Whitewashing history?: Activists protest choice of ‘white’ actress to portray 17th century enslaved woman considered country’s first black lawyer

Note from BBT: Why is that this story seems so familiar? An accusation that an historically black figure has been whitewashed, thought to be white or presented as white. It’s familiar because this process of whitening black people has been a common practice in Brazil’s history, which is one of the main reasons that identity politics have been a major way in which Afro-Brazilians are reclaiming their history, influence and significance.

For decades, important figures such as writer Machado De Assis and the first black president Nilo Peçanha, have been whitened in portraits and images portraying their likeness. In other cases, persons of African descent have been remembered as white or were even portrayed by white people in plays or novelas as was the case with writer Carolina De Jesus or musician Chiquita Gonzaga. This practice has been so common in Brazil that black activists have had to create special campaigns in order emphasize the African ancestry of many of these personalities (see here and here).

This process of whitening continues when we see a number of streets and avenues throughout the country that carry the names of famous Brazilians in history who people know as simply names and either don’t know who these people were or just assumed that these people were white.

Esperança Garcia was a black woman enslaved in the 18th century in Oeiras, a municipality 300 km from Teresina, the capital city of the state of Piauí. Esperança’s name recently came back into the spotlight after criticism from a movement activists against former participant of the reality show Big Brother Brasil, Gyselle Soares, who agreed to play the slave in a theater play.

Question: Is Soares white, not black enough?

In my analysis of this case, I must again wonder if the proper protest would be that the actress hired for the part is actually white or that she isn’t black enough. After viewing a number of photos of the actress at the center of the controversy, Gyselle Soares, I perceived that the woman isn’t actually white. I mean, again, what can be considered white in Brazil versus in the United States aren’t always the same thing.

…or not white at all?

Seeing one of the first photos of the Soares in the role I saw another example of a Brazilian mestiça, meaning a person of mixed race, who people are defining as white. Then, after seeing a photo of the actress at age 15, it became apparent to me that she is yet another Brazilian who can be seen in different ways by different people. Soares brings the question at the center of affirmative action accusations of racial fraud to the fore once again.

The point that I am making again is that, Brazil’s black movement must decide if all pardos, meaning brown or people of mixed race, are in fact black or that they are not. What I have pointed out in several numerous past articles also applies in this case. You cannot claim that all pardos are negros when it is time to claim Brazil has the largest black population outside of Brazil, but then label then as white or not ‘black enough’ in other instances.

Read on and see how you see this case.

Gyselle Soares, right, portrays historically black figure in a play

“I consider myself of all colors,” says actress targeted in protests for playing black lawyer Esperança Garcia

Courtesy of Mídia Preta and Portal Riachaonet

Members of the Black Movement of Piauí held a protest on Tuesday night (12), in front of the Theatro 4 de Setembro, in downtown Teresina, against the performance of a former participant of the reality show Big Brother Brasil (BBB), Gyselle Soares, in the role of Esperança Garcia, the first black lawyer in the country, in the play Uma escrava chamada Esperança, meaning ‘A slave called Esperança’.

For Sônia Terra, the activist of the Piauí Black Women’s Network, the choice of Gyselle to play Esperança represents a whitening of the historical character. “The children who will watch the show will get in their heads that Esperança Garcia is a white person,” stated the activist.

Activists:‘Our Esperança isn’t white – theater piece tries to whiten the story of Esperança Garcia in Teresina

In interviews concerning the dispute, the former BBB participant has stated that she considers herself to be “of all colors”, and black and that, as an actress, she can play any role. Gyselle also stresses that she wasn’t shaken or sad about the manifestations. For the actress, the criticism is a learning opportunity.

“I see this criticism in a very positive way, because we have to respect everybody’s opinion. Criticism is important for us to learn and grow. I consider myself black, my family has a very strong miscegenation,’’ she said.

The actress continued defending herself in the role.

”My role as an actress is to be able to be any kind of instrument on stage, I can be an animal, I can be a tree, and I can be Esperança Garcia, who was a great warrior. I don’t feel sad, on the contrary, this is an important and very valid discussion. I am very happy, because I am making a childhood dream come true, which is to be able to act in the theater. In the play, we are talking about the strength and empowerment of women,” she declared.

Gyselle Soares at age 15

“People have to comment what they think, we have to respect their right to reply, and it is important for me as an actress to be able to be anything, I can play whotever I want, if I want to be a lioness, I will be a lioness, if I want to be a slave, I will be a slave and play it in a beautiful way,” she said.

“I consider myself all colors, no color, a human being with a heart that can feel everything, from everybody. We are in the world, we are all equal, our skin has no color, our heart has no color, we can’t define ourselves that way,” she added.

