It is worrying that almost every year, the Nega Maluca Carnival of Brazil is held despite concerns by Black women that it is racist. The festival sees thousands of White men and women wearing blackface, faux butts, Afro wigs, breasts and red lipstick celebrating on the streets and essentially mimicking the Black female body.
The term “Nega Maluca” means “crazy Black woman” in English, and the Carnival’s costumes are seen as a symbol of aggression and humiliation against Black women, reinforcing the structural racism in Brazil, according to activists. To some, the Carnival’s costumes are just for fun, but the fact is, they ridicule Black women or Afro Latinas turning them into a joke.
What’s more, Nega Maluca painfully reminds Black women in Brazil and elsewhere of how their ancestors were oppressed by Whites. Brazil is 53 percent non-white, the website Black Women of Brazil reports. Only a few might have heard that Brazil was the first site where Europeans, specifically the Portuguese, used enslaved Africans to farm and mine (occupied) land in the Western hemisphere. So many Africans were transported to Brazil that it has the largest population of Blacks outside the African continent, ranking second to Nigeria in a comparison of nations.
Although Brazil ended slavery in 1888, not everyone agreed to it and the practice continued for some time. During this period, Black women had to do so much work related to womanhood, carrying White babies on their backs and even feeding them while facing everyday discrimination and systemic racism. Owing to the color of their skin, these Black women were in the lower classes. And so to paint faces and skin in Black or wear fake afros at a festival like Nega Maluca is plainly racist and disrespectful to Black women.
Note that blackface grew out of Minstrel shows starting in the 1830s, according to a brief on the subject on BET. The act involved White actors darkening their faces with shoe polish or greasepaint, painting exaggerated red lips with makeup, and acting out stereotypically dumb, foolish, or dangerous Black characters – that is the “happy darky on the plantation” or the “dandified coon”. The larger purpose of these shows was to entertain White slave owners, who were humored by acts mocking slaves and free Blacks during the 19th century.
From the small stage, blackface made its way to the big screen, making it widely popular. Blackface only went out of vogue during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. But by then, it had already caught wind around the world, especially in many Asian and European countries where actors still put on the face to perform.
In the U.S., wearing blackface is almost sacrilege. It is met with great criticism because it is a reminder of the painful past of slavery and segregation. Wearing blackface reinforces stereotypes about Black people that are not true, and that’s exactly what Brazil’s Nega Maluca does.
To add insult to injury, the local government funds the festival, according to Black Women of Brazil’s website. “Supported by the Angra dos Reis Tourism Foundation, the city’s management guaranteed financial support for 56 of the 72 blocos that performed during the Carnaval of 2020. Each of the blocos were given a grant of BRL$ 1.5 thousand to BRL$ 8 thousand to participate in the parades,” journalist Marques Travae writes, as stated by the platform Shine My Crown.
Historians say that Nega Maluca dates back to the early years of the 20th century and its origins can be found in the 1950 Carnival song by Evaldo Ruy and Fernando Lobo. The song talks about a man playing pool with his friends when a Black woman comes to him with a child, saying he is the father. The man refuses to accept that the child is his, and he makes this known several times throughout the song.
In recent years, some communities in Brazil do not allow Nega Maluca costumes during the Carnival but the tradition continues in most areas. And perhaps this is not surprising, considering Brazil continues to be criticized for being a racist country.
In February 2019, the death of a 19-year old Afro-Brazilian triggered demonstrations in some cities in the South American country, with activists saying it is spurring the emergence of their very own Black Lives Matter movement. According to The Guardian, demonstrators gathered outside the Extra supermarket in the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro demanding justice for the death of Pedro Gonzaga, who died of a heart attack after a security guard attempted to subdue him with a “sleep hold”.
The majority of Brazilians who are killed each year are either Black or mixed race, with a 2018 annual Violence Atlas report by the government revealing they make up 71.5 percent of the 64,000 casualties. A look at the racist origins of the controversial annual Nega Maluca Carnival of Brazil