Originally published in Portuguese in Revista Rosa.
On Wednesday last week, it was strange returning to campus. I was invited to speak about “the place of Black people in the university” at the Federal University of São Paulo. Nothing’s so different there. One bar here, another close by. The path I used to take…the same, maybe more crowded. I was the one who changed, having gained not just a few kilos but facial expressions, and I am also very comfortable with loneliness—something that, as you knew well, I once found unbearable. The truth is, we never really know if grieving has come to an end; there always remains an uncomfortable excess, something that gives past experience another meaning and, when the dust is blown from the crevices of our memory, held heavy in the light of the present, draws closer what seemed to stay in the shadows. Maybe that was the strangeness: returning to that space and seeing so many faces, young and different and indifferent to what we lived through there. I don’t blame them. I also tried to bury it and today, despite everything, I am right where I wanted to be. But the memory…ah! Our memory!
I felt out of place in the elevator. I’m used to this, after all. I am irreconcilable with myself. I can’t be with me. I can’t escape me. I remembered them. I also remembered that, in the same way we passionately read Oscar Wilde, we were stubborn in studying Solano Trinidade; that, just as we made fun of Balzac, we were hot for Patativa do Assaré; that we wrote poems with Sergio Vaz but still raved about Mayakovski. Almost no one realized our advantage was the ability to smoothly transit between worlds. Our creolage was our strength. Our place, that of passage. It always was. When I got to room 210, where the roundtable would take place, it was full of high schoolers and first-year history students. My talk was the last on the program. A Black student and another student began. During their presentation, they mentioned the difficulty faced by Black students in the university, brought data, and talked about this freely among themselves. Suddenly, they spoke about the Black students who committed suicide there. The three Black students who committed suicide there. Three of them!
My friends became statistics. You know that. I’m not a moralist, and our resentment has always built bonds more often than it has broken them. But, listening to this unsuspecting shift in conversation, I realized again that this is what time relentlessly does. We read Beckett together. We laughed along with Polycarp. We tended to our hurts. We shared a taste for theater. Our things. You were not a statistic. But no one would know, and no one was to blame. The disbelief was mine alone, and it would trail me home like a shadow. "Cristilene Carneiro, Thiago Cerqueira, and Luiz Carlos. They had names!" I remembered helplessly during my talk amid everyone’s looks, some curious, others fading.
I rummaged through the trunk again. Your presence hadn’t been this vivid in so long. Forgetting the voice of someone we had lost always shook me with a deep horror. That night on the bus, however, on my way back, your voice pierced through. I shivered. I remembered you saying my name, how I could feel its waves, almost touch them. I still have the ticket stub for The Life of Galileo, your debut as an actress, if I’m not mistaken. I remembered how you aced metaphysics and logic, your outstanding performance. Your voice bright in my memory brought me back, showed me something else about myself. I stumbled across why I was so interested in thinking about racialization and the psychic suffering it brings. After all, the three Black students who committed suicide were three Black students. Everything sharpened. Everything glowed. I finally understood that it was only from this I came to definitively embrace Fanon, Neusa Santos, and Lélia.
To a distant observer, this discovery would be something obvious. For me, to understand the suffering caused by racialization is to try making some sense of this radical gap that separated us, our general helplessness in fathoming other people’s souls, or even understanding the depth of our own. Today, I know a little more about the importance of our discussions about race, our reflections about identity and its limits. In the trunk, I found the certificate marking the first cycle of debates about race, gender, and sexuality we organized at the university in 2010, ten years ago, but it was yesterday. We knew that, if self-knowledge is the possibility of self-humanization, we couldn’t let the structure of racialization sever us, our desire then saturated by the attempt to flee ourselves.
I still remember how you devoured Brecht to escape identification with the white world, to task yourself with the work of self-reconstruction. We also knew that if whiteness entails the formation of the racialized individual, the racialized individual also entails the white individual’s formation. This tension between two worlds, apparently distant but mutually constitutive, was supposed to be resolved. While it wasn’t, we were floating with Baldwin and Laferrière. We tried resolving it through artistic action, through political action, through drugs and sex. And yet we knew nothing of each other’s souls. In any case, meeting you was fundamental. It made me what I am. Remembering your name. Or the phrase you loved: “Respect these times as bright as the sun shines.”
That’s all, Tilene.
Tilene was a philosophy student at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP). In addition to being a brilliant student, she was also an excellent actress. Racialized and perceived as a Black woman, she fiercely advocated for affirmative action policies. She thought about race as a militant of various cultural movements, having organized one of the first events about the question of race at UNIFESP. On August 4, 2014, following a period of crisis and deep depression, she jumped out of the window of the apartment she shared with other students. Her friends, family, and the academic community were shocked and distraught. Her suicide was the second, following that of another Black student, Luiz Carlos de Oliveira, in December 2012, and it unfortunately would not be the last: on March 24, 2015, less than one year after Tilene, Thiago Marley also took his own life. The fact that three Black students had committed suicide, despite having caught some people’s attention, was largely unnoticed, including by the academy, which chose not to address it.
This invisibilization of racial violence is among the specific qualities of racism in Brazil: the idea of an integration of various races is a modernist myth born from the declaration of the Republic at the end of the nineteenth century. It should be said that Brazil was the last country to abandon the slave trade and break from slavery. Further, one of the distinctive characteristics of racism in Brazil is based upon the idea of racial democracy: in 1940, the myth that the country would be a multi-racial paradise was created, since its forms of colonization took place through miscegenation. The violence typical of Portuguese colonization was rendered invisible, and the idea of Brazil as a cordial country accepting of difference came to be accepted. This myth, however, does not hold upon closer inspection. Despite having the largest Black population outside of Africa, Brazil is the most dangerous country for racialized peoples; the Brazilian police murders the most Black and Indigenous people in the world.