Posthumous Authority: Revisiting Carolina Maria de Jesus

This post is part of our forum on “Race and Latin America

Painting of Carolina Maria de Jesus by Antonio Obá. Photograph taken by author.

In the bustling streets of Paris, the French Antillean Françoise Ega (1920 – 1976) was running errands in 1960 when a certain issue of Paris Match caught her eye. Among the cover stories highlighted a Black woman from Brazil named Carolina Maria de Jesus (1914 – 1977). Ega flipped through the magazine to what must have then been unusual: a full spread of a dark-skinned, middle-aged Black woman, neither Francophone nor American, and without a perm or wig. What pulled Ega even closer was the headline: “Elle a écrit un best-seller” (“She wrote a best-seller”).

1960 was a transcendent year for Jesus. Quarto de despejo: diário de uma favelada (literally “Junk room: diary of a shanty dweller,” my translation), her vivid chronicle of hunger, poverty, and daily survival, magnified the stakes of Brazil’s wide landscapes of social inequality. She became Brazil’s best-selling author, outpacing Jorge Amado’s Gabriela, Cravo e Canela and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.1 Quarto de despejo made Jesus an international celebrity. Amid the Cold War, she was translated in more than a dozen languages on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Newsweek, Time, Le Monde, and Stern profiled her work and image.

Carolina Maria de Jesus was born only two generations removed from slavery – Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish it in 1888. Though she had little formal instruction, Jesus developed a life-long passion for reading and writing, penning a large corpus of poems, songs, short stories, and plays. Even as she scourged the garbage to trade recyclables for cash, she prioritized finding loose sheets of paper to later take home to write on. Poor, dark-skinned, and unwed, Carolina Maria de Jesus might have simply been reduced to comedy fodder. But here, Paris Match saw the power of a star.

Seeing Jesus in print inspired Françoise Ega to write the novel Lettres à une noire (Letters to a Black Woman). A fictionalized account rooted in her experiences as a Martinican migrant working in France, the protagonist (a maid for a white French family) writes two years of letters addressed to Carolina Maria de Jesus. Lettres, too, condemns the racist and classist webs that made a post-war society hostile to the former and current colonial subjects entering the metropole. In “conversing” with the Brazilian writer, Ega sought not only to make vibrant and visible the voices of Antillean migrant women as subjects but also to enable their subjectivity to have authority.

Only a year separates the deaths of Ega (1976) and Jesus (1977), but the two are bound posthumously in a new landscape focused on moving Black women writers from margin to center. In 2021, Lettres received a reissue in France; a Brazilian edition soon followed. Lettres’ Portuguese-language translation, too, fit into a larger revival feting Jesus. This renewed focus on Carolina Maria de Jesus is inextricably linked to the world affirmative action in higher education, as well as Law 10.639 (2003), requiring the teaching of African and Afro-Brazilian history in schools, has made. Generations of Black graduates, who developed methodologies and theorized their own experiences like Jesus, Abdias do Nascimento, and Lélia Gonzalez, are now part of a reading public that demands Black intellectuals receive their proper due.

At a time where Brazilian publishers are releasing the works of Black authors both foreign and domestic at rapid speed, the renewed attention to Carolina Maria de Jesus is as much part of an ongoing assessment of Brazil’s racial politics as it is about its literary canon. Who has the authority to speak? Who gets to be taken seriously? And what racial logics marginalized (or continue to marginalize) Black authors, especially Black women? Carolina Maria de Jesus answers these questions in the follow up to Quarto de despejo, 1962’s Casa de alvenaria: diário de um ex-favelada (literally “Mortar-brick house: diary of an ex-shanty dweller,” my translation). During her lifetime, much of the press coverage reiterated and helped shape the initial directions: a simultaneous fascination and incredulousness with Jesus’ semi-literacy and social commentary on inequality. On the one hand, Jesus’s blockbuster success was evidence to many Brazilians that their country was indeed a racial democracy. But on the other hand, racial democracy, with its tropes of Black women as either self-sacrificing elderly maids or dancing mulatta sexpots, could not engage Jesus in her complexity and fullness.

Critics’ increasing scrutiny, rejection of, and silence to Carolina Maria de Jesus up to her death, as biographers Tom Farias, Robert M. Levine, and José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy have shown, framed her as an eccentric tragic figure unable to adapt to a middle-class life. In the newly expanded release of Casa de alvenaria, Jesus compared the public’s reception of her to that of her contemporaries such as Jorge Amado and Clarice Lispecter. Though Quarto de despejo outsold the works of Amado and Lispecter, Jesus noted that the public did not afford her the same respect of her contemporaries. At the time, Brazil’s most celebrated writers either belonged to a small elite of wealthy, politically connected whites or had been subject, like Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, to a posthumous whitewashing of their origins.