Scenes from the play

Conlcuding her thoughts on the controversy, Gyselle also says that during her whole life she wanted to be an actress and her mother always did everything in her power to support her in her career. “I suffered a lot of adult prejudice for being a Northeasterner, for having a strong accent, and I overcame all of this prejudice every day and even today I fight with hope and love to make my story happen and bring art with beauty and positivity that everything in this life is possible,” she said.

In an interview to TV Clube, the director of the play, Valdson Braga, said that the actress can not be discriminated against because of her role. Valdson said that he had contacted the black movements before the choice of the actress who would play Esperança, but he didn’t get any response. The protesters informed that the black movement was not contacted.

Light-Skinned, Not White

Another activist of the black movement saw the nuances of Soares’ skin color while also pointing the importance of the figure being remembered as black.

“We have few references of struggle for the black issue in Piauí. It is too great to have Esperança Garcia, an enslaved woman who became a lawyer because of the courage she had to complain about all the mistreatment, being interpreted by a light-skinned actress, not to say a white one”, Halda Regina, president of Ayabás Institute, emphasized.

Halda Regina

Halda Regina stressed to our report that the movements are not questioning the play itself or trying to censor art or culture in the theater. The president of Ayabás Institute understands that theater has a pedagogical and educational role and that the protest is not against this.

“Our protest contests that it makes no sense, in a pedagogical and political way, for a woman with light skin to pass on our history. A woman who suffers less violation than a black woman’s political body. There are several black actresses in our state who are very good actresses and who experience our history, the structural racism”, said Halda Regina.

For the president of Ayabás Institute, the ex-BBB Gyselle Soares, playing Esperança Garcia is a retrocession to what happened in the 30’s, when the Black Experimental Theater appeared. This is because at that time black characters were played by whites who painted their faces. And the idea of TEN arose, idealized by Abdias Nascimento (1914-2011), with the proposal of social valorization of the black people and Afro-Brazilian culture.

Movements and some entities will be in front of the 4 de Setembro Theater during the premiere of the play to protest and raise awareness to those who will watch the show about the issue of respecting the history of black women, according to Halda to our report.

“We are not going to say that we are going to bar the play. We want to call [the spectators] attention so that they watch the play with a critical slant. Esperança Garcia represents black women!”, added Regina.

Esperança Garcia

Esperança Garcia, an enslaved black woman, was born on the Algodões plantation, a property that belonged to Brazilian Jesuit priests. There, she learned to read and write. When she turned 16, Garcia married and had her first child.

However, the catechists were expelled by the Portuguese diplomat Marquis of Pombal and the plantation was transferred to other slave owners. Soon after, at age 19, Garcia was separated from her children and husband, and sent to other lands.

After being separated from her children and husband, and aiming to be rescued and find them again, she denounced the situations of violence she suffered to the Government of Piauí.

Garcia wrote a letter addressed to the governor of the captaincy of Piauí on September 6, 1770. In an act of insurgence against the structures that dehumanized her, she denounced the situations of violence that she, other black men and women, and their children suffered at the Algodões plantation, a region near Oeiras, 300 kilometers from the future capital city of, Teresina.

The letter was found in 1979 in the public archive of Piauí, by researcher and historian Luiz Mott. According to Brazilian jurists and historians, the document can be considered a petition, the first document of its kind in Brazil, because it presents important legal elements, such as address, identification, narrative of the facts, basis in law, and a request. It is not known, however, if Esperança’s request was ever fulfilled and if she was ever reunited with her family.

In recognition of the historical importance of the document written by Esperança, meeting the demands of the black movement in Piauí, the date of September 6 was made official as the State Day of Black Consciousness in 1999. In September 2017, two hundred and forty-seven years after the writing of the letter, through a request from the Truth Commission on Black Slavery in Piauí, Esperança Garcia was recognized by the OAB/PI as the first Piauí female lawyer.

In a handwritten letter, Garcia denounced mistreatment. The letter reads as follows.

“I am a slave of the administration of Captain Antonio Vieira de Couto. He took me away from Fazenda dos Algodões, where I lived with my husband, to work as a maid. Here I’m not doing well. The first of the great sufferings is that my son suffered many blows and he is just a child. They even drew blood from his mouth. As for me, I can’t even explain it, but to them I look like a punching bag, so much so that I once fell off the roof of the house. I only escaped by the mercy of God. The second is that I have had my sins to confess for three years and three more children to baptize. I ask for the love of God that you look after me and ask the prosecutor to send me back to the house where I was taken from, together with my husband and my daughter.”

Source: Mídia PretaMeio Norte, Cidade Verde and Portal Riachaonet

About Marques Travae 3721 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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