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The Story of Salvador’s Banda Didá

Photo by Tari Ngangura

Tari Ngangura | Gusher | April 2019 | 23 minutes (4,474 words)

 

 

Early on monday morning/police arrest my brother/for working for the black community/monday afternoon/went to see my brother/police man treated me like a donkey/I say to police man you’ve got a bad attitude/oh no/I am no criminal/ I am a good black woman.

                                                            —Brenda Fassie – Good Black Women

 

Brazil is a country layered and complicated by realities, set up like a Matryoshka Doll. The moment you think you have unravelled and understood one particular kind of politicized social structure, another one is always deeply embedded under it. It’s a country built off government instituted eradication of blackness — not unlike Fidel Castro’s attempt in post-revolutionary Cuba, when he set about banning Afro-Cuban religions, Afro-Cuban social clubs, and blues music. Castro believed that such things were divisive, and stated that the only colour which mattered was the “Cuban Colour.” In Brazil, it was miscegenation that was always seen as the best possible way to deal with the “black problem,” and efforts to whiten the country over the decades have been widespread, intentional and historically violent. Recently, in the lead up to the most divisive election in recent memory, Hamilton Mourao, a candidate for Vice President, attributed the beauty of his grandson to branqueamento de raca — whitening of the race.

There is a widely circulated trope in the liberal West, which is that the mixing of races will undoubtedly lead to the end of structural anti-blackness and systemic racism. The hope is that when no one is darker than a brown paper bag, anti-blackness will effectively be rendered obsolete. Brazil is the living embodiment of that fallacy. An estimated 5 million Africans were brought to Brazil during the Transatlantic slave trade, accounting for 40% of the Africans who were shipped to the Americas. Dismally little is known about the experiences of Afro-Brazilians whose lives are daily overshadowed by the historical legacy of slavery and racism. This void is exacerbated by a vehement government refusal to acknowledge Brazil’s slave history and the generational ramifications it has had for its black citizens. It is against this background, that black womanhood has had to fight, survive, and thrive.

In a country where officially 56% of the population is recognized as Black/Brown, in the state of Bahia, and specifically, its capital city of Salvador, black and brown people make up over 90% of the population. One of the most pulsing points in Salvador is the historical city of Pelourinho, made up of cobblestones, Portuguese colonial architecture and stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean. Built by enslaved Africans over the dead bodies of their kin — many of whom were buried where they fell — the name Pelourinho means whipping post; a telling but obscured reminder of the city’s dark history. It’s a city of angels and demons with every corner marked by a church. Down the cobblestoned hills, and tucked away in a three-storey house, lodged between the House of Cinema and a clothing store, is the home base of the first black female percussion group in Brazil. Known as Banda DiDa (DiDa Band), for twenty-five years this band has been teaching young black women how to drum. In the process, Banda DiDa has slowly set about challenging the constricting gender and racial norms that exist in Brazil’s deeply Evangelical and machista culture.

I was first introduced to DiDa in November of 2017, during Salvador’s annual Marcha do Empoderamento Crespo (March for the Empowerment of Kinky Hair), where they sang songs by popular Afro-Brazilian female artists along with their own compositions, and dazzled the crowds with their playfully bright outfits, engaging smiles and undeniably badass drumming skills. At different times throughout their routine, one or two of the girls would raise the drum (surdo) above their heads and while its elevated, continue dancing and at times spin in circles. Swaying side to side, they thrilled spectators with not only their drumming skills, but the tricks they did with their drum batons, all while in motion. It was electrifying. Here were young black women making music on the very instruments their ancestors had used to spread messages, announce the birth of a child, the death of an elder, the encroachment of an enemy, imploring for rain or celebrating a wedding. As a musical instrument, the drum calls for a total and complete abandonment of the body, integrating into the beats, and realizing that one does not perform on this instrument, but collaborates with it; carving gestures and telling stories which are intimately close to the subject.

Banda DiDa was founded in 1993 by Neguinho de Samba — who is largely regarded as the Father of Samba-Reggae — along side Viviam Caroline de Jesus Queiros, Adriana Pereira Portela and Neguinho’s daughter Deborah de Souza. He is also the founder of Olodum, which you might know as the drumming group in Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Really Care About Us music video. DiDa was a response to the glaring exclusion of black women within the percussion community. Neguinho de Samba realized that as much as young black men needed a space to participate in the cultural traditions which are theirs by birth, black women too deserved to have their own stage. Neguinho passed away almost a decade ago, leaving Queiros, Portela and Souza with the mission of teaching percussion to young black women and children. Queiros and Portela are now instructors at DiDa, and Souza runs the administrative side of the organization.  In the twenty-five years since its creation, over 2000 young women have passed through DiDa, forging not only life-long friendships, but an inextricable link with their African heritage.

Laila Castro’s afro frames her face like a halo dipped in cotton candy. She dyed it pink after seeing a picture of another black girl on Tumblr rocking the same style decked with flower crowns at the alternative music festival, Afropunk Johannesburg. “E legal ne?” “Yeah it’s really cool,” I responded to her rhetorical question, as she fluffed her hair, making sure it has maximum volume. The day we met, she had travelled from her home in the neighbourhood of Cabula, which has a population of about 24,000 people. Located an hour away from Pelourinho, her commute can easily turn into two hours when the buses are running behind schedule. “The buses here have no schedule,” she says. “They come when they come and when they don’t, they don’t.”  It’s a long journey, and one she takes twice a week to make it to the band’s practices. We were sitting by the Pelourinho square, overlooking Igreja dos Rosario dos Pretos (Church Of The Rosary Of The Blacks); one of the oldest churches in the city built for African slaves by African slaves.