Many Brazilian newspapers focused less on her writing and sensationalized her transition to middle-class life.2 Leftists and conservatives dismissed her critiques of political figures as uninformed, which she interpreted as elitism. “I wasn’t lucky enough to go to university; I wanted to study more but the desires of the poor remain only aspirations, like smoke fading in the air.”3 Furthermore, her editor, the journalist Audálio Dantas, censored much of her critical commentary on race relations in Brazil. Though Carolina Maria de Jesus often reaffirmed the discourses of racial democracy, her expunged entries make clear that she grappled with its limits. She feared being pigeonholed as a mammy, was insulted by accusations that she was “too uppity,” and felt that her fellow writers gate kept the profession from her. Jesus earned very little from her royalties from the translations of her books abroad. Weary from the constant disrespect and lack of cash flow, she retreated to the outskirts of São Paulo and worked a small plot of land. At her death, she was sick, impoverished, and branded a pariah.

The long struggles of Brazil’s Black social movements finally bore fruit in the 1990s and 2000s, through race-conscious public policies that transformed Brazilian society. As a result, the subsequent generations who came of age under education and employment-based affirmative action developed a language, sensibility, and critical mass to publicly challenge the framing of racial democracy and rehabilitate Carolina Maria de Jesus. This intersected with the work of Black women writers such as Conceição Evaristo and Miriam Alves, and Jesus’s daughter Vera Eunice de Jesus Lima, to champion Jesus as a pioneering theorist and chronicler of hierarchy, power, and Black womanhood in Brazil. Rather than her identities working against her, this new generation of Brazilians believed Jesus’s race, class, and gender were exactly what made her writing ahead of its time. Her diaries, formerly out of print, have now all been reissued. Alone in the last fifteen years, Jesus has been awarded an honorary doctorate, has been the subject of an extensive exhibit at the Instituto Moreira Salles Paulista, the namesake of university and community groups, and immortalized as a Google Doodle. Students perform plays inspired by Jesus in Maré, the neighborhood of slain activist Marielle Franco. Carolinas: A nova geração de escritoires negras brasileiras (2021) situates Jesus as the mother of new generations of Black Brazilian women writers. As it was for Françoise Ega, Carolina Maria de Jesus’s texts grant Black Brazilians the authority to speak their subjecthood and history into the public sphere. Indeed, Jesus commands greater authority in death than she ever did when she was alive.

Brazil is a country where the distortions of anti-blackness and white supremacy are chronic, deadly, and mundane. Unexceptional, too, is consumption and manipulation of Black cultural production. While students of African descent now comprise a plural majority in Brazil’s universities, the faculty and leadership (like many institutions) remain white. This bears true when considering Brazil’s leading book publishers and companies, many of whom are now at the forefront of the demand for Black books. Is the focus on racial democracy the only framework available to understand white control and Black marginalization? My sense is that the galvanizing power of figures like Carolina Maria de Jesus, even posthumously, says that there have always been other registers through which to conceive Brazil’s racial politics. From Françoise Ega to Tarisai Ngangura, countless Black women have connected with Quarto de despejo and Casa de alvenaria. Jesus’s texts transcend generations and borders. Her critiques and assessments of Brazilian life, even in her “unschooled” prose, have always carried weight. However, it is only now that her readership has the floor to speak, with her posthumous authority.

  1. Tom Farias, Carolina: uma biografia (Rio de Janeiro, Editora Malê, 2017), 229.
  2. Robert M. Levine and José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy, The Life and Death of Carolina Maria de Jesus (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 143.
  3. Carolina Maria de Jesus, Casa de alvenaria, Volume 2: Santana (Rio de Janeiro, Companhia das Letras, 2021), 164. Original text in Portuguese: “Não tive a sorte deles que puderam cursara escolas supériores. Era o meu desêjo estudar mas os desêjos dos pobres ficam em pretensões. É igual a fumaça que desvanecem no ar.”
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Cassie Osei

Cassie Osei, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of History at Bucknell University, specializing in the history of Latin America, the African diaspora, and modern Brazil. Her expertise is in Brazilian history, specializing in Black history, race relations, and Black women's studies. Her work is centered on Black Brazilian perspectives on urban life, politics, and inequality, with special attention to Black women. Her first book project is an intellectual and labor history of Black women workers, rethinking modern Brazil their labor experiences, organizing, and subversion of the aesthetics and notions of the category “professionalism.” She earned her doctorate in history from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2022. Her work has been financially supported by the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Abroad program, the Foreign Language & Areas Studies program, and from other generous support from the University of Illinois and the University of Kansas. She can be found on Twitter: @tropigalia.