Outside of history: study show that black women have no place in contemporary Brazilian literature

The novels "O Cortiço" and "Gabriela, Cravo e Canela". * - See description at bottom
The novels “O Cortiço” and “Gabriela, Cravo e Canela”. * – See description at bottom

Of 1,245 characters cataloged, only 34 are black women. 70% of the time they are portrayed as maids and prostitutes

Research conducted by the Grupo de Estudos em Literatura Brasileira Contemporânea (Study Group on Contemporary Brazilian Literature), coordinated by Professor Regina Dalcastagnè of the Department of Literature and Literary Theory, revealed a dark chapter of contemporary Brazilian literature produced between 1990 and 2004: the almost complete absence of the representation of black women in novels published by the three major publishing houses, Companhia das Letras, Rocco and Record. Of a total of 1,245 characters cataloged in 258 works, only 2.7% are black women.

The few times they appeared in the pages of novels, in approximately 70% of cases, black women occupied positions such as maids (1) and sex workers (2). Other recurring roles are that of the slave, housewife and thief.

“Unfortunately, these data are not surprising. We live in a country with a strong tradition of slavery, in which the image of black women is still marginalized,” says the professor of the Department of Sociology at UnB (Universidade de Brasília or University of Brasília) and Secretary of Planning of the Special Secretariat of Policies for Women, Lourdes Bandeira.

SILENCE – “They’re not only represented in subordinate roles, as they occupy subordinate positions in the plot,” says Regina. The survey found that a black woman was the protagonist of the story only three times and was the narrator only once.

For Marina Farias Rebelo, graduate student of the Grupo de Estudos em Literatura Brasileira Contemporânea (Study Group on Contemporary Brazilian Literature), the presence of only one black woman as narrator translates great significance. “A black woman does not speak, she is spoken,” she says. In her study, she compares the literature with rap as an expression for this group. “In rap, the black woman claims the voice for herself, they sing their message, which does not happen in the literature,” she explains.

Lourdes Bandeira believes that the fact that there is only one black female narrator in almost 15 years of publications shows that this figure is silenced. “Brazilian writers are taking from them the right of the use of the word. With that, the woman is kept anonymous,” she emphasizes.

Professor Regina reinforces the importance of being the owner of one’s own speech. “When some character speaks, he/she acquires power, makes the reader take the perspective of black women,” she says.

CULTURAL ELITE – The study produced in UnB also revealed that over 70% of authors cataloged were heterosexual, middle class white males, with upper levels of education (with 93.9% being white overall). “It is an illusion that literature is a very critical artistic object. It’s produced by a white elite, which reflects their representations, such as well as cinema and the theater,” says Regina.

“It’s a male-dominated social segment that is not attentive to social changes and still maintains values ​​of a certain disdain for black woman”, asserts the sub-secretary of planning of the Special Secretariat of Policies for Women.

Graduate student Marina Farias warns that the intention of the research is not censoring writers, but to making them think about different social perspectives. “We do not want to police anyone. We defend the right of everyone to write what they want, but we hope that this is done in a responsible manner.”

According to Professor Dione Moura, of the Department of Communication, there is an emerging production that brings a desire to change this reality. Give voice to this, she says, help to change the numbers presented by the study. “We need to strengthen the alternative productions that have a voice of equality. Edicts and government programs would be a good way to do it,” she says.

The absence of black women in literature is not just a feature of the literature of the period analyzed, as was shown in the study, but a small panorama of racist government and commercial literature dominated by bourgeois ideology perpetuated since the days of slavery.


Older women are also underrepresented in the pages of contemporary Brazilian literature. According to the research group of Professor Regina Dalcastagnè, from the universe of 1,245 characters cataloged, only 40 were of older women. The data has drawn attention of the researcher Susana Moreira de Lima, also a member of the study group, who wrote her doctoral thesis, O outono da vida: trajetórias do envelhecimento feminino em narrativas brasileiras contemporâneas (The autumn of life: trajectories of aging females in contemporary Brazilian narratives).

In her study, Susan took a sample composed of 12 short stories, a novela and two novels, written between 1960 and 2003, in which older women were the protagonists. “The elderly have no voice in our literature. In three of the texts they were narrators, but only one was a strong narrator,” says the researcher. All works in this situation were written by women.

The stereotypes of old age, such as physical weakness and deteriorated body were explored. But in the texts of writers, it was better problematized through criticism that subverted this inquisitive eye of society to the women with advanced age. Another topic that was associated with advanced age at all times was loneliness.

* – Photo: O Cortiço (titled The Slum in English) is an influential Brazilian novel written in 1890 by Aluísio Azevedo. The novel depicts a part of Brazil’s culture in the late Nineteenth century, represented by a variety of colorful characters living in a single Rio de Janeiro slum. Gabriela, Cravo e Canela (Clove and Cinnamon) is a Brazilian Modernist novel. It is a romantic tale set in the small town of Ilhéus in the northeastern state of Bahia set in the 1920s and written by legendary novelist Jorge Amado in 1958 and published in English in 1962. It is widely considered one of his finest works.  In Azevedo’s O Cortiço, the character Rita Baiana was thought to bring “sensual pleasure” while Amado’s Gabriela character was described as an “irresistible woman” that drove men crazy. Over the years, many academic studies have pointed to the Rita Baiana and Gabriela characters in these classic novels for the popularity of the sexualized image of black women in the public’s imagination.

1. For an analysis of the connection between domestic work, slavery and racism, see here and here.

2. Many studies have made reference to the sexualized manner in which black Brazilian women are portrayed in the media and literature. Antropologist Laura Moutinho writes that since the days of Nina Rodrigues, a late 19th century doctor, the image of the “mulata” has been marked by eroticism. In the work of many of Brazil’s most important authors of the late 19th century and early 20th century (including Rodrigues, Paulo Prado, Gilberto Freyre and Sérgio Buarque de Holanda), the “mulata” is defined by sex, sensuality and unbridled desire. Source: Moutinho, Laura. Razão, cor e desejo: uma análise comparativa dos relacionamentos afetivo-sexuais inter-raciais no Brasil e na África do Sul. São Paulo, Editora da Unesp, 2004

For more on this image of the mulata, see here and here.

Article updated on November 29, 2013

Source: Palmares, UnB – Universidade de Brasília, PCO – Partido da Causa Operária

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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