Famed writer Carolina de Jesus was a dark-skinned black woman with wooly hair; should a fair-skinned woman with straight hair portray her in a play?

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Note from BW of Brazil: When I first became aware of this story I must say I was kinda like, “Here we go again!” A white girl appropriating the legacy of a dark-skinned woman whose skin color obviously played a role in how she treated in a country like Brazil where skin color plays such a huge role in one’s opportunities in life. 

Writer Carolina de Jesus grew up and lived in poverty for most of her life. Born in 1914, in the city of Sacramento, located in the state of Minas Gerais, Carolina descended from slaves and sharecroppers. With only two years of formal schooling, she managed to teach herself how read and write. With the death of her mother when she was only 23, Carolina decided to move to city of São Paulo where she eeked out a living as a maid and a cook.

As was and still is common among the poorest Brazilian favelados, Carolina pieced together scrap materials to construct a shack to live in with her daughter. Carolina began writing her experiences in the day to day of living in a favela. Regularly the target of insults from neighbors, Carolina was proud of her blackness at a time when it wasn’t common for black Brazilians to adapt such a stance.

Carolina’s writings were some of the first books I read about life in Brazil, and considering the rarity of black Brazilian authors still today, imagine how rare it was back in the 1960s! Besides her dark skin, Carolina also had very kinky hair, a trait of African ancestry that Brazilian society frowns upon perhaps even more so than dark skin. But Carolina liked her hair even against the standards of beauty in which walking around with nappy hair was considerable unacceptable. In one of my favorite quotes from Carolina, she explained exactly how she felt on the topic:

“I wrote plays and presented them to the circus directors. ‘It’s a shame you’re black,’ they’d say. They don’t know that I love my black skin and coarse hair. I even think black people’s hair is more well-mannered than white people’s hair because black people’s hair stays where it’s put. It’s obedient. With white people’s hair, just a movement of the head and it falls out of place. It’s undisciplined. If reincarnation exists, I always want to come back black.”

That quote is perhaps the best way to lead into today’s piece. In line with its aspirations of a white Brazil, the country has a history with trying to whiten black figures who became prominent in their particular fields. So with this latest controversy, considering the above quote, I wonder what Carolina herself would think about seeing such a fair-skinned actress portraying her in a theater piece. Let’s get to the story. 

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Andréia Ribeiro, left, in a play about writer Carolina de Jesus

The controversy of the actress who plays Carolina Maria de Jesus is not so simple

Many people have criticized the skin tone of the actress who plays a key figure in black history

By Beatriz Sanz

A light-skinned actress is currently playing, in a theater in Rio de Janeiro, one of the great figures of black Brazilian history. The character is Carolina Maria de Jesus, who during the fifties wrote what it was like to live in a favela in diaries published throughout the decades: it was the first document that showed in the first person the unpleasant reality of being a woman, black and poor in this country, and, at the same time, with how much dignity was possible to endure so much discrimination. The actress who plays her in 2017 is named Andréia Ribeiro and, as you can see in the photos that became viral this week, she has a face much less dark than the personality that she represents.

The more these photos were shared, the more the alarms went off. Of the many tweets on the subject, one was shared more than 6,500 times. A Facebook post, 2,500. Stephanie Ribeiro, a black architect who complained in the networks about the work, laments that the norm in Brazil is that black actors play criminals or evildoers. When the character is a brilliant black, they are interpreted by a white. “You cannot associate genius with our race,” she laments to EL PAÍS. “People talk as if the artist is something universal, but this universal artist is never a black person.”

Brazil has for centuries been mixing hundreds of cultures unevenly and seeing someone take public advantage of the struggle of a less privileged person is a known problem. When a white actor plays a black character it is preventing the black people to tell their own story and is telling the whites that all the stories are theirs. It seemed the archetypal problem of cultural appropriation.

Carolina controvery

Only this is not one of these cases anymore. Andréia Ribeiro is not an actress hired to play the role: she is the person who wrote the script; it was she who refused to do the work in a more commercial way and ended up covering part of the costs of the piece that has been playing since 2015. She is the woman who contacted and got the approval of the family of Carolina Maria de Jesus. And she is not a white woman.

In EL PAÍS, Carolina’s daughter, Vera Eunice, defends the playwright, who is the daughter of a black man: “She was able to show the importance of reading Carolina,” she says. She, who owns the rights of her mother, adds that she is experiencing a rediscovery of the works of Carolina and that pieces like that of Andréia Ribeiro are golden opportunities to connect the author’s legacy with the next generation.

