This is our latest article in a series created in partnership with the Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies at San Diego State University, to produce articles for the Digital Brazil Project on climate impacts and affirmative action in the favelas for RioOnWatch. It is also the latest contribution to our award-winning reporting project, Rooting Anti-Racism in the Favelas: Deconstructing Social Narratives About Racism in Rio de Janeiro.
Epistemic Whiteness and Representation
“Unfortunately, I had zero contact with black literature and black social science productions through the curriculum. I was unable to see myself in the teaching staff or in the curriculum.” — Luciane de Oliveira Rocha
Statements such as these by Brazilian professor Luciane de Oliveira Rocha, 42, ring true for many of us. Currently a professor at the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, Rocha asks: “Where are black authors?” This line of questioning, that begins first at school and later in academic life, has become a collective and political act.
The absence of black references in Brazilian education is also noticed in the curricula of university education programs, and is subsequently reproduced in classrooms by those who learned to help others learn. In education, then, colonial viewpoints are perpetuated through a Eurocentric, sexist, classist model, which prioritizes white male authors and theorists, followed by white women. Rocha reminds us that: “The classics are all by white authors. They have high visibility in the social sciences. Classic productions such as those by Lélia Gonzalez—an anthropologist who is critical in understanding Brazilian racial formation—were never presented to me during the four years of my social science course.”
The theoretical and literary foundations of black authorship have been neglected in Brazil. This opinion is shared by professor Valéria Lourenço, 39, who said that, while reading and studying his work in school, she was never made aware that Machado de Assis was black. Educational institutions are typically intellectually negligent in recognizing black people, which interferes with programs and processes for teaching and learning.
“I went to a public school in Xerém, one of the best state schools in the region. I had black teachers, both men and women, but never heard of Lima Barreto, Conceição Evaristo, Carolina Maria de Jesus, or Luiz Gama, for example. They didn’t tell me that Machado de Assis, who we were assigned to read, was black.” — Valéria Lourenço
Universities are political spaces. All participants—teachers, students, and staff—play a political role. For this reason, it’s always important to question school curricula that fail to include contributions from black authors, both male and female. Professors Ana Helena Passos and Claudia Miranda tell us that on this educational path towards transformation, it is essential to remain aware of the role of the agents of change, of the degree of political awareness of the institution’s educational processes, as well as their transformative potential for students, their families, and society as a whole.
We must forge a path ahead that not only includes these works and their authors, but also allows for a more plural training of these agents of education. We must analyze how they are receiving and applying this material in their classrooms. It’s essential that we create teaching practices that are able to break with this pattern of invisibility of black men and women writers and literary theorists.
Bibliographic Scrapping and the Curricular Color of Power
Literature professor Ricardo Pinheiro, 42, says that his academic and life journey would have been very different had he been introduced to black authors as a child. This would have made all the difference for his self-esteem, which was compromised over the course of his basic education.
Understanding how Brazilian universities reproduce racist discourses and mechanisms through the curriculum in order to educate future teachers is fundamental for a review of the educational space. Transforming these curricular structures and content would certainly reduce school flight. As the African proverb goes, “You can only start from where you are.” Thus, shedding light on the extent to which education has failed to review its practices is the first step towards creating new paths.
The road ahead is slow and bumpy, but the objective is to gain a deeper understanding in order to transform the perpetual invisibility and silencing of African and Afro-Brazilian history in teacher training spaces. In his book The Order of Discourse, French philosopher Michel Foucault reminds us that in every society the production of discourse is simultaneously controlled, selected, and organized by a certain number of procedures of power and control. The purpose of discourse is to conjure powers and incarnate the dangers found in society. Discourse involves dominating knowledge. It is power.
Like discourse, curricula are also a form of power. Thus, curricular content even today serves those who hold the most influence in this power struggle. To them, it is inconvenient to incorporate other perspectives beyond those that maintain the status quo. It can thus be argued that schools function as institutions for maintaining restrictions on knowledge and reproducing disciplinary and punitive processes.
Evidence can be found these days that teacher training programs in Brazil contribute to a contemporary colonialism in the teaching structure. They reproduce practices of symbolic violence, of black history erasure, and of silencing voices, which recount, narrate, and construct other perspectives, another history. It’s important to stress that the white epistemology of the university, which ignores or negates the existence or the importance of a black intellectualism, reinforces a eugenic relationship. White supremacy in the ways of seeing and thinking attempts to obstruct access and stigmatize everything that is not Eurocentric. This bibliographic scrapping during the teacher training period is harmful to future teachers and their future students, as it promotes the distancing of various possibilities of educational, cultural, and social transformation.
