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


Note from BW of BrazilWell, one can always count on Brazil to provide some sort of controversy when the issue is race, and today’s controversy provides yet another log to throw into the fire. When I first got into learning about black Brazil, one of the first authors I learned about was the great Carolina de Jesus. Here was a poor, dark-skinned black woman, who collected scraps and used these scraps of paper and notebooks to start documenting her struggle to survive in a São Paulo favela. Needless to say, hers was not a face that Brazil wanted to show to outside world. The disappearance of all elements of the black race had been something Brazilian leaders had dreamed of since at least the latter part of the 19th century.

De Jesus’s rise to fame was quick as was her eventual return to poverty. But her mark as a published black female author who had her work translated into various languages has been re-visited in recent years by mostly Afro-Brazilian women writers of the current generation who have had the opportunity to earn college degrees. De Jesus’s work has been cited, studied, debated, been the subject of numerous seminars and she is one of the names that will always be cited during November celebrations of Black Consciousness as well as being an inspiration for many Afro-Brazilian writers.  

Numerous articles on this have made reference to Carolina, but the reason for referencing her today is for perhaps the strangest, most controversial reason. And unfortunately, not for a reason that we haven’t seen before. Just a few days ago, I posted an article that asked why black images are always whitened in movies, soap operas, advertisements and history. We’ve seen historical, as well as fictional characters who are described as black or brown-skinned being portrayed by white actors/actresses in commercials, film, theater and television. We’ve also seen where paintings whiten and/or Europeanize the features of historical figures who are known to have been of visible African ancestry. Today’s story is along the same lines but with a different sort of twist to it. First, let’s get to the story.

Andréia Ribeiro portrays writer Carolina de Jesus in a theater production

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

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

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.

Carolina Maria de Jesus 2
Writer Carolina de Jesus

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.”

Diário de Bitita
Andréia Ribeiro as Carolina de Jesus

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.

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.

dalton-valério-Andréia Ribeiro
Ribeiro in a play about Carolina de Jesus

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.

Note from BW of Brazil: And now, just be absolutely fair in the manner that this story is presented, next I present a brief post that the actress herself published to address this whole controversy. Here is the actress Andréia Ribeiro, in her own words. 


“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.

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, what do you think about this story? Do you believe that the skin tone of the actress doesn’t matter because passing on the story of an important Afro-Brazilian historical figure weighs more than the actress looking nothing like her? Or do you think something’s just not right with this? What? Where do I stand on this? Glad you asked…Of course I have thoughts on this, so let me break it down a bit. 

Motta 2003 'Carolina'
Actress Zezé Motta in the 2003 film ‘Carolina’

One, I absolutely believe that the story of Carolina de Jesus must live on. This woman’s story should be told again and again; in fact, her story should be turned into a feature-length film. The fact is, Ribeiro is not the first to present Carolina’s story on stage as there have been numerous plays about her in recent years. Director Jeferson De (2003) even directed a short film about de Jesus starring long-time actress Zezé Motta, a woman who doesn’t look exactly like Carolina, but as a dark-skinned black woman, she is a much more believable representation of her phenotype. 

My second point would be the fact that Brazil dislikes black people in general as a whole, but it is particularly cruel to black people whose phenotype is the closest to the African continent. As such, Carolina, with her very dark skin, West African features and very coarse, wooly hair, suffered greatly living in a country as anti-black as Brazil. Her physical appearance played a huge influence on the value, or lack thereof, that people attributed to her. In 2017, dark skin and wooly hair are still features that most Brazilians, subconsciously or consciously, want to avoid/escape. And those who have such characteristics are made to remember how despised these traits are in the form of humiliating jokes, comments and gestures on a daily basis. Today, I came across yet another story of this sort of abuse that black children are subjected every day. As such, skin color and proximity to African-ness is something that cannot simply be forgotten or disregarded in the history of someone like Carolina. Society, still today, would NEVER let her forget her color; why must we be made to forget it in a play about her?

