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Brazil: Children's Book Sparks Racism Debate

Whilst reading this article, why not listen to the song Yellow Woodpecker's Ranch (Sítio do Pica-Pau Amarelo) [pt], the soundtrack of the classic Brazilian television series based on Monteiro Lobato's children's books.

Song by Gilberto Gil, available from the artist's website. Click to open the audio player in another window.

During recent months Brazilian citizen media has been debating literature, censorship, racism and education, following the suggestion by the country's National Council on Education (NCE) to withdraw celebrated author Monteiro Lobato's book Caçadas de Pedrinho (Pete's Hunting) [pt] from schools.

Lobato's Caçadas de Pedrinho was made into a famous television series in the 1980s which is still broadcast in Portuguese language-speaking countries today. In the late 1990s it was adopted as teaching material in schools throughout Brazil, and it has also been part of a government program that distributes books to children in public schools.

However, at the end of 2010 a citizen filed a complaint claiming the book does not follow NCE's courseware directives [pt], particularly regarding “the absence of prejudice, estereotypes or doctrination”, in a list of criteria that also includes “the quality of the text, the theme, the graphic quality and the reading potential, considering the target audience”. Sergio Leo explains:

(…) os especialistas do MEC [Ministério da Educação] analisaram a denúncia e tiveram de admitir que a obra tem elementos racistas e concluíram que, do jeito que está, não deve constar da lista de distribuição, a menos que tenha uma orientação ao professor e aos pequenos leitores, mostrando que lá em 1933 havia mais racismo no Brasil e que não se deve tomar como padrão de conduta e valor o tipo de referência depreciativa que Lobato faz a negros.

(…) experts in the Ministry of Education analyzed the complaint and had to admit that the novel presents racist elements and concluded that, as it is, the book should not be part of the distribution list unless it offers some kind of guidence to teacher and young readers, showing that back in 1933 there was more racism in Brazil and that the derogatory references made by Lobato to black people should not be taken as normal behaviour.

Opposition to the suggested withdrawal has come from many sides. Intellectuals from the Brazilian Academy of Letters have protested [pt] the move. Jarbas, from the blog Boteco Escola (Pub School) [pt] described the case as “pedagogical censorship”.

The blog Música Pura (Pure Music) [pt] stated that literature is a heritage that cannot be proofread according to conceptual innovations. Aldo Rebelo from the Communist Party posted [pt] a harsh criticism comparing the veto applied to Caçadas de Pedrinho to the installation of “a literary court in Brazil”.

Valdeci, from the blog Mais de 140 caracteres (More than 140 characters) [pt], made an appeal not only in support of Lobato but also to all writers who dared to challenge political correctness:

Agora o Conselho Nacional de Educação vai tomar para si o direito de invadir editoras mundo a fora, com se donos da verdade absoluta fossem, para recolher os livros de Monteiro Lobato, Machado de Assis, Castro Alves e tantos outros escritores que “ousaram” escrever suas histórias longe da hipocrisia do politicamente correto (termo e conceito estes que nem existiam na época)…

Now the National Council on Education will assume the right to invade publishers all over the world, as if it was the sole guardian of truth, to retake the novels of Monteiro Lobato, Machado de Assis, Castro Alves and so many other writers that “dared” to write their stories free from the hypocrisy of political correctness (a concept that didn't even exist in their time)…
Picture of Monteiro Lobato, circa 1920. Image in public domain.

Picture of Monteiro Lobato, circa 1920. Image in public domain.

Monteiro Lobato is the mastermind responsible for books that have entertained generations of Brazil's children. Viewed as a national hero, he has made a significant contribution to the country's cultural heritage.

Brazilian author Maurício de Souza, the creator of children's comic book Turma da Mônica (Monica's Gang) [pt], was quoted by Silvana Nunes in Meu caderno de poesias (My poetry notebook) [pt], making a heartfelt defense of Lobato's work:

(…) durante essa guerra que travava contra o atraso, semeava ideias e livros para as crianças. Os melhores de todos os tempos.

(…) meanwhile he fought a war against backwardness, he was seeding ideas and books for children. The best of all times.

However, César Baldi cited by BloQ [pt], sees limiting the idea of racism to the moment the book was written (an argument used in Lobato's defense) as denying the permanent nature of the discrimination of black people.

The cast of Yellow Woodpecker Ranch in the Globo television series based on Monteiro Lobato's children's books. Image courtesy of Obvious magazine.

The cast of Yellow Woodpecker Ranch in the Globo television series based on Monteiro Lobato's children's books. Image courtesy of Obvious magazine.

Terezinha Pereira from the blog Alma Carioca (Carioca Soul) [pt], questioned the criteria adopted by the NCE and the Special Secretariat in the analysis of the complaint:

Nem devem imaginar que personagens da ficção “tem voz própria” que, necessariamente, não é a mesma do autor. E se fosse? Não seria um bom motivo para discussão na escola?

They probably don't even imagine that fictional characters have “their own say” which is not necessarily the same as the author's. And what if they were alike? Wouldn't this be a good point with which to foster debate at school?

Idelber Avelar, from the blog O biscoito fino e a massa (The cracker and the mass) [pt], gave an educational perspective to the matter:

a contextualização [é] necessária para que epítetos, comportamentos discriminatórios, racismo explicito, ódio a povos ou a orientações sexuais etc., sancionadas e apresentadas como normais no contexto em que a obra foi escrita ou no interior dela (…) sejam lidos criticamente e não replicados como modelo pelos alunos. Não é tão fácil como parece. No caso de Monteiro Lobato, é imensamente difícil.

it is necessary to contextualize so that epithets, discriminatory behaviours, explicit racial profiling, hate towards people or sexual orientation, and so on, either sanctioned or presented as usual behaviour in the context in which the novel was written or within the novels (…) are read in a critical perspective and not replicated as models by students. It is not as easy as it seems. In Lobato's case, the difficulty becomes huge.

To  Sergio Leo [pt] the greater share of critics of the NCE's report never read Lobato's novels, getting to know his work only through television adaptations which were freed from “racism and other stuff”.

Alberto Mussa, cited by Rafael Rodrigues in Entretantos (Meanwhiles) [pt], believes it is time to get over the idea that in Brazil neither racism nor prejudice exist. In his original post in a literature journal, Mussa asked to be convinced:

Me convençam que uma criança negra lendo uma passagem racista de um dos livros do genial Lobato não vá se sentir vexada, discriminada, constrangida. Me convençam que livros como esses não violam a integridade psíquica e moral da criança – que somos, por lei, obrigados a proteger.

Convince me that a black child, when reading a racist phrase in one of the books of the great Lobato, won't feel harassed, discriminated, troubled. Convince me that books like these don't violate the moral and psychic integrity of children – which we are, by law, obliged to protect.

The debate over the Monteiro Lobato case showed clear differences between mainstream media coverage of the issue and that of the blogosphere. The former was comfortable with the censorship approach, setting an agenda that fueled in some cases the wrong discussions.

The blogosphere meanwhile went deeper into the subject and presented a variety of points of view, for and against, ones that were not available to the average media reader or viewer.

This post was proofread in English by Emma Brewin.

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