The Atlantic Archives: Dedication to Black Domestic Workers


Happy New Year to everyone who has been following the work of my project Atlantic Archives in Salvador Bahia Brazil. It’s difficult to express how much the support means to me and the community we are building with the archives. 

For the rest of the month, I will be sharing insights from the archive collection including interviews from the Black artists, activists, and archivists in Brazil and the United States who are working to connect our two communities in this transnational political effort and what our plans are for 2022.

I encourage all readers to share any questions or comments they may have. 

We capped off the inaugural year of our project, Mochilieros Arquivistas (Backpack Archivists) with a public exhibition at the central library in the downtown area of the city. The reception was a beautiful event dedicated to my Grandmother who was in South Carolina celebrating her birthday. 

The reception poster featured a photo from her archive that I now care for of her mother Rosetta Thomas, wearing all white and working a field. 

Translation: “With honor to our ancestors, I present to you our first exhibition of the black transnational archive, which brings together ancestral and contemporary memories in its composition, in 6 (six) different archives, designed by different black artists, activists, and creators.
Atlantic Archives is a transnational institution that combines community art, philanthropy, political organization, archival methods, and intersectional strategies. The filing began with the Brito-Miles family file, a gift for my son, Lonan.
In the midst of the pandemic, the idea, and creation of Atlantic Archives and our main program, “Backpack Archivists” was born. In turn, this program had 3 (three) goals: to train talented black Brazilian creators for the development of community archive projects; provide financial support to fellows during an economic crisis and connect them to an international network of financial resources and expertise.
The “Fellows” – as the scholarship holders are called – represent several marginalized groups that are about to be extinguished in Brazil. Therefore, its archives are based on confrontation, a “radical” effort to preserve the dialogues of the working class and the identities of the black diaspora in Brazil.
Our archives represent artists, activists, workers, and intellectuals who continue to fight against the racial and social barriers of the system, through confrontation and with an intersectional dynamic.
Atlantic Archives strives to give Black communities across the globe a proper introduction to ourselves. And so, a sovereign, ancestral encounter, without stereotypes and advertisements, free from the weight of capitalist anxieties, straight to the heart of the matter: our collective black futures.”

I use these photos and others like it of my grandmother, her mother, and her grandmother who are all dressed in the traditional white clothes of domestic workers and cleaners. They connect our experiences with Afro Brazilians in an important way. 

Domestic work is an enduring vestige from Brazil’s history of slavery. Domestic workers were the last labor groups to receive federally protected labor rights and are currently still fighting for those protections to be enforced. While the official records report 15% of the Brazilian population registered domestic workers, experts believe the number to be much higher. 

Sadly, the conditions haven’t changed much at all. They were sexually abused by slave traffickers and sailors, and after being sold in Brazil, the abuses were continued by merchants and eventually owners. Enslaved mothers were separated from their children to work in the Casa Grande (Big House). This work often included the humiliation of being wet nurses for the children of the owners. Following abolition, these Black women lacked other opportunities and were forced to remain with the wealthy families and continue the domestic work. 

Historian  Larissa Moreira told Time Magazine:

“As a result, we have a different kind of racism than in the U.S., where white supremacy has been more explicit,”. Racial inequality in Brazil is stark: white people make up 44% of the population, but hold 79% of seats in the senate and earn on average 74% more than Black or biracial Brazilians. “But still there’s this idea of closeness, of a [Black] maid being like part of the family. That’s perverse because it legitimizes abuses. In the case of domestic work, that means white bosses asking ‘Oh can you stay two more hours? Can you come on the weekend?’ And that extra work might not be paid, because it’s a family thing. It was common, before the 2013 law, for domestic workers to live six days a week in tiny and often windowless “maid’s rooms,” and be at their employer’s beck and call 24 hours a day.”

Brazil was the second hardest-hit country during the start of the pandemic. The first victims shared one similarity. They were all maids who were infected by their employer.

The first confirmed COVID-19 patient in my state of  Bahia state was a woman who recently returned from Italy. She hid her diagnosis and infected her maid, who then went home to family in the favelas and infected her own 68-year-old mother.

Later in March, an elderly live-in domestic worker died from the virus in Rio. Her employer had also returned from Italy and forced the woman to work, eventually infecting her. Without properly enforced protections, many domestic workers are forced to care for their infected employees, nursing them back to health while risking infection and transmission to their families who await them at home after long weeks of work. 

Another tragedy shook the country and radicalized many who had been silent on the plight of domestic workers. On June 3., 2020 in the city of  Recife, Mirtes Renata Souza, a domestic servant, arrived for work to clean and care for the family of the local mayor who lived in a luxurious high-rise apartment. Since public schools were closed due to covid protocols, she had no choice but to bring her five-year-old son, Miguel to work with her. 

That morning her employer, Sari Gasper Corte Real (the wife of the Mayor),  ordered Souza to take the family dog out for a walk leaving her son behind in the apartment with the wife. Miguel, missing his mother, asked Sari to go with her. Instead of taking him, Sari who was awaiting an in-home manicure, impatiently put five-year-old Miguel on the elevator by himself. 

All caught on a security camera, the footage shows  Miguel leaving the elevator on the ninth floor, where he climbed on the balcony railing and fell to his death. 

Sari pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges and was released on $4000 bail. Since then she and her husband have used their wealth to slander Miguel and his mother in the media during various high-profile interviews and casting Souza as a bad mother to an ill-behaved son.  

Miguel’s mother told Brazilian news outlets, “My employer often entrusted her children to me. Unfortunately, at the moment when I entrusted her with my son, she didn’t have the patience to look after him and get him out of the elevator.”

Two years later, there is no justice for Miguel.

Brazilian entertainers like Samantha Schmütz have created art in support of the #justiçapormiguel campaign. 

As important as this story is to translate and contextualize to Black American communities, I have only now had the strength to address it publicly.  It is still too heartbreaking enraging.  My fondest memories from childhood were following behind my grandmother as she did her many domestic duties, caring for the family of local wealthy whites in our beach traffic town in Marlboro County, South Carolina. She always worked with dignity and strength. I remember that she would call the white wife of the house, “My White Lady”. She would say this to me as if she was in control. She never said, “my boss” and she never put them on the same level. This was my first lesson in dignity. 

These mirrored histories of Black women in the United States and Brazil are one of the central themes of the Atlantic Archives. The images of working women speak loudly about our shared identities in ways that language fails. 

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