Sheryland Neal wanted to be a Deusa do Ébano—an “Ebony Goddess,” in Portuguese.
That’s why Neal, an African American from Atlanta, became the first foreigner to ever compete in the A Noite da Beleza Negra (the Night of Black Beauty) beauty pageant on Saturday, Jan. 20—the premier beauty pageant for Afro-Brazilian women in Brazil—for the title of “Deusa do Ébano: Rainha (Queen) do Ile de Aiyê.”
The first time I saw the Beleza Negra queen, I cried. She was strong, tall, elegant, gracious, and I saw myself in her. I cried because her beauty was the same type of beauty that I have. It was a relief to see her being celebrated. For many decades in the United States, I was not considered pretty. I was strange. They thought my skin was too dark. My arms and legs were very large.
Every year, 16 Afro-Brazilian women compete to become the Queen of Ilê Aiyê, an Afro-Bloco carnival group in Salvador, Brazil, that promotes black pride and Afro-Brazilian culture in Brazil. Afro-Brazilians in the neighborhood of Liberdade started Ilê Aiyê in 1975 in resistance to Salvador’s carnival, which at the time excluded blacks. The group derives its heritage from Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion traditionally led by women. Ilê Aiyê has traditionally been a carnival group for dark-skinned black people in Salvador, and the contestants of the Beleza Negra pageant represent this aesthetic.
The goal of the Beleza Negra is to represent black women in a way that Brazilian and international media fail to—as strong, spirit-filled and divine. Ilê Aiyê’s theme this year was “100 Years of Madiba: Nelson Mandela”; contestants represented this in their dresses. The winner of the pageant will now reign as the Queen of Ilê Aiyê’s carnival, and her responsibilities include representing the Afro-Bloco in and outside Brazil, as well as dancing in carnival during the group’s parade.
“The Goddess of Ebony contest is a validation of representation,” Neal, 35, told a Brazilian newspaper. “It is very much needed here, [and] all over the world. To me, it says, ‘I am here, I am valid, I exist, I have a proud history, I have beautiful cultural narratives and I am not alone.”