Aline Cristina do Carmo, 37, a high school teacher at Colégio Pedro II who holds a PhD in Philosophy, mentioned that her first contact with a black author was during her master’s, when she read In My Father’s House by Kwame Anthony Appiah. She also said that, during her high school and undergraduate studies, she read Lima Barreto, Machado de Assis, and Saint Augustine of Hippo—who was based in what today would be Algeria—though there was never any indication of the blackness or Africanness of these authors: yet another journey marked by racial erasure in the curriculum.
“I only read black women authors on my own, outside university. I read Angela Davis, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Conceição Evaristo, Carolina Maria de Jesus—all these names that showed me my own spaces for activism. These were never required readings at university, as far as I remember, for my bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD, in either Philosophy or Law. But it’s possible that I read black authors without having been informed as much. Thula Pires, for example, was recommended by my master’s supervisor.” — Aline Cristina do Carmo
Aside from black absences in curricula, Brazilian-Congolese anthropologist and professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), Kabengele Munanga, says that some teachers don’t know how to deal with incidents of flagrant discrimination in school spaces, due to their lack of preparation or prejudice. What should be a valuable teaching opportunity for discussing diversity and demonstrating the importance and wealth it offers to our culture and national identity becomes a moment of repression, with no discussion or collective learning taking place, a moment that at times is even one of subtle acquiescence, a reproducer of racist social practices.
From school to university and from university back to school, the history of slavery is continuously being told and retold from a white lens, without taking into consideration all the other histories that could be shared on the African continent, the importance of the African men and women who constructed the history of Brazil, and the great deeds and figures prior to their being kidnapped and enslaved. The Afro-Brazilian cultural legacy is ignored, along with the importance of the Black Movement in the struggle against slavery and racism in Brazil.
Although there are many obstacles in the process of deconstructing these spaces of whiteness, we also must recognize that there are educators who tirelessly seek to reshape racial tensions and their consequences in educational spaces. However, not even Brazilian Law 10,639/2003 resulted in a majority of education professionals meeting the basic requirements set forth.
Professor Ricardo Pinheiro says he first had contact with African and Afro-Brazilian histories, cultures, and literatures in graduate school. The course Pinheiro was enrolled in, like so many others, came about in order to meet the requirements of Law 10,639/2003. However, we know that not all universities abide by this law. Some only follow it symbolically, on specific commemorative dates, such as Abolition Day or Black Awareness Day. And thus, the dynamics of slavery and submission persists.
Black Brazilian Literature as Political Pedagogy
In literature, it is rather startling to note the degree of rejection, especially of black academic women. A recent example was when renowned writer Conceição Evaristo, from the state of Minas Gerais, lost a chair appointment to the Brazilian Academy of Letters, in 2018, despite overwhelming popular support. Instead, white filmmaker Cacá Diegues was recognized as an “immortal,” as appointees are known. In an interview, the (white) writer and former president of the academy, Nélida Piñon, said that Evaristo had committed “campaign errors” by not following certain bureaucratic traditions typically observed by candidates, such as sending out telegrams, meeting with other “immortals” for coffee, and presenting them with their works. The award-winning black author, who responded to Piñon’s remarks, was not even recognized as a candidate by certain academics.
While Conceição Evaristo failed to be appointed due to “campaign errors,” Fernanda Montenegro was elected as an “immortal” to the academy even before announcing her candidacy. It is important to note that while Conceição Evaristo has been an international award-winning author for over 30 years, with dozens of published and translated novels, stories, and poems, Fernanda Montenegro is an actress with only two autobiographies published in 2018 and 2019.
For some white professors in this area, there is no distinction between Brazilian literature and black Brazilian literature. They stress that segregation of the literary movements could undermine the construction of Brazil’s written identity. But how can this identity emerge when the image of black people is associated with violence, marginalization, ignorance, as well as sexual, aesthetic, and social stigmas? It is vital to highlight black literature in a country that redoubles efforts to ensure it never sees the light of day. Maria Firmina dos Reis, a black woman from the state of Maranhão, was the first woman to publish a novel in Brazil. She’s the author of Úrsula, considered the country’s first abolitionist work. Have we ever heard of her?
Putting together a written record that allows for the emergence of black male and female authors is essential. This would allow us the possibility of one day having many other literary and literary theory works by these authors on the shelves of libraries, school reading rooms, and universities, which would serve as scholastic instruments for black and non-black students alike. If Brazilian society continues to exclude these works, stereotypes and stigmas reproduced by histories recounted through the white lens will be increasingly reinforced.
