Teaching Afro-Brazilian history still faces challenges, despite 20 years as law

Andreia Tenório is a teacher at the school where she studied as a child, and she tries to give students an experience different from what she had while learning Black history | Photo: Léu Britto/Agência Mural

This text was authored by Jessica Bernardo and was originally published on February 8, 2023 on Agência Mural’s website. The article is republished here under a partnership agreement with Global Voices, with edits.

For Andreia Tenório, a 37-year-old Black woman in São Paulo, classes about the period of slavery caused feelings of shame when she was studying in the 1990s at the General de Gaulle Municipal School of Elementary Education in the city's southern district of Jardim São Luís. In Brazil, slavery was imposed for more than three centuries, only being abolished in 1888.

“Those were my worst moments in school,” she recalled.

At that time, the telling of the history of Black people in Brazil was reduced to the horrors of the slavery era. Other topics were not spoken about in schools, such as Afro-Brazilian history and culture, or important Black Brazilian figures, such as the lawyer and abolitionist Luís Gama or the writer Carolina Maria de Jesus.

Today, Tenório is a teacher at the same school where she studied. The shame has since turned into pride now that she is able to give students an experience different from what she had in the classroom.

Over half of the Brazilian population self-identifies as Black. The country was one of the main destinations for ships with enslaved people, who were taken from regions where today there are countries such as Nigeria, Mozambique, and Angola.

The children’s books that Tenório usually uses in her classes feature stories with Black protagonists. Topics such as the beauty of curly hair and the fight against racism are part of the school’s day-to-day life, as she explained to Agência Mural:

Teve uma coisa muito emblemática no ano passado: as meninas começaram a ir [para a escola] de cabelo solto e de black [power] também, de trancinha. Aí elas chegavam de trança e falavam “olha, professora, o meu cabelo tá trançado igual você faz”.

There was something very symbolic last year: girls started going [to school] with their hair loose and also in Black [power style], [and] with braids. So they would come in with braids and say “Look, teacher, my hair is braided just how you do it.”

The change in classrooms across the country comes not only from teachers’ efforts, but also from an important change in Brazilian legislation.

Twenty years ago, the teaching of African and Afro-Brazilian history and culture became mandatory in public and private schools through Law 10639, passed by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT) in his first term. Lula became Brazil’s president for the third time in January this year.

The law says that the curriculum in schools must include the study of the history of Africa and Africans, the struggle of Black people in Brazil, Brazilian Black culture, and Black people in the development of national society, and thereby preserve the contribution of Black people in social, economic, and political areas of Brazil’s history.

“[We began to] genuinely look at Africans’ contribution, and that of their descendants, in all periods of Brazilian history. In the arts, in science, in the resistance, within the armed forces, in government institutions,” said 38-year-old Cibele Lima, an educator at EMEF Joaquim Bento Alves De Lima Neto, in the southern São Paulo district of Grajaú.

Even so, Cibele said, it is still necessary to invest more in teacher training because many, in their own experiences, had no contact with the subject even during university.

She, for example, changed her teaching approach to the subject of slavery after taking a course on education about ethnicity and racism during her master’s degree in history.

She also argued that the advances in the matter in school life need to be accompanied by a greater discussion about structural racism in society. Cibele underlined:

Enquanto a gente estiver numa sociedade que reproduz o racismo de forma tão natural, que não enxerga e não reflete, isso vai estar dentro da escola também porque a escola é um reflexo, é uma micro sociedade.

As long as we are in a society that reproduces racism so organically that we do not see and do not reflect on it, it will also occur within schools because the school is a reflection [of it], it is a micro society.

Caroline Vaz, a resident and teacher in the city of Itapevi in Greater São Paulo, said that cases of racism continue occurring among students, even though the topic is now discussed more in school classes.

The teacher said that she has already had to take action against racist comments made by students and remind them that racism is a crime. “On many occasions, I’ve seen a student turn to another and call them a ‘monkey’ as if it were a hello,” she recalled.

During classes, Vaz noted that she regularly tries to work on the self-esteem of Black students and discuss the topic of ethnicity and racism beyond the standard school curriculum content such as apartheid in South Africa and slavery.

She also criticizes the tendency of teachers, in general, to teach a more Euro-centric vision of history.

Geographer Rose Bernardo is a high school teacher at the school E. E. Professor Clóvis De Silva Alves, in Itaquaquecetuba, also in Greater São Paulo. She argues that the school curriculum should give more attention to other continents, as well as Europe:

O aluno, às vezes, até acredita que a África é um país, que é tudo uma coisa só. [O currículo escolar] poderia ser mais abrangente nesse sentido de tornar a África tão comum para o aluno quanto a Europa.

Students sometimes even think that Africa is one country, that it is all one thing. [The school curriculum] could be more comprehensive in the sense of making Africa as familiar to the students as Europe is.

The teacher highlighted that the African continent has one of the most fascinating ecosystems in the world, the savannah, as well as holds an important place in discussions about global food security.

One of the main criticisms made by education experts and Black rights activists since the law came into force 20 years ago, is the lack of oversight of compliance with it by municipal and state education authorities.

The topic is also seen as important in tackling the learning gap between White and Black students. A 2019 survey using data from Saeb (in Portuguese, System for Oversight of Basic Education) showed that there is a significant measurable difference in the educational attainment of White and Black students in Brazil.

The results showed that learning differences occur even when the students are from the same socioeconomic class.

In mathematics, among students of higher socioeconomic status, 34.4 percent of White students have adequate learning, while only 17.3 percent of Black students have the expected level of learning. Among students of lower socioeconomic status, 15.8 percent of White students have the expected performance against 8 percent of Black students.

Billy Malachias, an education consultant at the Centre for the Study of Work Relations and Inequalities (CEERT), considers that Law 10.639 is an achievement for Black activists and that it has moved society forward regarding discussions about racism in recent years, but that compliance with it has not been uniform across the country.

He argues that schools need to invest in educating students about a diverse society, and that discussing ethnicity and racism during education teaches people to live together.

He suggests taking a new look at all that Africa has to teach:

Foram os africanos que introduziram aqui técnicas de mineração, técnicas agrícolas. E isso não aparece de uma forma dinâmica, associado aos processos constitutivos do Brasil.

A escola tem muito a aprender com a [história da] África.

It was Africans who introduced [various] mining [and] agricultural techniques here. And this is not proactively presented [in education, nor] connected to the creation of Brazil.

Schools have a lot to learn from [the history of] Africa.

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