Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

"The Slave Woman": An Introduction

Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

"The Slave Woman": An Introduction

Article excerpt



The short story "The Slave Woman" ("A escrava") appeared for the first time in November 1887, in the third issue of A revista maranhense (The Maranhense Review), some six months before slavery was abolished in Brazil, on May 13, 1888. The author, Maria Firmina dos Reis (1825-1917), was an Afro-Brazilian woman born in São Luis, the capital city of Brazil's northern province of Maranhão, the illegitimate child of Leonor Felipa dos Reis, a black woman, and the Portuguese João Pedro Estevão (or Esteves, according to some sources). In addition to "The Slave Woman," an abolitionist narrative, Reis had also published an antislavery novel, Úrsula (1859), and abolitionist poems that first appeared in local periodicals and were later included in her 1871 collection of poetry, Cantos à beira-mar (Songs by the Seaside). Reis began receiving some critical attention in the 1980s, but during her lifetime the author was little known outside Maranhão, and after her death she was all but forgotten even in her home state. Many factors may have contributed to this situation, foremost among them the fact that Reis was a poor mulatto woman living far away from Rio de Janeiro, the nation's capital then.

The slow process of her historical-literary recovery began by chance when, in 1962, a collector bought a load of old books from a second-hand dealer and found a copy of Úrsula, which listed "Uma Maranhense" [A Woman from Maranhão] as its author. This discovery eventually led to the publication in 1975 of Maria Firmina- fragmentos de uma vida [Maria Firmina, Fragments of Her Life] edited by José Nascimento de Morais Filho, a short book that includes biographical information, newspaper clippings on the author published in the 1860s and early 1870s, some of her poems and musical compositions, and her indianist short story "Gupeva" (1861-62), in addition to excerpts of what has remained of Reis's diary. Most of the critical studies on Reis, including a few master's theses and doctoral dissertations, focus on her novel Úrsula, with brief references to "The Slave Woman" as an abolitionist short story. However, in recognition of the historical and literary importance of Reis's fiction, in 2004 two major university presses in Brazil joined forces and published a critical edition that included Úrsula and "A escrava."

Reis's Úrsula is the first novel by a Brazilian woman, and may in fact be the very first non-autobiographical work of narrative fiction by a woman of African descent in the Americas, having been published in the same year as Harriet Wilson's autobiographical narrative Our Nig. Although Úrsula is not the first novel by an Afro-Brazilian author, it is the work that truly initiates an Afro-Brazilian literature or, a "literatura negra" [black literature] in Brazil, since a previous novel, O filho do pescador (The Fisherman's Son, 1843), by Antônio Gonçalves Teixeira e Sousa (1812-61), a mulatto writer, does not address issues pertaining to black characters nor does it express a black self-awareness or self-identity.

Here we understand the term "literatura negra" as related to the presence of a subject of the discourse who identifies him / herself as black, according to Brazilian critic Zilá Bernd: the "I" assumes his / her racial identity and speaks from a first- person perspective (Bernd 22). Furthermore, such literature presents "um certo modo negro de ver e de sentir o mundo, e a utilização de uma linguagem marcada . . . pelo empenho em resgatar uma memória negra esquecida" [a certain black viewpoint and way of understanding the world, and the use of a language shaped by the effort to recover a black past that has been forgotten] (Bernd 22). Bernd, a pioneer of Afro- Brazilian literary criticism, also points out that black literature represents an attempt to fill in the gap left by the official historiography (Bernd 80). Here the Brazilian critic coincides with Stuart Hall in that the characterization of a black literature lies in an act of self-identity and self-expression that involves also a re-telling of history from the black subject's own viewpoint. …

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