Castro has been a part of the group for over four years, starting when she was eighteen after seeing a video of DiDa performing online. She’s now twenty-two. “It sounds unbelievable, but I had never heard about DiDa, even though I live in the same city they are in. I knew about Olodum, but I didn’t know there was also one for women, so when I saw them I was so surprised and very, very excited.” When Castro first came to DiDa, she didn’t think she would be allowed to stay because she did not have any prior training in percussion. “I thought they would tell me to come back when I knew a bit more or tell me to take classes, which I could not afford, ” she says, wringing her hands together as if reliving the fear of possibly being denied admission into something she passionately wanted to be a part of. “But my first day, they gave me a drum and told me to sit in a class with about five other girls, and that is how I learned. They made it so easy for me. For all of us.”

Queiros, the longest serving band member of DiDa, who also happens to lead the band’s culture classes, was sixteen when she started with the group at the very beginning of its formation. Eighteen years later, she remains fiercely dedicated to making sure that all the girls who want to learn percussion have the opportunity to do so. “All of our classes at DiDa are free. A few years ago, when we were more financially stable, we had classes every day,” she said. “We would also offer the girls transportation back to their homes. But now we can’t do that and we only have classes Tuesdays and Thursdays.” Along with being a member and Professor at DiDa, Queiros is also working on her PhD in Samba-Reggae ethnomusicology.

Most of the young women in DiDa come from similar backgrounds as Castro, with accessibility always hindered by their proximity to poverty, their gender and their race. “In Brazil, a lot of people do not expect black girls to be anything. They want us to disappear, which is why you don’t see us anywhere,” Castro told me, with frustration in her voice. “When you grow up seeing this empty space, you start to believe it’s because we do not deserve anything good. That this is our fault. But being in DiDa showed me that I could do great things and be a part of something that was important and beautiful.” When Castro plays, she becomes someone else, by her own admission and that of the people who have had the opportunity to watch her. “It’s like she becomes one with her drum,” says Queiros. “She becomes this person who is experiencing almost like a trance. And it is a powerful thing to see.” In a world where black women’s bodies and voices are censored to the point of gross ridicule, it’s a particular kind of freedom that comes from knowing that in certain spaces, you can move as you please, exist as you please, react as you please, and your black life will still have value.

In Brazil, drums are present in every facet of Afro-Brazilian culture. In the religious ceremonies of Candomblé, they are used during chants and prayers. In Samba-Reggae, they are the fulcrum on which hangs the soul of the rhythm. And during Capoeira matches, the drums signal the changing pace of a game; marking the rapid fire urgency, the slow steady moves, and the swift kicks. Drums are arguably the definitive African instrument as they are visible in nearly every African country, and in countries inhabited by any number of African descendants. As with all things which hold cultural relevance for people of African descent, when seen through a white lens in Western media, the drum has been distorted and manipulated to suit racial clichés. The bastardized sounds of the drum are the background echo you hear in the imperialist, white saviour trope portrayed in Tarzan, or in mind-numbingly racist cartoons like Jungle Jitters. When stripped of their cultural significance and reduced to simply being an exotic addition to a lacklustre production, the drum ceases to be a symbol of resistance. It becomes merely an entertainment object, appropriated by the white masses and force-fed back to its original owners as bland amusement. You will sooner hear Ringo Starr labelled a drum master, than a young black girl from a Brazilian town who travels 120 minutes twice a week to learn something intrinsic to her cultural survival.

A few weeks after my first meeting with Castro, a torrential rain fell hard on the early morning of September 7th. This just happened to be Brazil’s Independence Day. Almost two centuries before, the country had declared itself independent from Portugal, and as the people in Salvador gathered to celebrate, a seemingly ceaseless amount of rain continued to fall. The day before, ultra right-wing Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro had been stabbed in the abdomen during a campaign rally and rushed to the hospital with what had been described as near-fatal injuries. The election was set for October, and Bolsonaro, who has been dubbed ‘The Trump of The Tropics,’ by North American media, was commanding the polls with a political rhetoric that would fit well in the congress that makes up Trump’s governing elite. And yet Bolsonaro represented a particular kind of ultra right-wing sect whose beliefs are deeply rooted in Brazil’s slave legacy, its 1964-85 military dictatorship, and a growing base of radicalized evangelicals. The latter view queerness, reproductive rights and Afro-Brazilian religions as social aberrations. If this former military paratrooper were to emerge victorious in the presidential election, his policies would adversely affect the lives of women like those I met in Banda DiDa.

Three days before the election, I headed over to the DiDa headquarters to sit in on one of their late-night classes. About twenty young women were waiting in the narrow, brightly-lit entryway, painted a palm tree green and whose walls were etched with drawings of the DiDa girls drumming. The hallway turns into a staircase on the left side which leads you to the second floor that acts as a theatre space, drumming space and culture lesson space every Thursday. From 7 until 9:30 pm, classes are run, and it’s mandatory for the girls to attend all of them. Tuesday’s lessons are solely percussion based and take place on the streets of Pelourinho with a live audience. Theatre starts first and as the class progressed, the sounds of elevated voices practicing lines and improvisation could be heard from behind the closed door. And yet it wasn’t until the drum class which followed soon after, that the energy became palpable and active. Professora Portela was leading the class and her head, with her trademark black and red jumbo twists, was moving steadily to the beats of the drums. As the first female leader of a bloco-afro (African block) in the city of Salvador, Portela carries herself with the pride of someone who’s proven so many wrong, and also bears the weighted expectations of not only those who want her to fail, but those who desperately want to emulate her.

