I’d never seen a black woman dressed like her before. She rode up in a carriage beside a white man.
People along the road stopped and gaped at her. Those inside came to the doors of their huts. She was dressed in a long silk gown full of pleats and folds and ruffles and there was a crucifix around her neck. Her hair was straightened and tied in a ball just like a branca’s. Her neck looked very thick and deformed, but my mother explained to me that that was the kind of woolen collar that she wore in the city; it was considered very stylish, very much in vogue, although she agreed with me that it did look like some deformity, and must be very hot in this climate, but near the coast it was not so hot as here, though hot enough. The crucifix sat between the woman’s breasts. The woman herself sat very straight and tall. I looked at her feet, though, and saw that she was wearing no shoes. She was as barefoot as myself, and her toes stuck out from the full pleats. I smiled. I saw other people smiling too but I felt it was for a different reason. I myself was in awe of her. I can’t describe the white man very well, because it was the woman who kept my attention.
However, I remember that he was wearing a broad hat and a dark suit. The woman’s eyes were slanted upward and there was a gold comb in her hair, like a little crown. She seemed extraordinarily tall, but perhaps it was where she was riding, right in the front seat beside the man.
“Who’s that woman?” I whispered to my mother.
I’ve not described my mother. A big-boned, handsome woman, she did not comb her hair down or tie it in scarves like some of the other women; she wore it so that it looked like the crown of a tree, high all around her head. She said nothing until she went and got her long pipe that was in the corner of the room. A long slender reed, the stem pointed downward and ended below her knees, then there was a very small bowl. I didn’t know what she smoked in it, as I’d smelled tobacco and it wasn’t that.
“I don’t know. I’ve heard stories of her, though,” she replied. “What stories?”
She looked at me without speaking and drew at her pipe. She looked as if she were thinking through something, which she didn’t tell me, then she said, “Some say she’s a princess from Africa…”
“From Guinea coast?” I asked, my eyes wide.
“From Africa,” she repeated, “and that that white man, that branco, went and got her and brought her here and shared his wealth with her.” She puffed on her pipe, then added snidely, “Or she shared hers with him.”
And there was something else. This she thought through, but didn’t say.
“Why were they laughing at her?” I asked.
“Cause he’s dressed her up to look like a white woman, a branca, eh, that’s why they laugh. Cause of the way he’s dressed her up.”
“If I wore a silk dress would they laugh at me too?”
“Where’d you get a silk dress?” she asked. “Or brocades or satin or velvet too. You do good to get Sea Island cotton. Or muslin too.”
I said nothing. She took a draw from her long pipe.
“I bet she’s got diamonds and gold rings. I bet she’s got a velvet saddle and diamond sevigne too.”
“What d’you know of diamond sevigne?” she asked, and drew on her long pipe. “Straw sapatos do you good.”
My mother and I were the ones who were sent for to come up to the casa grande to see about the new guests. I didn’t know how to treat the woman except as a branca. She was sitting in a big chair in the room they’d given her. When I came in with the angel cakes I was to bring to her, she wouldn’t look at me. She held her head high, but wouldn’t look even in my direction. They’d given her an elegant room with Dutch furniture, but the women of the house didn’t gather around her as they did when other lady guests arrived. Then the women of the house would go into the mistress’s room and gather around the new lady, sitting on pillows and mats or lying in hammocks, chewing plums or sweet cakes. But this lady sat alone and very straight in a wooden chair with her bare feet sticking out from the hem of her dress. She wouldn’t look at me and there was nothing I could say to her. I thought of the slave women gathering around her and of Antonia offering her a swig of rum and my mother a puff from her long pipe. And I’d bring her a mandacaru. But I felt that it would be somehow wrong and that she wouldn’t like it. I sat the tray of angel cakes down on her table and bowed to her. I curtsied properly like to any lady. She held her back like an arrow.
“Are you a slave woman or a free woman?” I dared to ask.
“I am neither kind,” she answered, still without looking at me.
In the living room, the men, my mother related to me, spoke of Palmares for the benefit of Dr. Johann, who had heard stories and legends of the settlements of escaped slaves and had asked Entralgo and the other senhores native to the region to speak of it. He had wished, he said, to travel where they were and to paint them, but both the visitor and Entralgo and the other senhores present persuaded him or rather dissuaded him, saying that it was foolish, it would be too dangerous. They’d cut off his ears and feet. And they spoke also of how the Palmaristas, as these fugitive devils were called—that was their language—had had some women stolen some years ago, some comely women. No, not white women, gracas a Deus, but black ones and Indians. But stealing white women wasn’t beyond those devils. That time, though, they hadn’t. The savages had killed no one, that time, they’d only taken from the stores and stolen the women, but that was a long time ago, because with the aid of the Paulistas, they’d driven them further into the forests and mountains, so that kind of thing they didn’t expect. Some comely women too, repeated Entralgo. He himself was just a boy, but he could appreciate
…But it would be dangerous and foolish, he told the senhor, even if he did want to keep an artistic record of the times, hadn’t he gotten enough black faces already? Anyway, what he’d like to know, pelo amor de Deus, where were his white sketches of the New World? Was it only those people he wanted to depict for immortality? What did he have to show to the estrangeiros of the lovely white senhoras e senhorinhas and the interesting white senhores of the territory? All the possibilities and challenges to his talent were right there. He couldn’t understand himself how Dr. Johann could see any interest or complexities in those pretos. For complexity or interest a branco or a branca any day. Why didn’t he paint pictures of the people in whom man’s fate lay? Wouldn’t that be a challenge to his artistic talents? These others, these pretos, they’d forever be a threat to Brazilian progress and civilization. He could tell Dr. Johann was after all an artist of intellect and religious feeling.
“There’re enough black faces around here already,” Entralgo had said. “What, to paint new ones. No, Senhor, you don’t have to put yourself in the way of danger to get any more of them. And like I said aren’t there lovely and interesting white people in this territory, who’d challenge your talents more?”
“Sim, sim, sim, sim,” toasted some of the senhores present.
“The captain could direct me how to get them,” said Dr. Johann. “I know it wouldn’t be an easy thing.”
Entralgo laughed and continued laughing. The captain said nothing.
From Palmares by Gayl Jones. Copyright © 2021 by Gayl Jones. Excerpted with permission from Beacon Press.