October 2, 2008

Nêga Maluca

This is Nêga Maluca. Or Crazy Black Lady. Yeah. That’s what she’s really called.

This piece of folk art is standing on the balcony across the street from us. It belongs to a nice, upper middle class family of four with a little white dog. Oh yeah, they’re white too.

These are Bahianas.

Originally they were made to look like a traditionally dressed black woman from Bahia, a washerwoman, a Candomblé priestess, but they are easy to find carved as any thing from Carmen Miranda to the Girl from Ipanema. Always colorful, tropical, something in the hair, behind the ear, overflowing bosom, the daydreaming smile and head resting languidly in one hand. And, like Brazilians, they come in a spectrum of colors from Halley Berry to Hattie McDaniel.

They are meant to be placed in windows.

Where they are easily spotted. I see them all over the place.

I never really gave much thought to these caricatures until I saw my friend Camila one day wearing a Nêga Maluca t-shirt. A very pretty t-shirt with the colorful appliqué of Crazy Black Lady covering the entire front. And I commented to her that if she ever visited the United States she should probably consider leaving the t-shirt in Brazil.

She didn’t get it. “But it’s Nêga Maluca” she said, “you know, she’s just a traditional character. She’s part of Minas folklore.” Right I thought, just like Aunt Jemima. I told her, if I were seen walking down the street in that in New York, I’d probably get jumped. She still didn’t get it. I explained that a white girl wearing the stereotyped face of a black woman would be seen as patronizing and racist. “But my grandma was part black,” she offered. This in fact stunned me. Camila, with her long, silky, sandy blonde hair and light skin and eyes is one of the last people I would have assumed to be of mixed heritage.

I am in no way qualified or have the space to go into the complexities of race here in Brazil. There are books and books on the subject. Race (raça) isn’t even the word that people use to define themselves. More common terminology is usually “type” (tipo) or “color” (cor), the latter of which is what you might encounter filling out an information form at the doctors office for example. (Maybe I’ll have to do another post on what those colors are and the criteria people use in determining it.) But I will say this, Brazil seems to be missing two of the three hallmark features in that trifecta of modern bourgeois malaise – political correctness and irony (cynicism however is abundant).

In the United States we are so overly sensitive and cautious about issues like race and religion that we go tripping all over ourselves to remain politically correct and not say the wrong thing. But that doesn’t mean that we have resolved any of our problems, especially with race – which, as much as everyone is tiptoeing around the subject, is obviously going to play a big part in whether or not Obama can get elected. It seems like we are so afraid not to offend anyone that we don’t have any ground on which to being a conversation about it. The starting point just becomes so thin and so watered down. The really touchy issues get swept carefully under the rug because when pundits and politicians and especially educated liberal democrats are confronted with something like the issue of racism being a deciding factor in the election, they just stand up a little straighter and do their best to say something that sounds neutral and dignified and then quickly move on.

Brazilians are following the election in the US as intensely as anyone. And the first question out of everyone’s mouth when the election comes up (which it does all the time – everyone wants to talk about it) isn’t about ideology or issues. They want to know if I really think that Americans would have the courage (their word) to elect a black man. There is nothing judgmental or self-righteous in the question. They are just genuinely curious and not afraid to ask.

Maybe if we do, they’ll start putting Obama Malucos next to the Bahianas in their windows.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nega Maluca is an awesome character...we even have a "nega maluca" cake. So good.