For Portela, being a black woman in Brazil has been a lesson in survival that at times feels futile. “It’s not easy, and there are some days — no many times really — where it feels like the work I’ve done and the dreams I have will never amount to anything. Because I’m black in Brazil, that means being at the bottom all the time.” In Brazil, to exist as a black female percussion player is to court derision while claiming the space that is rightfully yours. Twice a week, Professora Portela equips young black girls to maintain the legacy for which she continues to carve out a space — not only for herself, but for those she is bringing along with her. As of right now, there are eighty-five members in DiDa and this includes the young children who make up the junior classes. The children peek into the senior class every few minutes in clear anticipation of the time when they too will be able to join the ranks of the seasoned performers.

After the drum lesson, Queiros comes in to lead the last and final lesson — aula de cultura — ‘culture class’ that looks at the Brazilian landscape, its social structures and how they relate to the women congregated in the room. The feared but much anticipated election is only seventy-two hours away, and so much of the class centers around the moments in history that led Brazil to this particular point of existing on the brink of electing someone so enraged by the idea of fairness, equity and basic respect. “This is a dangerous and very important time in Brazil,” said Queiros as she sat in front of the girls who were staring at her intently while sitting in a semi-circle. She tied her honey-coloured locs behind her head and then adjusted her rings as she continued speaking. “A lot of people in Brazil don’t know the laws and they don’t know the constitution. Black people especially, look at politics and think it is not for people who look like them, and that it’s only for rich, elite white men.” Salvador has elected only one black mayor in its entire history, and the state of Bahia has never had a black governor. Brazil is yet to have a black President and just early this year, Marielle Franco, a black queer woman and city councillor, was murdered in Rio de Janeiro. To be black means being political even when unwilling — and in Brazil, active political participation for Afro-Brazilians is filled with countless landmines; least of these being visibility.

As Queiros talked to the young women around her about what was at stake in the next few days, they asked questions and also offered their own analyses on the state of their country. “Whenever I go online, especially on Twitter, I am amazed at how popular Bolsonaro is. He is always trending; 35000 tweets or 45000 sometimes,” said Castro, looking around the class to share her disbelief. “Gente que loucura. This is crazy.” Queiros nodded her head in agreement, while the girls talked amongst themselves sharing stories about the Presidential candidate and the possibility of his victory.

The country has been down this difficult road before, but all the women in the room, myself included, were not yet born or saw the final years of that rule. The Brazilian military dictatorship lasted from 1964 until 1985 and it was two decades of torture, political instability, corruption and mass fear of the state. Looking at Brazil in 2018, certain parts of the nation will be fearful of what a Brazil led by a former military man will look like. A man who has publicly shared his support for Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, one of the most feared and infamous torturers during Brazil’s military rule who died in 2015.

“For me personally, Bolsonaro is the only one who has actually talked about security. I would feel so much better with a gun as a woman because all the gangs have guns. I want to feel safe,” said Vanesca Louana, a 25-year-old from the Santa Monica bairro. One of Bolsonaro’s most popular platforms is a campaign against those deemed “criminal” or “suspicious,” particularly those who live in lower-income neighborhoods. He has also promised policemen the liberty to use violence as they please, making it seemingly inevitable that civilian involved police shootings will continue to rise. In 2016, police killed an estimated 4224 people in Brazil. A staggering number when you consider that the US, which has a population that is 35% larger than Brazil had an estimated 1134 people killed by police in 2015. The majority of these deaths in Brazil are young black men. And just late last year, Brazil’s congress passed a bill that would make it impossible for members of law enforcement accused of unlawfully killing civilians to face prosecution in civilian courts. Louana’s sentiments are similar to those shared by black people voting for Bolsonaro who have applauded his law and order stand, while discarding his anti-black discourse, whether its explicit or covert. Early this year in reference to the black descendants of warrior African slaves (quilombolas) Bolsonaro said, “They don’t do anything. I don’t think they’re even good for procreation any more.”

A few days after the class, on the seventh of October, Brazilians headed to the polls for the first round of the election. In Brazil, elections happen in two parts unless a candidate is able to receive over 50% of the vote in the first round. The final tally gave Bolsonaro 46.3% of the votes, with the second place progressive candidate Fernando Haddad almost twenty percent behind. Although Bolsonaro lost in Bahia, he took most of the Northern States. It seemed Brazil had made its decision, which would be finalized in the second round set for October 28. There were no classes the Thursday following the election. Friday was a public holiday and so the professoras decided to give everyone an extended weekend. The election result had also taken an emotional toll, so the empty class at DiDa felt less like a long weekend and more like a deep breath before jumping into the eye of the storm.

