The “Tragic Mulata”: Rethinking The Mulata Category in Brazil
Note from BBT: Ponder this question for a moment and then just think about. When you hear the term mulatto or or mulata, what type of image comes to mind? Depending on where you live, your mind may conjure up a completely different image than someone else in another country, but then, maybe not. Being from the United States and having extensive experience with Brazilian culture, I have to say that the term takes on a slightly different meaning from the American context in comparison to Brazil. Also, let me point out that, in this case, I’m specifically speaking of the female mulatto, which would be the mulata in Brazilian terminology.
Now let me lay out the differences between the two from the American and Brazilian context. First of all, in the American imagination, the term “mulatto” will probably automatically conjure up images of the so-called “tragic mulatto”, the very fair-skinned almost white looking woman of African ancestry. The character is thought to be caught on the racial fence because she is very light-skinned, often with very European features, as such, she is not trusted or fully accepted in the black community. (The “Tragic Mulata”: Rethinking The Mulata Category in Brazil)
On the other hand, as light as she is, she can still never be truly accepted in the white community because, even though in many respects, she looks like them, she is still considered “tainted” for having black blood, even though it’s barely recognizable for anyone who doesn’t think too deeply about the topic or doesn’t scrutinize a person’s physical appearance like one of those suspense film investigators. For many people, someone who looks like singer Mariah Carey is the type of woman that comes to mind when thinking of the “tragic mulatto” figure. The “tragic mulatto” also had a reputation for attempting to “pass” for white and blend into the white community by distancing herself from her clearly black relatives.
On the Brazilian side, this physical description of the mulata is not exactly the same. In fact, I’d argue that the Brazilian equivalent is a woman who has a more obvious black appearance. The Brazilian mulata is often associated with the half, well, 85% naked woman of African descent who is seen leading Carnaval samba school parades, always dancing a samba or featured in a Globo TV vignette signaling to viewers that Carnaval time is near. Although she must have a natural rhythm, her image is always very sexualized. We get this from the old Brazilian saying, “white woman for marriage, mulata woman for sex and black woman for work.” You can’t get much clearer for what position each woman holds in the Brazilian imagination.
Even the racist Brazilian, the one who denies being racist, would LOVE to get his hands on a mulata. He may not even like black people, but as a famous Carnaval song told us, since the mulata’s skin color doesn’t rub off and stick on her suitor’s own skin, he wants her love. Again, when compared to the American “mulatto” who can damn near pass for white, the Brazilian “mulata”, based on the same song, has the type of hair that won’t let her deny her African ancestry.
It has even been argued that the term ‘mulata’ in the Brazilian context doesn’t just refer to her ancestry but can be seen as a position, a title, a label. If a woman is leading a Carnaval samba school, she can be labeled a ‘mulata’ simply for playing the role that is generally reserved for the pretty black woman with a physical appearance that men would describe as sexually attractive. In fact, sexual availability and performance has much to do with the label. Proof of this is that if you were to search online using the term ‘mulata’ for any amount type, eventually you will come across a stream of popular porn sites.
A woman that Americans would label as simply black, if she is attractive, has a certain type of hair texture, in Brazil, this woman could be labeled mulata. What I notice about women who are stamped with the mulata label is that she is usually clearly black, but she won’t have extremely black skin. The mulata skin color can range from the light caramel to very brown. She can be clearly black but the mulata will always have some degree of racial admixture be it more recent or more distant in her family tree.
Remember the old Jet magazine “Beauty of Week” photos? In Brazilian context, most of those women would considered ‘mulatas’. Get what I’m saying? Yes, all of the women were black, but they were a certain type of black woman. If you think about, you rarely saw jet black women featured as the “Beauty of the Week”, they all wore bikinis, struck a sort of “available” pose and many had at least shoulder length hair. Many of these type of black women end up as the weather girls on local news channels or some ridiculous reality show. I think you probably understand they “type” I’m speaking of.
In my view, the “tragic mulatto”, fair skin, almost white type presented in American novels would probably be defined as the Brazilian “morena”. Excluding the brunette white woman that is also a “morena”, the non-white morena, at elast in my view, is that woman’s whose skin is slightly tanned, not quite, but for some people she would be considered white enough. She’s a bit too, forgive the expression, “exotic” looking to be considered white but Brazilians wouldn’t label her as mulata because she’s not black enough. Perhaps in the American past, this woman would have been labeled a “quadroon”.
