“It is horrible to remember that human creatures treat their fellow men like this,” wrote Brazilian author and educator Maria Firmina dos Reis in her 1859 abolitionist novel, Úrsula. Today’s Doodle, illustrated by Porto Alegre and Berlin-based guest-artist Nik Neves, celebrates the life and work of a black woman who boldly spoke out against slavery at a time when few others would dare.
Born on the island of São Luís in Maranhão on this day in 1825, not long after Brazil declared independence from Portugal, Maria was the daughter of a black slave and a Brazilian woman. She grew up to become her nation’s first novelist.
Growing up in her aunt’s house on the mainland, Maria was raised by her mother and grandmother, attaining much of her education at home. Her cousin Sotero dos Reis became a famous writer and teacher, and Maria began teaching primary school at age 22. She eventually founded the country’s first free and mixed school, a radical concept before the passage of the 1888 “Golden Law” ending slavery in Brazil.
Maria published poetry, essays, stories, and puzzles in local newspapers and journals, as well as composing abolitionist songs. Published under the name Uma Maranhense (“a Maranhão woman”), Úrsula depicted slaves as human beings longing for freedom and exposed the evils of those who profited from the slave trade. Now recognized as the first Afro-Brazilian novel, the pseudonymous work fell into obscurity before being revived in the 1960s. Úrsula has since been reprinted, inspiring a new appreciation for this pioneering thinker and activist.
Guest Artist Q&A with Nik Neves
Today's Doodle was created by Porto Alegre and Berlin-based guest artist Nik Neves.
Below he shares his thoughts on the making of the Doodle:
Q: Why was this topic meaningful to you personally?
A: Because Maria Firmina dos Reis is one incredible woman, writer, educator, and composer who was completely erased from cultural history. For me, this is completely unacceptable.
Q: What were your first thoughts when you were approached about the project?
A: Very happy that she received this recognition. At the same time I thought that, as a white male, I was not the right person for this task. In any case, I believe that since I had the opportunity to learn from her and make her more visible in Brazil and abroad this would do some good.
Q: Did you draw inspiration from anything in particular for this Doodle?
A: The drawing style had to be bold and classic. I've chosen a silhouette portrait because it was a classic representation of her time, even though it was not so common in Brazil. The fact that there are no photographs of her was also challenging. I intended to show how strong and proud she was as a black woman in a country that still had slavery, and how relevant her work is today.
Q: What message do you hope people take away from your Doodle?
A: First of all people need to know her and her story. Her message will do the rest.
Early draft of the Doodle