Professora Adriana Pereira Portela was once a Mulher de Olodum (Woman of Olodum). During Salvador’s carnival, Olodum, a Bloco-Afro (African Block) used to choose one black girl to dance during their performances. In 1992, she was the chosen one. “It was a big honour and it was so much fun. I had the chance to dance for millions of people during carnival. But what I really wanted to do was drum,” she tells me while we sat inside DiDa headquarters a week after the election. “I saw those drums and I fell in love. But the instructors did not want to teach women. I begged and begged and I would ask every single class, until one day Neguinho [de samba] pulled me aside and told me we would start a percussion group for women. I was so happy!” Her joy is evident, and twenty-five years later her eyes still sparkle when she talks about drumming. “Before DiDa, everyone was used to seeing only men drumming, and they would drum with force and power. Neguinho wanted us to do the same thing, but I wanted us to do something different, and so one day he let me lead the class.” Portela then got up and proceeded to show me how exactly she created the rhythmic blueprint DiDa has become renowned for. “I wanted us to dance as women. To show our sensuality and our African expression.”

Rock and roll, like drumming, was granted sensuality when black women chose to reclaim their own sexuality by harnessing the genre as a vehicle to sexual liberation. Thornton, Tina Turner and Janet Jackson are black women who subverted the anti-black notions of over-sexed black female bodies, and instead amplified their autonomy to celebrate not only their inventive musical genius, but their radical body positivity. Portela’s desire to reclaim black sensuality was likely not linked to a desire to imitate these African-American performers, and yet these women shared the same notion of wanting to frame black womanhood not as a cautionary tale, but as a glorious expression of beauty, life and defiance. Most percussion groups in Brazil have separate sections made up of those who drum and those who dance. In DiDa, everything is done at the same time by the same people. “We dance while we drum, and we drum while we dance,” said Portela. When you see DiDa, live or online, you will be drawn to their movements — and the effortlessness of their synchronized choreography is belied by the fact that they spend hours practicing; at home, at school, in the street and at the DiDa headquarters. “This is how we practice our militancy,” says Portela. “By being a part of movements that change the conversation on what it means to be black and what it means to be a woman in Brazil.”

On the 28th of October, exactly three weeks after the first election round, Brazilians headed back to the polls to make the final decision that would determine which candidate would lead the country for the next four years. After Bolsonaro’s first round victory, many had already resigned themselves to his eventual victory, yet there was a clear surge in the days leading up to the election that saw widespread mobilization by mostly women in Salvador, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, with simultaneous waves also happening online through Twitter and Whatsapp. The latter social network had largely been used by Bolsonaro’s campaign to spread “fake news” regarding his opponents. It proved to be an incredibly powerful and effective tool in a country where nearly 67% of the 200 million population uses Whatsapp as their primary source of communication. By 6 pm Sunday night, the election count was done and Jair Bolsonaro had defeated Fernando Haddad. Bolsonaro received 55.1% of the votes and Haddad came in at 44.9%. This was closer than the first round — a testament to the last minute campaign rush — but it was not enough to deter Bolsonaro’s appeal to over half the voting population. The women of DiDa would now be living in a Brazil whose leadership and goals would largely undermine their ways of living. Everything had changed, but one thing still remained constant; drumming was, and is, the avenue they would continue to use to punctuate their deep pride and love in their black existence and affirm their African heritage.

Living in Salvador, I’ve found myself privy to the fact that there is something about this city and the ways blackness has fought and survived here that has led to compelling musical innovations. Globally, for black communities, music has always presented itself as an avenue of limitless expression. From the pan-Africanist radicalism of Nigerian artist Fela Kuti and the South African songstress Brenda Fassie, to the lyricism of Bob Marley and the caustic wit of Mighty Sparrow. The singular ingenuity of Aretha Franklin, the raw appeal of Poly Styrene and the carefree joy of Scary Spice. Music and blackness have lead to stunning collaborations resulting in genres such as jazz, hip hop, rock, samba-reggae and afrobeat. Music, blackness and the specificity of the Afro-Brazilian experience in Salvador has meant that an unprecedented number of Brazil’s greatest musicians have come from the city that is home to DiDa. The likes of Virginia Rodrigues, Margareth Menezes, Tiganá Santana, Gilberto Gil, Luedji Luna, Lazzo Matumbi, and Carlinhos Brown all call Salvador home. Banda DiDa runs along the same musical lineage as these artists, and so it was preordained that their groundbreaking artistry would lean so heavily on their African heritage and outsider experience as people whose skin colour forces them to live on the margins of Brazilian society.

Inside DiDa’s building there hangs a poster of Neguinho de Samba in the hallway, with his trademark sailor cap over his braids. Below is written, “Arma a banda, a batalha ja vai comecar” — “Arm the band, the battle has already begun.” This was something he would say before a show, and it could be read as a more eloquent way of saying “break a leg.” Yet in the context of Salvador and blackness on a global scale, the messaging is clear; for black people, culture is armour, the band is our community, and the fight is one which has been ongoing for centuries.

The women of DiDa are one link in a long chain of cultural resistance, and to see them drum in front of millions of people during carnival is to see resistance in motion. Beautiful, glorious, black motion.

***

Tari Ngangura is a journalist and photographer based in Brazil. She documents black lives around the globe, their histories, legacies, and movements. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, New York Magazine, Hazlitt, VICE, Catapult, The Fader, and Rookie Mag.

This story originally appeared in Issue 3 of Gusher, a print rock music magazine written and created entirely by women and non-binary people, and focused on longform music journalism and criticism. Gusher is based in Sydney, Australia.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath

Looking for Carolina Maria de Jesus

Illustration by Bex Glendining

Tarisai Ngangura | Longreads | August 2019 | 18 minutes (4,506 words)

Here in the favela, almost everyone has a difficult life to live. But I am the only one who writes of what suffering is. I do this for the good of the others.