The playwright explains that it is not a job at all. “It’s the project of my life,” she says, while stating that if she took the role, it was only because she did not have the money to hire an actress. She first debuted her play more than two years ago in Uberlândia, in the state of Minas Gerais, a little more than a hundred kilometers from where Carolina Maria de Jesus lived for a time, and does not remember having raised, until then, any problem. She insists that if someone is not satisfied with her version of Carolina’s life, they can write their own. “It deserves all the montages, readings and possible re-readings,” she adds.

This does not satisfy many critics. Some, like Stephanie, insist that, for practical purposes, Carolina’s color is still being hidden. But admit that it is not as serious as it seemed at first. At least remember that in a society more attentive, social justice is rare, but simple conflicts are even more.

tweets 2

Translation of above tweets

  1. “The ‘white’ actress who is a light-skinned black woman who is playing Maria Carolina de Jesus,did you skip studying Colorism? the mistake is, in the erasure of a dark-skinned black actress, to play the role in this way would be much more adequate.”
  2. “Do you believe that a white actress has climbed up to play Carolina de Jesus in the theater?”

tweets 3

Translation of tweets above:

  1. “incredulous to read in a Facebook post that the writer NEGRA Maria Carolina de Jesus will be interpreted by a WHITE actress in the theater. Embranquecimento (whitening) has no respect and limits! Sad!”
  2. “a white woman is playing Carolina de Jesus in a play I’M PRETTY PISSED WITH THIS SHIT.”
  3. “News for you 😍😍. Jesus’ Carolina T-shirts in the colors White, Yellow and Grey!!!! Don’t miss ’em!”

tweets

Translation of tweets above:

  1. “my heroes are Zumbi, Mandela, Carolina de Jesus not this white woman who just signed up for a role aiming at more profit $$$$ this is what mattered to her and not the rights of blacks, a slave does not buy anything, but almost an enslaved worker has to buy to live”
  2. “THE WHITES ARE PUSHING BEYOND THE FUCKING LIMITS, THEY’RE GONNA PLACE A WHITE WOMAN TO PLAY MARIA CAROLINA DE JESUS IN THE THEATER, PUTA QUE PARIU CARALHO (AIN’T DAT A BITCH!)
  3.  A white actress playing Carolina de Jesus. Nothing new under the sun.
  4. I read that Maria Carolina de Jesus? a literature icon, black woman, intelligent example and inspiration for many women being black or not, of enormous importance within the black movement, will be represented in a play by a WHITE woman. ™ #NovembroNegro‏ @empoweredblack

Note from BW of  Brazil: To be fair on this issue, as her critics have clearly spoken, I also want to share Andréia Ribeiro’s side of the issue. Below is a text she shared on Facebook as a response to the heavy criticism she has been receiving. 

response

“Some people are questioning my right to play Carolina in the theater on the grounds that I’m not black enough for the role. So follow my response:

I’m Andréia Ribeiro, I’m an actress and I’m playing Carolina Maria de Jesus in the Theater. Here’s a beautiful picture of my parents. Playing Carolina is an old dream of mine and I fought for it a lot. I was not hired by a large company. I wanted to pay homage to Carolina, also my story: my black father Miltaer Soares, deceased, and my grandparents, my ancestry. My life has always been a lot of struggle. My grandmother cut cane and my mother, Marisete Ribeiro Soares, who died, sold sweets at the sign near Mangueira, where we lived, to support me. We perform this piece without sponsorship. We only managed to debut in 2015 because the Uberlândia Department of Culture and Mulheres de Ébano (women of ebony) NGO supported us. The daughter of Carolina, Vera Eunice authorized our assembly, supports us and came to the premiere here in Rio, along with Carolina’s granddaughter and great-grandchildren. Vera was very moved and wrote: “The actress incorporated Carolina and when she turned, I did not see the actress anymore, but my mother CAROLINA MARIA DE JESUS.

Many thanks to everyone who worked on the play and gave the audience an excellent show that brings something very important about the life of the writer. What an honor!” Dona Ruth de Souza, who played Carolina Maria de Jesus in the theater in 1961, supported us from the beginning. She helped me compose the character and taught me how to tie the scarf on my head, as did Carolina herself at the time. Ruth went to see our play and she loved it. Many important groups have helped us in our trajectory , such as Ernesto Xavier’s Senti na Pele page, the grandson of the actors Chica Xavier and Clementino Kelé, who always divulges and raffles tickets for our show.