In a United States in which the “one drop” of black blood rule separated black from white, the quadroon may have been white enough to “pass”, but the discovery of her African ancestry, regardless of how remote, made this woman ineligible for marriage to white men. Brazil never legally implemented any such rule, but interestingly, we find the character known as Isaura the slave, Escrava Isaura, which was a famous novel and was turned into a popular novela (soap opera).
In the novel and novela, Isaura has white skin because she is the daughter of a white man and a mulata and, as such, suffers the ills that a lack of freedom comes with. Isaura escaped to another city where she believed she could start a new life, which could have happened until someone exposed her status as a slave. Interestingly, in two of the book covers for novel, both images show women who could be seen as mixed race. For the 2004 version of the Rede Record novela (soap opera), the woman chosen to play the role of Isaura was a white actress, Bianca Rinaldi.
Intriguing to find such a story in Brazil where, if one looks white, they are generally treated as white. It’s odd that in a country such as Brazil where the “one drop rule” has long been criticized (as it should be), in both versions of the novela, 1976 and 2004, white women were cast to portray a so-called quadroon. The 1976 version of the novela starred actress Lucélia Santos in the title role. (The “Tragic Mulata”: Rethinking The Mulata Category in Brazil)
In some ways, the plight of Isaura, who is admired by various white men, is reminescent of the real life drama of American President Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, a quadroon with whom the American President fathered six children but never actually freed. In the 2000 American television mini-series, we see British actress Carmen Ejogo cast as Sally Hemings. Ejogo is a fair-skinned woman, but having a Nigerian father, her African ancestry is quite obvious.
The comparison here brings a bit of a contradiction. How is it that Brazil can ridicule the US for the absurdity of the “one drop rule” but then produce two novelas in which the actresses portraying a woman of mixed are both white? A person in Brazil faces discrimination due to having an appearance that denotes African ancestry not because even looking white they have African ancestry. It is the famous “prejudice of mark” vs. “prejudice of origin” discussion. In this case, it seems Brazil is imitating the American model. If racism in Brazil is based on appearance, it would make much more sense to cast an actress who displays African ancestry in her appearance. Whatever…
However one sees the issue, what is clear is that, with such examples, classifications such as mulata, mulatto, quadroon and morena carry connotations that go beyond just someone’s physical appearance, but could have profound influences on one’s place in society.
The “tragic mulata”: rethinking the mulata category in Brazil
By Angélica Ferrarez de Almeida
The 21st century has been the century of images. Narrative disputes have taken place in the context of social networks, in which images go viral in a short time, feeding the social imagination and defining the place of people in the world. In this context, the American sociologist Patrícia Hill Collins, in Black Feminist Thought, presents us with images that are internalized as “control images”. Contrary to stereotypes – which start from the creation of negative images – control images can produce places of power and privilege for certain groups, as well as naturalize places of subjection, hypersexualization and violence for others.
The place of our body in the world, its social inscription, undergoes an awareness that, as Frantz Fanon points out, in the classic work Pele negra, máscaras brancas (Black skin, white masks), is often developed by an external stimulus, a look from the other, which fixes and builds representations. Fanon narrates that he became aware of his place in the world through the perception of a white child who pointed and said to his mother: “Look, a negro!”. To which, in the end, he amended: “Mommy, look at the negro, I’m afraid!”.
In another passage, he tells the story of the meeting of a black mother and her black daughter with a white mother and her white daughter, where the white child points to the black woman and says: “Look mommy, a child nanny”. At that time, the black child may have created for him a supposed place for his body from a stimulus that was external to him, which started from the totalizing representations that white people have of black people.
So, this place is built from the perspective of the other, which fixes us not only with its violence, hostility, fear, aggression and subjection, but with the ambivalence of the desire to possess. Here lies the body of the “tragic mulata” of which bell hooks speak to us about Olhares Negros (Black Looks). Exchanging experiences between pain, violence and wild sexual agency, the author describes her using a genre of theater: tragedy. Unlike the drama category, which stages social conflicts, tragedy brings with it the dimension of disgrace and death. The outcome in this genre is always death, and the “tragic mulata” covers the disgrace of invisibility and the death of the black woman herself.