“Black literature, specifically Afro-Brazilian literature, is unquestionably political and pedagogical in nature.” — Semog, black poet from Nova Iguaçu
To bring about this transformation, black men and women education professionals have been working towards incorporating non-hegemonic readings in the classroom, in an attempt to repair the absence of black, indigenous, and LGBTQIA+ authors. Often, mere deconstruction fails to generate effects. Additional references must be created within the sphere of education. We must highlight the question of voice, a concept deepened by Indian author Gayatri Spivak popularized in Brazil by Djamila Ribeiro, which shows us the importance of listening to subjects tell their own stories, who for too long have been prevented from doing so.
We must urgently propose a new path, one where professionals are able to pluralize their viewpoints, and recognize the black population’s production of knowledge. We must break with the romanticization of European content and theories, which only further subalternizes and colonizes us.
“At the end of the 1980s, the view still persisted that both Cruz e Souza and Lima Barreto were lesser authors, or of lesser relevance, or of such a troubled existence that their literary value was proportionally less, or that they excelled more in journalism and less in literature.” — Ricardo Pinheiro
References from the European continent encase writings in a quest for an ideal aesthetic and theoretical ideal. There’s an ideal that is inconsistent with the national reality, where we, black men and women, are missing. Even for black or African references, as in the case of Saint Augustine, race is a reference that is erased. This is a phenomenon called “color blindness,” an old racist strategy for rendering blacks and their accomplishments invisible.
According to philosopher Sueli Carneiro, we must urgently “work towards the construction of a multi-racial and pluricultural society, where difference is experienced as equivalence and no longer as inferiority.” From this perspective, a review of teacher training curricula is needed in order to include an entire intellectual production that has been left out of the classroom.
It must be stressed that Law 10,639 needs revisiting, because it is pointless to have a directive that must be complied with if there are no professionals prepared to do so and without being able to guarantee representation in the classroom. Lastly, it is important to stress the need to include non-hegemonic works in schools, which take into account the characteristics of our people, which are able to narrate other histories that are more diverse in terms of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and territory.
Listen to the Accompanying Podcast in Portuguese Here:
Reading List for Anti-Racist Educators
● Aline Cristina do Carmo, “O Que Podemos Aprender com os Quilombos”
● Éle Semog, “Poetas Negros, Movimento Negro e Alguma Vida”
● Eliane Cavalleiro, Do Silêncio do Lar ao Silêncio Escolar: Racismo, Preconceito e Discriminação na Educação Infantil”
● Elizabeth Maria da Silva, “O Papel da Mídia e da Escola na Formação da Identidade do Aluno Jovem e Adulto Negro: Ponto de Encontro e Desencontro”
● Joana Gorjão Henriques, “Racismo em Português: O Lado Esquecido do Colonialismo”
● Kabengele Munanga, “Superando o Racismo na Escola”
● Luciane de Oliveira Rocha, “Judicialização do Sofrimento Negro: Maternidade Negra e Fluxo do Sistema de Justiça Criminal no Rio de Janeiro”
● Maria Alice Rezende Gonçalves, “Educação, Arte e Literatura Africana de Língua Portuguesa: Contribuições para a Discussão da Questão Racial na Escola”
● Maria Vieira Silva, “O Enfoque do Negro no Currículo Escolar: Algumas Possibilidades de Ressignificação”. REVISTA DE EDUCAÇÃO POPULAR, Uberlândia, n.3, set 2004.
● Marinalva Dias dos Santos, “Os Desafios da Escola Pública Paraense na Perspectiva do Professor”. A Literatura e o Tema da Negritude em Sala de Aula”
● Rosemere Ferreira da Silva, “Entre o Literário e o Existencial, a Escrevivência de Conceição Evaristo na Criação de um Protagonismo Feminino Negro no Romance de Ponciá Vicêncio”
● Sueli Carneiro, “Enegrecer Feminismo: a Situação da Mulher Negra na América Latina a Partir de uma Perspectiva de Gênero”
● Valéria Lourenço, “Autoria e Autorrepresentação em Comunidades Quilombolas da Baixada Maranhense Como Formas de Luta: um Diálogo entre a Antropologia e a Literatura Brasileira”, “Aya’ba”, “O Ruído da Escrita de Outras Penas—Narrativa e Autorrepresentação em Comunidades Quilombolas da Baixada Maranhense”, e “Resenha do livro Nice Guerreira: Mulher, Quilombola e Extrativista”
About the artist: Raquel Batista is a visual artist who works as a photographer and illustrator. A black woman, resident of Rio’s West Zone, she is an undergraduate at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s (UFRJ) School of Fine Arts. Her goal is to use art to represent people who, like her, a young black woman from the periphery, are not always seen.
This article is the latest contribution to our award-winning reporting project, Rooting Anti-Racism in the Favelas: Deconstructing Social Narratives About Racism in Rio de Janeiro.