 Carolina Maria de Jesus, Quarto de Despejo

* * *

In 1960, at the age of 46, Carolina Maria de Jesus published her first book, Quarto de Despejo: Diário de uma Favelada (Child of the Dark in English). It’s comprised of diary entries written on scraps of paper and assembled into a memoir about life in Canindé, a favela community in the Brazilian city of São Paulo. The book sold more than 10,000 copies in less than a week, was eventually translated into 16 languages, and distributed in 46 countries, making Carolina Maria one of Brazil’s most widely read authors. And for a while, the most famous person in the country. 

Starting in the late 1800s, the very first favelas, known as bairros-africanos, were inhabited by formerly enslaved people. Today, the country’s Institute of Geography and Statistics calls them “sub-normal clusters.” Favelas lack basic sanitation, electricity, and health facilities and are located primarily in city centers. After Quarto de Despejo’s instant success, Carolina Maria became a fleeting cause célèbre for the rights of favelados.

Carolina Maria de Jesus was born in the state of Minas Gerais, about 500 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, and came into the world some time between 1914 and 1921. Like many Afro-Brazilians born during this time, she didn’t have a birth certificate. She grew up with her mother, grandfather, younger brother, and later her stepfather in the town of Sacramento, where most homes were small and functional, to guard from rain and sun. Her father was a street performer who abandoned the family soon after Carolina Maria was born. Her mother cleaned houses and washed clothes for white families who lived on farms bordering the city. She died when Carolina Maria was in her early twenties.

After her mother’s death, Carolina Maria moved around trying to find her footing before settling in metropolitan São Paulo. She also made a living cleaning homes for wealthy white Brazilians, but after becoming pregnant, she was barred from the house she worked at and forced to move to a favela. She chose the neighborhood of Canindé for its proximity to a junkyard, where she sold bags of collected paper and scrap iron for pennies. Black people who were lighter skinned were referred to as morenas and morenos and had a greater measure of respect and access to more jobs, better restaurants, libraries, and social mobility. Carolina Maria, a dark-skinned black woman, was an outsider in more ways than one.

After the surprise success of Quarto de Despejo, she traveled across Brazil’s states, signing books and giving public talks on the dire conditions of favelas. The press called her a rags-to-riches heroine: the one who had been born surrounded by garbage and yet became a writer. Carolina Maria became a reluctant (and ultimately unwilling) spokesperson for “bootstrap success” — her image vaunted to encourage others to let nothing keep them from their dreams. Not crippling debt or inaccessible education. Definitely not hunger, and most importantly, not racism. In the years after Carolina Maria’s debut, nine more books followed; six were published after her death in 1977. But the renown that came from her first frank writings on poverty wouldn’t be repeated.  


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In the afterlife of the global slave trade and colonialism, black history is a study of spaces, silences, question marks, and asterisks. Growing up in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s, I learned of colonialism as if it had been a momentary blip in my country’s history, not a profound interrupting occurrence whose effects would forever shape how I moved and saw the world. When I left home for university in Toronto, I learned of Canada’s history as a celebrated haven for runaway slaves, but did not hear of Africville, a historically black community in Nova Scotia destroyed by provincial and federal negligence. I noticed the same kind of erasure when I arrived in Brazil’s city of Salvador, the capital of Bahia state, which I’d chosen to make my home base as I started my career in freelance journalism in 2016.

Of the nearly 5 million Africans brought to the country during the transatlantic slave trade (10 times more than brought to North America), the first landed in Salvador, one of the oldest slave ports in the Americas. It’s where the Malê revolt erupted, which Brazilian historian João José Reis called “the most significant slave revolt in Brazil.” Brazil has more African descendants than any other country in the world except Nigeria — almost 51 percent of the nation’s population is black or mixed race. On a national scale, Salvador is the state capital with the highest number of Afro-Brazilians, with more than 80 percent of its people identifying as black or brown. The cadence and speech of Soteropolitanos (residents of Salvador) is audibly tinged with Bantu vocal patterns, and the moda (fashion) would not be out of place in pattern-rich Senegal. Local food is stamped with unmistakable West African flavors and beloved street snacks include acarajé, a deep-fried black bean bun that is also found in Nigeria and Ghana. Dende oil, an extract from the fruit of oil palms that leaves distinct orange marks on clothing, is an integral part of every meal and was also brought over from Africa’s West. 

Carolina Maria, a dark-skinned black woman, was an outsider in more ways than one.

In the months following my arrival, I searched for writers to guide me through Brazil. Yet the authors I discovered online and on bookshelves did not reflect the faces I saw around me. When I refined my search, specifically noting ‘Afro-Brazilian’ in my digital prompt, I learned about Maria Firmina dos Reis, a prominent abolitionist and teacher; Abdias Do Nascimento, the pan-Africanist, playwright, and founder of Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN); and Alzira Rufino, an activist and the first Afro-Brazilian woman to create a support service for female survivors of domestic violence. These writers exposed truths about their country’s treatment of black people, countering the myth of Brazil’s diverse, racial democracy. I also found Carolina Maria de Jesus, whose story was not only compelling, but was also to some degree a reflection of my own. I saw familiar breaks and patterns in her thoughts, dreams, doubts, and disappointments. 