In Brazil, the mulata woman as a mythical figure that populates the social imagination is born by the regime of racism and is wrapped in the myth of racial democracy. Designed by Di Cavalcanti (painter Emiliano Augusto Cavalcanti de Albuquerque Melo, 1897-1976), eternalized in the Carnival marchinhas, “animalized”, “exoticized”, “fetishized”, she fulfilled the fantasies of white subjects.
Thinking about the naturalization of the mulata category in Brazil, Lélia Gonzalez tells us, in Racismo e sexismo na cultura brasileira (Racism and sexism in Brazilian culture), how carnival commentators narrated a parade: “All under the command of the rhythm of the baterias and the shaking hips of the mulatas that, some say, are out of this world”. “Look at that float group over there. Such thighs, dude”. “Look at that passista (Carnaval dancer) who is coming; what an ass, my God!”(The “Tragic Mulata”: Rethinking The Mulata Category in Brazil)
Eternalized in the Carnaval marchinhas, the mulata is the “flavor of Brazil”. From Sargentelli to João Roberto Kelly, she is the “Mulata Bossa Nova”, and in Lamartine Babo, she is the object of desire, but not of loving affiliation: “But as color does not stick, mulata, mulata, I want your love”.
It is important to think about how the Carnival images, as in the examples above, and also the literary discourses contributed to the construction of the social place of the black woman as a mulata. Such images end up objectifying their bodies, fetishizing their presence, impressing savagery, hypersexualizing the craft of the passista and projecting the image of Brazil as the hot country of the tropics. This, in turn, serves to consolidate the images of the country of carnival, futebol, joy, the mulata, hospitable and servile people.
Literature and teledramaturgy, as historical sources, are full of such characters. Who doesn’t remember the famous scene of actress Sônia Braga in the soap opera Gabriela, of the Rede Globo television network, adapted from the novel by Jorge Amado? In Jorge Amado, she is flavor, she is “clove and cinnamon”, awakening the subjects’ sexual fantasies by taste. In O Cortiço, by Aluísio Azevedo, she smells like basil that calls for other sensory experiences.
Interesting that, if we think about the construction of the category of the mulatto man, the reality is quite different. The mulatto was constructed from the desire of social ascension through whitening. In this sense, he is the man who had the least amount of social mobility. Gilberto Freyre, in Sobrados e Mucambos, describes bachelors, the first blacks to attend the university, as mulattos. Aluísio Azevedo in O Mulato, describes the social agents who carry the weight of social ascension as mulattos. (The “Tragic Mulata”: Rethinking The Mulata Category in Brazil)
Meanwhile, mulata women have their bodies invaded, and from these, moreover, the images of the body-object, the body-desire and the body-danger are perceived. There is a “specific sexual economy” that falls on this body-desire and that touches on amorality, the speeches of possession, of hate and violence. In such a way, there is a very fine line between the fantasies of the body-desire and the body-danger projected onto the black bodies, a death drive between the desire to possess and the danger of the “other”.
On a growing scale scaled by psychoanalysis, the intellectual Grada Kilomba, referring to the immigrant, tells us that the foreigner is considered illegal. Therefore, he/she is the outlaw, who may or may not be criminal, but always offers danger, where there is danger, there is fear and, therefore, the pulse of violence, the desire to kill. The principle of amorality weighs on the mulata. She is what is outside of the moral. What is outside of morality is dangerous. The danger generates fear, and the fear of that and those that you consider inferior, lesser, generates the will to kill. Here lies the ambivalence between sexual desire and the desire for violence that affects the bodies of black women.
It’s necessary to question the naturalizations arising from the myth of racial democracy to re-elaborate the speeches and propose displacements. Kilomba also warns us when she says she sees images that don’t represent her as a black woman, that represent the white imagery of what it is to be black, but they are not images of who we are.
Thus, a great fight through the production of images must take place in the arena of the disarticulation of racism. It’s necessary to displace the worn images in which black women were enclosed and to produce images and representations that affront and displace the “hegemonic self”. Rethinking the mulata category is an important step towards restoring citizenship, the right to the production of subjectivity and humanization of black women. We need to continue on this path with the certainty that we have a long way to go.