Originally published by the Literary Hub:
On March 14th and 15th, Princeton University’s Brazil LAB opened its doors to academics and activists from Brazil and the United States for the symposium “Black Feminisms Across the Americas: A Tribute to Political Activist Marielle Franco.” Over 300 people attended the event, which featured Mônica Benício, Tianna Paschel, Giovana Xavier, Imani Perry, Carolyn Rouse, Aisha Beliso-De Jesús, Fernanda Chaves, Mário Medeiros, Marília Librandi, and Jamille Pinheiro Dias, as well as Angela Davis, who gave the keynote lecture. The symposium took place on the anniversary of Marielle Franco’s assassination, in sync with other homages and similar events held around the world.
The text that follows was published in Portuguese in Época Magazine (March 25th, 2019) and has been translated by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux:
I remember the night of March 14th, 2018, when I received a message from a friend: “a city councilwoman was just killed in Rio.”
Over the past week, during the symposium we put together at Princeton in honor of Marielle Franco, on the one-year anniversary of her death, I thought many times of the movement that takes a body and transforms it into a symbol. The city councilwoman would be anonymous for only a moment: like a spark dancing down a fuse, she would take on a name, a body, a story, and then burst forth as the emblem of an age.
The international symposium, hosted at Princeton’s Brazil LAB, brought together academics and activists to discuss black feminisms and the threats to democracy in Brazil and the world. But of all that was said and done, what my memory will carry on is the meeting between Angela Davis and Mônica Benício.
The philosopher, icon of the international Black movement, possessed of the serenity of one who has resolutely faced down defeat and danger all her life. And the architect and activist whose love story was brutally broken off by her partner’s death just one year go.
In the auditorium where the symposium was held, pain was at the center of everything, silent and omnipresent. Mônica finished her sentences with difficulty; tears clung to and choked off each word, creating a thick silence. But none of that made her message any less clear. As she would joke the next day: if a message got through, then it’s a sentence!
Mônica Benício’s endeavor to move from grief to action – turning the noun for mourning, luto, into the first-person conjugation of the verb lutar, to struggle – reveals a profound transformation, one both political and personal. Listening to her, one has the impression of two simultaneous battles: the private, inner battle to placate the demon of death and the specter of loss, and the public fight to escape the role of “Marielle’s widow” while still wielding the contagious energy of Marielle as symbol.
Marielle presente– Marielle, present – is a battle cry for those of us who admire her struggle. But it is something else entirely for those who can no longer expect to see her at the end of the day. The symbol returns constantly. But the body, with its warmth, its touch, its smell, its smile, is left behind.
Angela Davis’ embrace of Mônica Benício was an important moment in the history of international feminism, but it was more than that. It was also the recognition of the pain that is left by the wayside, begging to be remembered, to be included in the collective memory and its endless web of Marielles, Dandaras, and Marias – to recall the samba presented by Mangueira for this year’s Carnival, which was also sung at Princeton, with Angela Davis discreetly swaying at the back of a colleague’s living room.
Symbols hovered over our symposium. Marília Librandi, in her opening remarks, recalled that Carolina Maria de Jesus was also born on a March 14th, over a century ago. In her talk, Angela Davis spoke about Carolina and looked back on her own encounter with Lélia Gonzalez in the 1980s; she spoke of Black Latin American women intellectuals, suggesting that the meaning of the collective is not an abstraction when the web of memory is kept from breaking, when each symbolic link in the long struggle is allowed to shine through in the words and actions of those who have passed on, those who are here now, and those who have yet to come. Marielle is not alone, in the long reckoning of collective memory.
The slogans eu sou porque nós somos(“I am because we are”) and nos encontramos na luta(which can mean both “we come together in action” and “we find ourselves in the struggle”) were examined throughout the symposium. The intersectionality implied by both is a sign that collective political practice may transcend identities in light of the common ground provided by the struggle, which may belong to all and to any one. When Black women move, the entire world moves with them – these, Angela Davis’s words, were echoed at the opening.
Another common thread in our conversations at Princeton was listening and politics. We heard from Fernanda Chaves, Marielle’s friend and aide, who was in the car with her and Anderson Gomes at the moment of the attack. For Chaves, Marielle’s politics were fundamentally welcoming, rooted in the act of listening. When the topic of Marielle’s work with the families of Rio police officers killed in the line of duty came up, Mônica Benício emphasized that “there is no such thing as a hierarchy of pain.”
Beyond hierarchies, beyond classification, pain returns and demands to be dealt with. Mônica’s grief takes on many forms, and it is particularly moving how she deals with the materiality of her loss. Wherever she travels, she takes a doll, a little cloth Marielle. Mônica told us that, just before Marielle was killed, the two of them were planning to travel abroad. At Princeton, little Marielle posed next to a photo of Michelle Obama, an alumna (picture by João Biehl).
Symbols are mute, but they may not be entirely dead. At a certain point during the symposium, the photographer Daiane Tamanaha noticed that Mônica Benício was looking down at her own forearm, where she’d tattooed a portrait of Marielle’s face. In the photo, Angela Davis is taking notes, listening attentively to the panel on Black feminisms in the United States. Mônica, by her side, just looks down, sunk in silence, her eyes locked on the luminous image of Marielle Franco.