Haunted by questions centuries older than her years, Carolina Maria constantly found equilibrium to be out of reach, even when it seemed as though she had finally achieved what she longed for. She landed at a crossroads so common to the “successful” black creative: a rapid abundance of opportunities contingent on total acquiescence, or nothing at all. She achieved renown for a season, then fell into obscurity and back, further still, into near poverty.  

It’s been more than 40 years since her death, and I wonder if anything has truly changed for black women anywhere who long for their art to be what takes care of them.

* * *

In 1962, The New York Times Book Review called Quarto de Despejo “a rarely matched essay on the meaning and feeling of hunger, degradation and want.” Carolina Maria’s debut pulled no punches and displayed no illusions about life in the favela. There was no long-suffering acceptance of martyrdom because a better life lay above. She’d hated where she lived, and even more so she hated those who allowed such places to exist. Quarto de Despejo literally translates to “room of garbage.” She wrote about culpability — whose fault was it that some people had to live among the garbage? Sometimes she blamed the people themselves, who, according to her, were lazy, drunk, vulgar, and illiterate. “I know very well there are contemptible people here, persons with perverted souls,” she wrote. This earned her no love from progressives, who found her sentiments self-righteous and demeaning to the poor. When she didn’t find fault with those around her, she chalked it up to sheer bad luck: “Is there no end to this bitterness of life? I think that when I was born I was marked by fate to go hungry.” More often, her mind would circle back to one answer — politicians. “When a politician tells us in his speeches that he is on the side of the people, that he is only in politics in order to improve our living conditions, he is well aware that touching on these grave problems, he will win at the polls,” she wrote. “Afterwards he divorces himself from the people. He looks at them with half-closed eyes, and with a pride that hurts us.” This was an entry she wrote on May 20th, 1955, a day she found herself particularly hungry and contemplating her place in a world where she was an “object banished to the garbage dump.”

 The 1950s were, on the surface, an auspicious time for Brazil. Under the presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira (like Carolina Maria, a mineiro, born in the state of Minas Gerais), the country’s economic and political stability grew. Edson Arantes do Nascimento, soon to be known as Pelé, became an international soccer star. Bossa nova was born and on its way to becoming one of the country’s most distinctive musical innovations, with Johnny Alf’s “Eu e a Brisa” drifting in and out of bars across the country. For Carolina Maria, none of this mattered. The police regularly intimidated, arrested, and detained favela dwellers. Corruption was rampant at social services, and social elevation was only possible if she married a white man and had lighter-skinned children. All this she wrote in her diaries, sharing her confusion, disgust, and anger. In her eyes, to be poor and hungry was an undeserved burden for anyone, and it was a national shame she cast a glaring light on.

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Carolina Maria had three children, and her only daughter, Vera Eunice Lima de Jesus, born in 1953, is the writer’s closest living relative. As the public face of her mother’s literary works, Vera Eunice speaks at roundtable discussions where the work is featured, but she doesn’t own the rights to any of it. 

Vera Eunice also accommodates writers like me, who come to her for answers about her mother’s life of contrasts. It’s been more than half a century since she lived in Canindé, and while some memories elude her, others she recalls as though they happened yesterday. She told me she’d barely turned 7 when fame came knocking at their barraco. Made of pieces of discarded timber and asbestos, it was stuffed with bits of plastic and paper to act as both insulation and ventilation. Carolina Maria had built it herself. During the summer months, it was unbearably hot inside the cramped home, with the asbestos emitting heat all day. São Paulo is also known for its torrential rainfall, so when it poured the roof would leak, drenching their two mattresses. In that small shack Vera Eunice lived a life stifled by scarcity. “We would eat once a day. My oldest brother was a teenager and he was always hungry,” she said. 

These writers exposed truths about their country’s treatment of black people, countering the myth of Brazil’s diverse, racial democracy.

Like her mother’s writing style, Vera Eunice spoke to me in a direct, almost dry way — her voice strong and measured. “One day, my mother and I went out to look for food. We were passing this house and a white woman came running out and said she had a gift for us. My mother was so happy because we had not been able to find anything,” she said. “The gift was wrapped in newspapers so we rushed home and my mother quickly tore it open to see what it was. It was a pile of rats.” Carolina Maria had recounted this particular interaction in her diaries; it was a moment that scarred both mother and daughter. For the writer, particularly, this interaction showed that to outsiders she didn’t simply live amidst garbage, she too was disposable.

Audálio Dantas, a young journalist working for the newspaper Diário da Noite, spent a week in Canindé in 1958. He was researching life in the favela for what he hoped would be a story on the recently built playground donated by a politician soliciting votes from the poor. As the legend goes, he came across Carolina Maria threatening to put some neighbors in her diaries if they didn’t stop mistreating a group of children who were having fun on the swings. Intrigued, Dantas asked to see some of her work. He took a couple of her entries to his editor, and soon after, excerpts were published in the paper to great fanfare. Dantas later became bureau chief of O Cruzeiro, the leading weekly magazine from Rio de Janeiro. Although the newspaper exposure led to a book deal for Carolina Maria, it also attracted a barrage of harassment and a backlash that was unceasing.  

