Black literature for children – A survival weapon in a deeply racist society

'A cor da ternura' (The color of tenderness), by Geni Guimarães
‘A cor da ternura’ (The color of tenderness), by Geni Guimarães

Note from BW of Brazil: In numerous past posts, we dealt with the special problems that affect the lives of black children that grow up in a Brazilian society that degrades them, ignores their existence, ridicules their physical characteristics and often play a key role in their issues with self-esteem, self-acceptance and ultimate exit from the school system. Millions of Brazilians would have us believe that places such as the United States are far more racist than Brazil (1) while ignoring the deep psychological scars that their own brand of racism leaves on the psyche of Afro-Brazilians as children and later on in their lives as adults. The fact is that, while the US continues to have deep racial problems, de facto segregation, although not completely shielding African-Americans from a racist society, allowed this population to develop its own tactics of dealing with this social ill and producing tools to deal with it. Racism in Brazil, on the other hand (as we’ve argued in other posts), is perhaps even more deadly than in the US because the nation clearly treats black people as second class Brazilians and as there are no separate black communities (combined with the false discourse of racial democracy), it has left this community largely unprepared to deal with the realities of racism. But over the past few decades, Afro-Brazilians have seen a huge growth in the number of groups, organizations, methods and works to address these issues. An example of these works is the book featured below. 

Black literature for children: The color of tenderness

By Gabriela Moura

It is not easy to develop black consciousness in children in a deeply racist society, and which inhibits black culture with continuous efforts of embranquecimento (whitening), emphasizing the European influence to the detriment of other cultures. It is important to pay attention to details of the education of children and adolescents for the strengthening details of their identity and recognition of their roots. In black children the effort is greater than that applied in the raising of other children. There is the effort for the presentation of symbols and references that allow the healthy development of their self-esteem. However, the reality faced makes this path difficult, which can become twisted when we cannot lay out supporting materials such as books, movies and toys that are suitable and near the image of that child.

The book A cor da ternura (The color of tenderness), by Geni Guimarães, is a material that fulfills this role in a sweet and subtle way. The work is autobiographical and tells the details of her life, from early childhood.

“- Mother, if it rains water of God, will it be that my ink will come out?

– Believe in the cross! Our ink won’t come out.”

Geni’s approach travels through prospects of the child, teenager and adult, dealing from early on with self-questioning about one’s social position and the color of their skin. In the author’s life narrative it’s possible to draw a parallel with the lives of children in Brazilian peripheries, who are born with extra obstacles to overcome, and grow ever stronger as they are early on exposed to physical and psychological violence caused by racism, not being able to find another escape they will face a life of double, triple, quadruple ordeals. For while a white child is well accepted by society, the black child isn’t rarely seen as a potential “danger”. In addition, the little representation in toys and the media makes of the black child an almost invisible being. It is for these children that works such as A cor da ternura become building blocks.

In an excerpt from the book, Geni tells how the occasion of the “feast for Princess Isabel,” organized at the school where she studied, was when the teacher explained to the students what and who were slaves, using simplistic language and decreasing African history to slavery.

“The next thing I knew, the whole class looked at me with pity or sarcasm. I was the only person in the class representing a race deserving of compassion and shame! I wanted to disappear, evaporate, I couldn’t. I could only raise my sweaty and trembling hand, to ask to go to the bathroom.”

The unpreparedness of society to deal with the real history of blacks in Brazil helps to confuse people in education. It’s common that children grow up with the clear idea that white history is full of great inventions, scientific discoveries and artistic creations, while that of the black is reserved the place of slavery that, with abolition, transmuted itself into domestic and rural servitude. Geni, like other children, had for herself the idea that a race would define intellectual inferiority or superiority. She was denied the right to know her own origin.

When reduced to remnants of the era of slavery, black people lose their identity as human beings with the same rights as others: freedom, critical thinking and contribution to society. It all adds up to the denial of being and feeling itself. This deficiency in education ends up reflecting in the self-image, ie, it is not difficult than the vision of a person about him/herself becomes cloudy.

“Until then, rural women didn’t know the ‘thousand and one uses of Bom-Bril’” (brillo pad) and to shine the aluminum, they ground up bricks and with the result they washed the utensils. The idea came to me when my mother picked it up and prepared and with it removed from the pot to the crust burned on the bottom. As soon as she finished the cleaning, she came home, and I gathered up the remaining powder and with it scrubbed my calf. I scrubbed and scrubbed and saw that with such pain it was impossible to remove all black from my skin. There, then I out my finger over the red, thick, hot blood and I started writing pornographies on the wall of the water tank.”

Physical pain is sometimes a better teacher than theory. Geni’s pain reflected in her life in the same way that other young blacks learn to respect their own bodies, and thus develop the necessary psychological maturity.

Although permeated by painful events, the writing remains serene and even poetic, especially in the passages relating to school graduation.

“Again, my father stood up, undid his tie and took the posture of king. To better hear me, he forgot etiquette, made shells with his hands and wrapped them around his ears. All the formalities ended. I went up to them to go back together. I, princess, handed my certificate to the king, who wrapped it in a handkerchief.”

After graduation Geni went on to teaching, and among her white students she had to deal with the strangeness of having a black teacher at school. Herein, A cor da ternura presents a brilliant insight into the necessary dialogue within the school environment and their fundamental importance in the fight against institutionalized racism.

The book is still a precious work in the construction of black identity for children, but is also well absorbed by adults seeking materials for understanding the effects of racism in society.

Source: Blogueiras Negras. “Masters in the Field: White Talk, White Privilege, White Biases” in Racing Research, Researching Race: Methodological Dilemmas in Critical Race Studies. Editors Twine, France Winddance and Warren, Jonathan W. New York : New York University Press, c2000.


1. Regarding this belief that racism is considered worse in the US than in Brazil, Jonathan W. Warren provides the example that after the rebellion erupted in Los Angeles, California, in 1992, the Brazilians with whom he spoke almost unanimously saw the event as a sign that “racism was worse in the United States than in Brazil”. But as Warren pointed out, “remarkably, none of those I encountered in Brazil stopped to consider that the absence of conflict and contestation could be a sign of even poorer racial conditions in that country.”

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

1 Comment

  1. Cannot always be about race. Nice idea, but books need to portray blacks as the rule rather then he exception. Blacks are not a minority in Brazil, so there should be plenty of books with blacks WITHOUT touching the racial question. This would be be much more effective for children.

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