Two weeks ago I visited the library with a friend. The first book that caught my attention was a biography of the legendary actress Dorothy Dandridge. As I always do, I discover something, become fascinated with it, investigate and then move on to another topic. This was also true of my fascination with Dandridge. My first recollection of Dandridge was in the 1990s when there was discussion about who should portray her in a movie about her life. At the time, I was enrolled in a Humanities class and the professor of the class was also an acting coach. The class introduced us to classic African-American Jazz musicians as well as the beginnings of African-Americans in film. When I mentioned to my professor that Halle Berry and Janet Jackson were the top contenders to recreate the image of Dandridge, he laughed and said neither of them had the talent to accurately portray Dandridge. We all know that Halle Berry would eventually win the part and go on to recreate the tormented life of Hollywood’s black princess in the HBO film, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.
I was introduced to Dandridge in the 90s and here it was August of 2008 and the Donald Bogle book, Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography, once again introduced me to the success and tragedy that was the story of a woman who arguably opened the doors for the success of black actresses like Berry, Diana Ross, Diahann Carroll, Pam Grier and so many others. Dandridge was the first black woman to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (1954). Before her rise to stardom, the majority of black women featured in films portrayed maids and domestic servants. I purchased Bogle’s book and haven’t been able to put it down since it arrived in my mailbox. Although the book has consumed my time for the past week, I didn’t realize until this morning that today is actually the day that Dandridge was discovered dead in her apartment in 1965. Her story reveals so much about the experience of African-Americans and particularly African-American women. I would also argue that the Dandridge story is also emblematic of the experience of Afro-Brazilian women as well.
In both the US and Brazil, women of visible African ancestry have been stereotyped into two images that plague their existence even in modern times. The first is the fat, unattractive, asexual, dark-skinned nurturer. In America she is known as “Mammy” or “Aunt Jemima” while in Brazil she is known as “Mãe Preta”. The second image is the attractive, hypersexual vixen, a stereotyped that white men used to justify rape and sexual exploitation. In America, she is portrayed as a “Jezebel” and sometimes called “Brown Sugar”, while the corresponding Brazilian image in the “Mulata”. The hypersexual image of African-American and Afro-Brazilian women continue today through images featured in Hip Hop music videos and the yearly Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro that attracts thousands of men to Brazil who participate in the sexual tourism industry. Afro-Brazilian women are also presented in sexually explicit brochures that attract many European men to the northeastern state of Bahia.
In the era of slavery, both in the US and Brazil, white men kept two types of black women: one to work in the kitchen and one in the bedroom. This arrangement is apparent in a saying that is still popular in Brazil today: White woman for marriage, mulatto woman for fornication and black woman for work. Dandridge would learn this lesson throughout her career, personal life and experiences with white men. Based on these experiences, she wrote:
Em ambos os países (EUA e Brasil), as mulheres de visível ascendência africana foram retratou em duas imagens estereotipadas que pragou sua existência, mesmo em tempos modernos. O primeiro é a gordura, sem atrativo, assexuada, alimentadora de pele escura. Na América, ela é conhecida como “Mammy” ou “Tia Jemima”, enquanto no Brasil ela é conhecida como “Mãe Preta”. A segunda imagem é a raposa atraente e hipersexual, uma estereótipo que os homens brancos utilizados para justificar a estupro ea exploração sexual. Na América, ela é retratado como um “Jezabel (prostituta)” e, às vezes chamado de “Brown Sugar” (açúcar mascavo), enquanto no Brasil, as imagems correspondentes é na figura da “mulata”. A imagem da mulheres hipersexuais afro-americanas e afro-brasileiras continuam hoje nas imagens dos vídeos de música Hip Hop e o anual Carnaval em Rio de Janeiro que atrai milhares de homens para o Brasil que participam na indústria do turismo sexual. As mulheres afro-brasileiras também são apresentadas nos brochuras sexualmente explícitas que atraem muitos homens europeus ao estado da Bahia na nordeste do Brasil.
Dandridge também viviu a tratamento da mulher mulata no Brasil. A relacionamento que ela quase a levou ao suicídio envolveu um aristocrata brasileira que a tratada como uma rainha e ofereceu-lhe um castelo no Rio de Janeiro, mas apenas como um amante, e não uma esposa. Por fim, foi a maus investimentos do marido Jack Dennison que forçou Dandridge a declarar falência e que levou à demissão de sua carreira. A princesa negra americana morreu por uma overdose de drogas em 8 de setembro de 1965. Dedico esta peça à memória de seu talento, beleza e graça que permanece como um exemplo para as animadores negras ainda hoje.