After the book came out, rumors began to circulate of Carolina Maria’s difficult disposition. Her politics during the book’s press tour failed to garner any favor when listeners realized that what she had written about sexism, political corruption, and poverty was not mournful musings, but rather her true convictions. She found it necessary to call out racial prejudice and in a country whose social stability and national identity was built on the idea of colorblindness through race mixing, her words were seen as not only inflammatory, but also blatantly false. When the novelty of a published black favelada wore off, the press coverage grew harsh; critics from well-known papers resorted to tabloid-like spitefulness. A writer from the paper O Globo called her “uncouth.” A literary critic from the largest newspaper in the country, Folha de São Paulo, found her work after Quarto De Despejo to be “pastiche,” and a later article would run in that same paper with the headline, “Carolina: Victim or Crazy?”

In the publishing industry, some writers are allowed to be all the messy parts of themselves, even when their behaviors and beliefs border on violent. The perceived strength of their work assures them a mythical cachet that leaves them faultless. This free pass was not given to Carolina Maria. She was not allowed to be mercurial and received little empathy. Some literary critics and political pundits questioned her competence, and she was forced to prove her legitimacy for the duration of her career. Those who want to protect her legacy face a similar interrogation. “Look, my mother wrote everything herself. We slept in the same bed and every night I would hear her get up to write,” Vera Eunice told me. “If we had no lights she would use candles and continue writing.” In 2012, Audálio Dantas talked about the events leading up to the publication of the first entries, which became the book Quarto de Despejo. “I had not written a single line. The story was in those books,” he said.

When her first press tour came to an end, Carolina Maria wanted to step away from diaries, to write novels, poetry, and to be taken seriously as an author. Her publishers, however, wanted her to keep doing what had amazed before. She refused, and for a while, she stuck to her guns, because for the first time she had the privilege to say no. Money had come in, and four months after Quarto de Despejo debuted, Carolina Maria and her children were able to leave the favela for the middle-class neighborhood of Santana, a 30-minute train ride from Canindé. 

* * *

To support Quarto de Despejo, Carolina Maria traveled so often and so extensively that airport workers would hug her at the arrival terminal. “Every day cards come from international editors who want to translate the book. Even I am astonished at the impact,” she wrote. She was happy, almost forcefully so. The kind of joy that’s laced with fear and doubt but is also desperately hopeful.

After settling down in Santana, Carolina Maria set about creating a haven for herself and her small family. In Canindé they’d lived without electricity, relying on candles when she could afford to buy them. In her new home, she put in 14 light fixtures. She bought shoes for Vera Eunice, who had always hated walking barefoot, and her two boys, João José and José Carlos stopped acting out. “I used to think João was rude. But now that we have food in the house he has transformed,” she wrote in Casa de Alvenaria, her second book, also a diary published just under a year after the release of Quarto de Despejo. “He has left rude João to be nice João. Hunger really makes people neurótico.” Memory of life prior to the book was still very clear and so too was the relief and gratitude for her new beginnings. As in Canindé, she still woke up before the sun, but now there was no hand-wringing as she worried about what she would feed her children. In Santana, when João José, José Carlos, and Vera Eunice woke up, they had breakfast with bread and their tea with milk and sugar. Once the children left for school, she would begin preparations for lunch, then dinner. She didn’t have to beg from people’s homes anymore or dig through the garbage, fearful of eating something dosed with poison by store owners attempting to dissuade favelados from searching for food. Carolina Maria could now go out to the butcher and choose any cut of meat that she wanted. She bought fresh fruit and vegetables from the market. “My life is now velvet. Now I have food. I have a house. I have things to wear,” she wrote. 

When the novelty of a published black favelada wore off, the press coverage grew harsh; critics from well-known papers resorted to tabloid-like spitefulness.

Carolina Maria could have chosen to write only the good things that came her way when she left the favela, but in Casa de Alvenaria, she wrote about her new life as bluntly as she had about her old one. She saw just how inflexible the middle-class reality was to her presence. The white maid she had hired constantly made it known that she believed their roles should be reversed, and Carolina Maria made note of her complaints: “My God in the sky. This is the end of the world. God is punishing me. The world has capsized. I, a white person, have a black boss.” Her new neighbors treated her with contempt and saw her presence as an eyesore. “I am sad and not content because when something happens here, everyone always blames my children,” she wrote. Outside of her problems at home, she also had trouble opening a bank account because she didn’t have the proper ID. She opened a joint account with Dantas, who was now not only her editor but also her agent. She had money, but anti-blackness does not dissolve with improved social status. It stings differently, but is noticeable all the same. 

While many critics saw Casa de Alvenaria as the inconsequential ramblings of someone with no direction, it was here I saw Carolina Maria most clearly. She was painfully aware of what both the press and her peers thought and said about her, so she attempted to tread the tightrope carefully. She knew people were watching and wilfully betting on her failure, so she wanted to write without risking the welfare of her children. “I am not crazy about this idea of writing my diary based off my actual life now. I am writing against the rich. They are powerful and they can destroy me,” she agonized. 

Her first book had kicked up the reactionary dust of white guilt, and she tried to settle what her words had stirred up, while making it known that her success did not end social inequality. Carolina Maria had written her second book while caring for her three children, showing up to book signings, pleasing her agent and publisher, and trying to maintain her own sense of self. She was exhausted. “Due to the success of my book I am now regarded as a bill of exchange. A representation of profit. A gold mine,” she wrote in Casa de Alvenaria. The freedom money should have purchased now felt like a cruel joke, and her feelings of despair culminated in one of the saddest thoughts present in her known works: “Looking at the sky, if I had wings I would lift my children up there, one at a time, and never again return to the earth.” She had few friends and those who came to see her would ask for money, which she usually gave. Carolina Maria had done what we’ve all been told needs to be done to be a good citizen, to be happy and fulfilled, far away from hardship: She had worked hard. And now here she was, uncomfortable in her own brick house. 

