was pretty easy and I could see from the plane window how busy the airport was. Small carts running to and fro, luggage being taken from the parked aircrafts, men with green fluorescent vests signing the way to pilots and everywhere Delta’s propaganda: Proud to call Atlanta home and We have the best employees in the world. Sure you do, Delta. And the most colorful ones.

If you just go through the huge hallways of Hartsfield Jackson, you can see that the overwhelming majority of the airport people are African Americans. The singing Southern black accent is heard from the huge immigration hall to the eating facilities and throughout the big aisles of the terminals. Together with this beautiful song-speak, another feature of the black people in the United States is responsible for making them so powerful: their hairstyles.

I had been kind of gradually prepared for that nice surprise. One of the attendants in my flight from Rio had a sort of curly high hydrated hair cascade falling off her head down to her chest. Her being a tall woman contributed to an even more astounding outlook. A colleague of hers, on the other hand, preferred a light brown three-deck-wedding-cake-like bun reaching out to the sky. Every now and then you could hear I love your haaaaair!!!! coming out of a passenger’s mouth, which of course made them smile.

At Hartsfield Jackson, I just had to sit at one of those boarding gates and pretend the huge corridors were not airport but fashion runways, where the most amazing hairstyles passed by. Old women in her Sunday morning hats like just getting out of a Southern Baptist church service, young men with Mohican haircuts and bad boys’ sunglasses and middle-aged desk assistants with a whole variety of hairdos, ranging from straightening to highlights, from colorful extensions to progressive brushes. A woman driving a cart full of oldies with a big Rastafari braid passed by us and shouted a Beep Beep to the inattentive passengers on her way, while the lady at the boarding desk with half of her head shaved and the other half with blond hydrated curls hanging and swinging like Christmas tree ornaments continued her work…

And me sitting there, thinking of my dear fellow African Brazilians back home and the long way they still have to go to get as much empowerment as their North American counterparts after a lot of struggle and passive resistance…

And I remained in wonder.

No comments: