The United States isn’t the only country with a bad case of “blackface.”
Brazil has its own version of blackface, and it is most often on display during Carnival, when some revelers sometimes dress up as “Nega Maluca,” translated as “crazy black woman” in Portuguese. During this year’s Carnival in Brazil, blackface made an appearance not only on the streets but also in the parades of three samba schools: Mangueira, Salgueiro and Beija Flor.
Unlike the United States, where black men are the main subjects of blackface, black women are the main targets of blackface in Brazil. Nega Maluca is a white man’s interpretation of a black woman. She’s usually represented as a person painted black with an Afro wig, domestic servant’s outfit, large breasts and exaggerated facial features.
“Nega Maluca stereotypes and ridicule[s] the black woman, sexualizing her and stereotyping her as a sex object. She has big breasts and large lips,” Eliane Pereira, a lawyer in Rio de Janeiro, tells The Glow Up. “This comes from the time period of slavery, when we were colonized and the black woman was always seen as an object. This woman does not represent me.”
The history of the Nega Maluca blackface is closely intertwined with the history of black women in Brazil. The 1950s Carnival song “Nega Maluca” tells the story of a black woman who works as a domestic servant and is impregnated by her white boss—something that was common back then. When she demands that the father claim the baby, she is called a “nega maluca”—a crazy black woman.
In the 75 years after slavery ended in Brazil, the most common form of work for a black woman was working as a domestic servant, often living in her boss’s house. To popularize the song, the composer started to include the image of Nega Maluca, interpreted by a white man.
This history of Nega Maluca is hidden on the internet, because today, Nega Maluca is also the name of a Brazilian chocolate cake.
Lawyer Marina Marçal dreamed of parading with the Mangueira samba school—Rio de Janeiro’s most prestigious and traditional samba school. A samba school is a cultural organization created by blacks in Rio de Janeiro 90 years ago to celebrate samba music during Carnival. Since their founding, the groups have evolved into Brazil’s biggest Carnival attraction. Thousands of costumed people parade each year in the biggest schools.
Marçal joined the Mangueira school as a “community” member—a discounted way to participate in the Carnival parade without having to pay an outrageous fee, and the main way blacks participate in Carnival. One month after she joined the school, she learned that one of the sections would have some people dressed in the Nega Maluca costume.
Marçal says that she tried to reason with Mangueira’s officials. She explained the racist history of the costume and why it should not be in the school’s parade. But she said that school officials disagreed and kept the costume in the parade because they felt it was art and not racism.
“Racism is not an opinion but a crime,” said Marçal, who will soon receive a master’s degree in race relations. “When you are showing a racist persona of a black woman in a section that includes black women who are saying that Nega Maluca is very offensive, those concerns ought to be taken seriously.”
Marçal left the Mangueira samba school, and for the last two months, she has tried to educate as many people as possible about the racist origins of the Nega Maluca costume. Seventeen black women were interviewed for a documentary on its origins titled, Nega Maluca Não. And Rio de Janeiro’s women’s law association hosted a forum on Nega Maluca right before Carnival.
Even a parade that exalted the history and heritage of black women used blackface.
The theme for the Salgueiro samba school was “Senhoras do Ventre do Mundo,” which translates to “Women of the Womb of the World,” meant to celebrate the history of black women.
The school’s dance group was composed of men dressed as women, with their faces painted black. The costumes of the drum section, consisting of black and white people, were inspired by the images of the 25th dynasty of Nubia, and those performers also had their faces painted black. But while the public loved their celebration of black women, the blackface costumes dominated the social media discussion.
A modern form of blackface also reared its head at this year’s street Carnival festivities.
Singer Jojo Todynho’s song “Que Tiro Foi Esse (What Are These Gunshots)” is a hit in Brazil. But before her popular funk song brought her national fame, she was well-known on the internet for proudly displaying her triple-G breasts in skimpy Brazilian bikinis. This Carnival, she became a costume, with white women and men wearing large, fake brown breasts and black wigs and sometimes even painting their skin dark.
But though the tradition continues, there is increasing resistance. In Minas Gerais, the carnival bloco Domesticas de Lixo (Male Domestic Servants of Trash) consists of white men who dress up as black domestic servants as a way to pay homage to the domestic servant. This year, several black YouTube bloggers mounted a campaign against the bloco, which celebrated its 60th anniversary by receiving a key to the city from the mayor. At least a dozen Afro-Brazilians protested the bloco’s parade two weeks ago.
Marçal says that she thinks blackface in Brazil will end only if Brazilians start listening to Afro-Brazilian women.
“Carnival comes from black culture, but they ignore the opinions of black people,” she says.