* * *

Carolina Maria de Jesus passed away in 1977 in Parelheiros, three hours from Santana and Canindé. She had moved there almost a decade earlier, after she could no longer afford to live in Santana. It was a poor, rural neighborhood on the periphery of São Paulo, known for its heavy pollution. She died from respiratory complications, exacerbated by the industrial waste sites surrounding her home.

When memorializing her life, the writer of her obituary in Jornal do Brasil called her vassoura de papel — a paper scavenger. This was in reference to her work collecting scrap paper and iron, which she’d had to start again after she moved. She’d kept writing and financed the three books published before her death with the royalties from her first book. But she died poor. Not like how she started, but not how she should have been. Carolina Maria had signed a financially crippling contract and she saw very little of the money received from the international licensing of her books. 

‘Looking at the sky, if I had wings I would lift my children up there, one at a time, and never again return to the earth.’

For Tom Farias, author of Carolina: Uma Biografia, a book on the writer released in 2017, Carolina Maria deserves to be highlighted in the same Brazilian canon as Jorge Amado, Clarice Lispector, and Paulo Coelho. “She was more than just her diaries, she wrote plays, songs, and poetry. She was an artist,” he said.

Since her death, she has been often acknowledged during Novembro Negro — Brazil’s Black History Month, when the achievements of living and dead Afro-Brazilian leaders are brought center stage. But on a day-to-day basis, it’s mostly other black women who have kept her memory alive. In Salvador, Denise Ribeiro taught a popular class at Universidade do Estado Da Bahia (UNEB) on the social relevance of Quarto de Despejo in 2008. A health and nutrition professor and former coordinator for the Municipal Health Secretariat of Salvador, she’s spent more than three decades studying health from a myriad of perspectives, with a focus on black feminism, traditional communities, and African spirituality. In her home, the names of well-known Afro-Brazilian women authors lined the spines of her library: Fatima Oliveira, Djamila Ribeiro, and Conceição Evaristo, alongside other voices from the diaspora such as Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Carolina Maria was a fitting addition among the company of black women whose work forced the world to center blackness, even when it seemed inconceivable. “Carolina Maria had such a hard life and so much happened to her in that time,” Ribeiro told me. “Because I teach health, her book was so relevant to the things that affect the way black people live, and the reality is that her life is the life of so many people today. Nothing has changed at all.” 

Not that long ago, in March 2018, Marielle Franco, a queer Afro-Brazilian city councillor from Rio de Janeiro, was assassinated in her car just hours after speaking at an event for black women’s empowerment. Franco was born in Complexo da Maré, a Rio neighborhood made up of 16 favelas. It’s considered one of the largest communities in the city with almost 150,000 residents. In 2017 and 2018, more than 40 young people, the majority of them black and under 24, were killed during police raids in Maré, which happen frequently. In May of this year, eight people were left dead after another police operation in the area, which forced children to search for cover so they wouldn’t be struck by bullets. Access to electricity remains a problem with many using what’s locally known as gato, or cat. This device, made up of manually inserted wires, is attached to city electrical supplies and it diverts energy toward the overlooked favelas. Six years ago, the monetary amount of the diverted electricity came to $500 million in U.S. dollars. Prone to explosions, gatos are dangerous creations, but for many families, it is too expensive to get onto the formal electrical grid. Carolina Maria faced the same dilemma while living in Canindé during the 1950s.

* * *

Stories of black women creators whose work shook the world but who died underappreciated never cease to raise in me a familiar madness and a self-contained rage. It’s a hollow pain and a fear that hovers over my own hopes and dreams. But there is also a separate, wild appreciation for the existence of things deemed impossible. It is utter madness that Carolina Maria was able to write books at all, and it is madness that she made it enough for a girl from Zimbabwe to one day discover her work and see herself. In Carolina Maria’s writings, I saw a life that was lived even when living felt more like fighting.

During my last conversation with Vera Eunice she asked me to help her petition for a Carolina Maria de Jesus archive in the southern city of Curitiba. She also wanted my help collecting original print photographs of her mother because she has none. Most are in the hands of Dantas’s grandchildren. “Dantas took a lot of pictures of my mother,” she said. “Before he died we had been negotiating about his giving them to me, and now it’s even harder.” When I reached out to the Dantas estate to ask about the photographs of Carolina Maria, his executor did not offer a response.

In one of the most recognizable shots I found of Carolina Maria online, she is looking directly at the camera, head slightly tilted to the side. Her black skin, deep and smooth, her hair under a loosely tied headwrap. She spent most of her life unseen, living in shadows, and even when the light came, it didn’t brighten as much it blinded. She was the mirror, and what she reflected about her world was so startling it took time to properly process what she had released. When the noise died down, her unexpected work became an appalling reminder of a reality many would have rather just forgotten. In this picture, it’s as if she knew that she would not have many opportunities to really be seen, so she made it count. She looks determined, a little sad, a little proud. She was still, and for a moment she forced us to be still. Without anyone expecting it, a woman from the favela wrote a book that read an entire nation.

 

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Tarisai Ngangura is a journalist and photographer. She documents black lives around the globe — their histories, legacies and movements. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Jezebel, The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, New York Magazine, Hazlitt, VICE and Catapult.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson

Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross

Fact checker: Samantha Schuyler