Andréia-Ribeiro-e-Ruth-de-Souza
Ribeiro with legendary actress Ruth de Souza

The theater is playful. In it, a young actor can interpret an old man, a man can play a child, a woman can embody a man, a tree … Did you know that there is an actor, a man, who has played Carolina for 15 years? Ultimately, this marvelous libertarian convention is what differentiates theater from other vehicles and allows us, for example, to present Romeo and Juliet of Sheakespeare in London and Milton Gonçalves to play the father of the Jew, Anne Frank. Unlike cinema and television, they have a naturalistic appeal and are markets with high investments and public concessions.

The black movement is the most important movement of the 20th and 21st centuries. The issues raised by the movement are legitimate and important for the whole society. Those are my questions too. I chose to mount Carolina because she brings these issues and her work should be publicized and debated by all of us.

I think the debate in this episode is important. It would have been beautiful if it had come from Carolina’s work. The diversity of thoughts and the difference of opinion is healthy. The problem is the way this debate takes place on the internet, without tolerance and extremely aggressive, destructive. Sou uma atriz negra, não sou retinta como Carolina, mas sou negra  (I’m a black actress, I’m not dark like Carolina, but I’m black). I am doing a job that required a lot of dedication and research. It’s been 10 years since the first reading so far.

I don’t deserve to be called trash, racist and criminal in my web pages by people who don’t know my trajectory, didn’t see the piece and, most likely, did not read Carolina’s work. We are honoring Carolina Maria de Jesus and we hope that everyone will read her work, divulge and debate. It deserves all the possible readings. Her voice needs to be heard because it brings issues pertaining to the whole society. In any case, it is good to know other opinions, legitimate and important, as is my dream.” – Andréia Ribeiro

Note from BW of Brazil: So after going through and understanding a very delicate issue, I have to say that this is a tough one and I understand both sides. On the one hand, I very much agree that Carolina’s work and life should be known by a wide audience, particularly other black people of the African Diaspora. To rise from abject poverty, and overcome the prejudice of a society that wants your phenotype to disappear and then have your personal experiences become a best-seller and translated into several languages is an incredible accomplishment. As various previous articles have shown, even in the second decade of the 21 century, it is still difficult to find literary works by Afro-Brazilian writers in the country’s top book stores. Carolina was not supposed to become a success. But she did just that and the fact that her story still inspires nearly six decades after the publishing of her first book Quarto de Despejo (1960) (translated as Child of the Dark) is a testament to the power of her work. 

book

But on the other hand, I DO wonder what Andréia Ribeiro would say if someone informed her of the many examples of the whitening of black characters and historical figures. Although I don’t automatically accept all light-skinned persons as black, people who skin is not so dark and hair not so kinky have been a part of our families and communities far longer than the appearance of Ribeiro’s piece. But given the way the mainstream will periodically attempt to whiten the images of dark-skinned people, thus changing the way these people are represented in the imagery of the public is a very dangerous practice. If we aren’t careful, figures such as Carolina can suddenly be “dark-skinned whites” in the same manner as the  ongoing debate about the appearance of the Ancient Egyptians.  

Zezé - Jeferson - Carolina
Director Jeferson De with actress Zezé Motta in 2003 film about Carolina de Jesus

Ribeiro’s interpretation of de Jesus is not the first attempt at bringing her life through dramatic performance. In 2003, talented filmmaker Jeferson De directed legendary actress Zezé Motta in a short film that featured various passages from her book Quarto de Despejo. The short presents the reality of the misery, desperation and racism that Carolina lived daily, and how she used writing as a mechanism to cope. And needless to say, Motta is physically much more believable as Carolina.  

I would say to Ribeiro that it is noteworthy was she’s doing but she should also recognize the advantages she has in life due to her light skin, even acknowledging her blackness. Even with her good intentions, if her play is a big success, she could inadvertedly white-out one of Brazil’s most important, DARK-SKINNED black woman, and present her to a new generation of people who may not even know who she is according to a racist, European standard that would have probably promoted her story as an inspirational biography of one overcoming…if she weren’t not only black, but dark-skinned. With all of the research that Ribeiro put into developing the piece, I think her work deserves to seen. I just think that, before deciding to do the piece herself, she should acknowledge 1) that skin color was probably the main root of the prejudice Carolina faced, 2) that it is something that she, as a light-skinned person, could never really know and 3) the historical deleting of black history. As such, even with a small budget, it would have been better to hire someone who looked more like Carolina. I think Carolina would have agreed. 

What do you think?

Post updated on April 4, 2019

Source: El País,

About Marques Travae 3170 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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