Third is my wondering how black people themselves will allow our stories to be told, erasing such important elements and thus co-sign when a society consistently seeks to whiten our history. Simply put, if I were Carolina’s family, I would have been humbled to know that yet another inspired actor would want to play my famous relative, but I would have kindly rejected such an idea. Carolina’s story is a part of BLACK History and allowing her image to be presented in such a way is one step closer to completely whitewashing her. 

Fourth, do we really need to be reminded of how often the whitening of personalities of African descent has already happened in Brazil? If we’re not careful, we’ll see Carolina’s image go the route of other Afro-Brazilian historical and even fictional characters. 

Fifth, personalities I present on the blog often show the disagreement that people continue to have as to who exactly is black. Although I am not a believer in the fraudulent “one-drop rule” making one black, I generally accept people as black if I don’t have to look too hard to see visible characteristics that can be considered African. Light skin and looser curls don’t necessarily remove someone from being black for me, but there are those who believe black people can only be of the darker-skinned, kinkier hair variety. The thing is, I can see both arguments and Andréia Ribeiro is a good reason for why including persons who look like her into the black category can undermine blackness. Ribeiro must also know that her “blackness” would be a hard sell, as she felt the need to post a photo of her parents, including her black father, to deflect criticism and ‘blacken’ herself.   

Over the years, I’ve seen countless Brazilians who are or who classify themselves as “pardos”, or “morenos”, both meaning brown or mixed race, and historically, the Movimento Negro (black rights movement) has always insisted that the combination of persons classified as pretos (blacks) and pardos represented Brazil’s black community. But within that pardo category, there are in fact millions of Brazilian men and women who look something like Ribeiro, and as such, being pardos, they too would be considered as black. There’s a problem here. Do you know why? Well, in a very simple example, Afro-Brazilians have long complained about the lack of black representation in beauty contests. Consider this…

Pardos make up about 84% of Brazil’s black population. Let’s imagine that there were black beauty contests in all of Brazil’s 26 states and women who look somewhat like Ribeiro took up 84% of the slots, would it still be honest to call the contest a BLACK beauty contest? If a woman looking like Ribeiro won a black beauty contest, wouldn’t this be a manner of accepting the European standard of beauty that a black beauty contest is supposedly challenging? The very fact that black activists are livid that this “white” woman is playing the role of such an important black woman in Brazil’s history shows that, even black Brazilians who seek to help lighter-skinned black people accept a black identity have limits and they too see the contradictions in considering ALL pardos as black. Andréia Ribeiro is not quite a white woman, but she is clearly too white to play a role in which skin color was such a prominent factor in a subject’s life (and death, as it turns out). 

I make all of these points/questions to say that, Ribeiro’s case IS different from others as she was not cast by big budget white directors to play the role of a black woman and purposely erase this history. It is her play and she has the right to what she pleases in her production. But if she knows the struggle of blackness and the global mechanisms at play to erase the history of a people, she should do the right thing and allow Carolina’s image be remembered for what it was. 

SourceEl País Brasil

About Marques Travae 2895 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.


  1. Why do we have so much trouble in accepting the truth of skin color. My Black remains intelligent, creative, inventive and very, very beautiful.

  2. The pathetic, racist, evil, and ugly people of white skin who are only and can only feel superior to people of dark skin because their numbers out rank those of dark skinned people and think that they are some how better in demeaning, cruelty, limiting acces to the same opportunities and brutality as the white American.

  3. You, the actress/actor are a STORY TELLER. This is a story. Tell it. The accident of birth that made you physically different from the subject of your story shouldn’t stop you from telling the story. Your choice to tell the story does not stop anyone else from telling that same story. TELL THE STORY. If you feel guilty add a prologue that addresses the fact that you are physically different from the real person, but don’t not tell the story. TELL THIS PERSONS STORY WITH LOVE AND THEY WILL BE WELL HONORED. Take it a step further and at your show, offer books about and by your subject. That will be an act of kindness, because you will be spreading the talent of this person to others … many of whom might otherwise never have been touched by the person you honor.

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