The African Cultural Heritage in Brazil Neglected by the education system

Music festival "Carnaval de gongo de Roda D'Agua" in the north of Brazil, which originated 100 years ago in the culture of slaves.
Music festival "Carnaval de gongo de Roda D'Agua" in the north of Brazil, which originated 100 years ago in the culture of slaves. | Photo (detail): Diego Herculano © picture alliance

The Brazilian society has never overcome its slave culture, its physical and symbolic violence. Young black people and people of African origin in the periphery of big cities are still subjected to police violence. The country’s education system continues to pursue ethnocentric patterns.

A few weeks ago during a party a friend asked me “which part of Africa” my family came from. This made me reflect once again on the annihilation of remembrance and history of the black population, who were forcibly carried off to Brazil, and about the responsibility that we have for the preservation and restauration of these cultures in the country. Brazil is the one country worldwide in which slavery took place the longest and over the largest geographical area. Forty percent of the people sold between the 16th and 19th century landed here in our country. The presence of black people influenced our customs, our language and various cultural spheres in our country. For almost four centuries these men and women were and still are of utmost importance for our social and economic development.

It is estimated, that in the days of slavery approximately 4.8 million Africans came to Brazil, at the same time as 600,000 Portuguese. That alone is very telling about the Brazilian population today. According to surveys by the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics (IBGE) 53 percent of Brazilians indicated being black or dark-skinned.

When slavery was abolished in 1888, there were no measures by the state to integrate former enslaved people into the society as full-fledged citizens. Even today the vast majority of Brazilians of African origin moves at the bottom spheres of the country’s social pyramid. The difference between whites and blacks are obvious based on police violence, life expectancy, access to public services (such as health and education), income levels and unemployment figures. At the beginning of 2014, IBGE also published figures, which indicate that the average income of people who view themselves as either black or dark-skinned was barely more than half of what a white worker earned on average.

Annihilation of Remembrance and Histories

Our history is constructed by the negation of the other, at the same time there was never any institutionalized political discrimination, such as in the USA or South Africa for instance. Perhaps that is why we deny the existence of racism in our country and posit the idea of a “racial democracy” instead which blocks out the fact that the blending, which we experience in our body, is the result of a hard, violent process of annihilation of remembrance and histories.

The Brazilian society has never overcome its enslavement culture and its culture of physical and symbolic violence. The genocide of a thousand young black people and people of African origin in the periphery of large cities is a fact. According to Amnesty International, in 2012, 56,000 people were murdered in Brazil. Of these 30,000 were young, aged between 15 and 29, and of these 77 percent were black. As the Historian and Anthropologist Lília Moritz Schwarcz put it recently, "Black people are more frequently convicted, they die more often and one cannot help admitting, that in Brazil practically a whole generation of young black people is being wiped out”.

Racism and Education

There is a need in our country for awareness that there is inequality due to skin color and that this should be fought against. The school seems a possible resource here. The scholar Marcio Farias points out that “education can play a prominent role (in this fight), if it assumes the ethical political responsibility, of grappling with our day-to-day racism and gives pupils the opportunity of reflecting profoundly about Brazil’s link to Africa”.

Due to its complex structure, however, racism also finds its clear manifestation even in this education system. In text books the reproduction of drawings from the slavery era are not rare, where black women and men are shown in a subservient posture. For pupils with African origins it is difficult to find depictions showing their ancestors in the protagonists’ role, going beyond the picture of the enslaved, i.e. their own role in the history of Brazil, which would help them construct a positive identity.

The Construction of a Black Subject

Thais Avellar from the Research Centre for Black Consciousness at the University of São Paolo (USP) reminds us that “Identity is a process, a construct, which must be taken care of and which needs points of reference. There are many points of reference in the world. As such one would have to think whether in the construction of a black subject (in all its pluralities) there are opportunities within this framework, for a black person and one of African origin to feel represented. Namely, from a perspective, that is not a continuation of that social role, which the black population was assigned in the course of the officially considered history”.

And again school could, due to its “prominent role”, be the space for reflecting about identity and remembrance of the population with African origins, by creating access to knowledge about one of our most important socio-cultural elements, the African. This is what law no. 10639 of January 2003 aims at, making content of Afro-Brazilian history and culture compulsory in elementary and middle schools in the whole country, and encouraging reflection about our link beyond the Atlantic, that is less colonially shaped.

For a less Ethnocentric, Pluralistic Education

Education must therefore be reformed, become less ethnocentric and therefore more pluralistic. Already the training of teachers should offer a diversified perspective on Africa’s history, in order not to degenerate into platitudes, which tend to construct a mythical, idealized continent. It is important that all those involved in the education system develop the awareness, that in Africa before the diaspora, there existed social organization, different lifestyles, diverse world views and religions and that the societies that lived there were not isolated but integrated in a dynamic flow of exchange of goods and ideas with other peoples.

The school as a microcosm of our society should neither be seen as a space that is immune to discriminations nor as the sole solution for day-to-day racially motivated conflicts. However, it can and must be an instrument for deconstructing myths and generalizations. Differences should not continue being equated with inequality, but rather be recognized as opportunities to expand our repertoire. Imparting content from the Afro-Brazilian culture and history enables us not only to understand the establishment of our territory and our society, but also to reflect about our own coming-into-being and existence.