Waldete Tristão Teaches Children About African Gods
Note from BW of Brazil: Reading the piece below actually took me back to my elementary school years back in Detroit, Michigan. From first to eighth grade, I attended two different Catholic schools, and on Sundays, went to another Catholic Church. Baptized at the old Precious Blood church on Detroit’s west side, I still vividly remember always entering the church every Sunday and seeing from the back of the pews, the enormous painting of what was supposed to be Jesus Christ standing with his arms stretched out in front the Father, God himself.
I have no idea how large that painting was, but from what I remember, even seeing it from a distance, it had to be at least 10-12 feet tall. Jesus was the typical image that we had all become accustomed to. European in phenotype, with long, straight brunette hair. The figure of God seemed to be as wide as Jesus was tall, appearing seated with a long white beard with his son standing in front of him between his knees. The image was quite imposing, almost frightening for anyone who saw it, including an 8-year old black boy like myself.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was an example of how art was used to shape one’s imagination. Growing up Catholic, I would often participate in Bible studies and learn about the various miracles that Jesus was said to have performed. For a young boy attending a Catholic school, these stories were often confusing for me. Attending classes at a Catholic school, there were times when I would have a religion class during my sixth hour and then finish the day with a science class. This would often leave me confused. How is it that a man could perform such miracles but then the study of science seemingly debunking such legends?
At the time I could never really answer this question myself and just never really delved into it. I just sort of accepted that Jesus could walk on water, feed a multitude of people with what seemed to be enough bread and fish for only one person and himself return to life from the dead. OK. Whatever.
Years later, as an adult, my own research and study of similar god/men, miracles and creation myths of other cultures showed me that the tales featured in the Bible were simply Jewish versions of mythical tales that could be found in countless other stories. Having been raised in the Catholic Church, I couldn’t react in the same manner as the daughter of one of my best friends, who hadn’t been endoctrinated with religion as a child. The girl was about 8 or 9 years old at the time, and as her father and I were frequent visitors of Borders bookstore, one particular day she wanted to tag along with us as she had developed a fascination with Greek mythology.
As I engaged her in a brief discussion on some elements of Greek mythology, I also introduced some of the stories many of us were familiar with coming out of the Holy Bible. When I mentioned how Jesus was said to have walked on water, returned the vision of a blind man and returning to life after three days, she responded in the manner that anyone without a religious background would: “How could he do that?”. I laughed and told her that it could be intriguing for her to look at what she was learning about Greek mythology and make a comparison with some of the stories from the Bible.
I had already done so by that time, making cross comparisons between Jesus and figures such as Mithra, Krishna, Horus, Osiris, Dionysius and others. I had compared Jesus’ mother, Mary, to other mythical figures such as Isis, Myrrha, Maia, Maira, Meri and Maya and concluded that, given that they share many of the same attributes (and similar names derived from the same root) that this could not be a mere coincidence. The same could be said once you read the flood myth as featured in the Epic of Gilgamesh and compare it to the Noah’s Ark story in the Bible. This comparative analysis is fascinating in itself, but then when you mix the racial element into it, the meanings and portrayals of such characters go beyond simple flights of fancy.
You see, as our exposure with religions, particularly Chrisitianity, went hand in hand with the conquering of Africa and its people, we cannot ignore the political aspect of these stories and the images associated with them. Exposing a black child to the supposed almighty God and himself incarnated as his own son, then depicting such a powerful force as a European man automatically puts that child at a psychological disadvantage when he/she is forced to co-exist in a world dominated by Europeans.
In the mind, the African descendant is trained to see the creator of the world, the heavens and everything else, as well as the almighty that will judge him or her when they die, as a white man. As such, it is not far-fetched that the African descendant automatically associates such a god with the people who most look like this almighty force in all of the paintings, films and story books he or she has been exposed to from a very early age. What would be the psychological effect on persons who physically don’t look like these gods when they are constantly reminded that all that is pure, good, clean and godly is represented by persons with pale skin, straight hair and European features?
In Brazil, everyday, for centuries, black people have been taught that everything about them is ugly, shameful, indeed a sin. Add to this the fact that the country was colonized by those of the Catholic faith and all of the inferiority that millions of black Brazilians are made to feel in relation to the white race makes total sense. These are but a few of the reasons that black Brazilians are trying to re-discover themselves and reverse some of the psychological damage that has been inflicted upon them for nearly five centuries.
After learning that almost everything I learned in school from the very first day had been drastically whitewashed, in later years I would have to ask myself, why was I never introduced to Africa’s gods? Why was I never told about the connections between Ancient Egyptian gods and the deities of the Yoruba religion in Nigeria? These same deities would later become the forces and structure behind the Candomblé religion in Brazil.
With that said, if black children are taught about Jewish and Greek gods such as Jesus, Apollo, Poseidon and Zeus why shouldn’t they also learn about Exu, Oxum, Ogum, Xangô? The very simple response is that, if the white and European gods dominate the minds of black children and people, and African gods are either unknown or demonized, it maintains the African and his/her descendants in a state of perpetual psychological inferiority. Which is exactly how Brazil wants them.
“Conhecendo os Orixás: de Exú a Oxalá”, by Waldete Tristão with illustrations by Caco Bressane, teaches that orixás are gods of nature
By Guilherme Henrique
“If you learn that Zeus is the god of thunder, why can’t you learn that Xangô is the god of thunder and justice?” asks Waldete Tristão, a Ph.D in education from the University of São Paulo (USP) and a consultant at the Center for Studies of Labor Relations and Inequalities (CEERT), during a conversation with Tpm (website).
If we haven’t yet learned enough about cultura negra (black culture), the educator’s first book, released in early December by Arole Cultural, is a significant step for new paradigms to be presented in Brazilian schools.
Conceived at least 10 years ago, the book Conhecendo os Orixás: de Exú a Oxalá (Knowing the Orixás: from Exú to Oxalá) was postponed because of “life issues”, says Waldete. She explains that she started to think about the work talking to her teenage son. “He studied Greek mythology as a teenager and, as always happened in our house, I gave him many books with black characters that talked about Afro-Brazilian history and culture in a way that he didn’t learn in school. In studying the Greeks, he began to make analogies between Zeus and Xangô, Hera and Oxum, who are goddesses of fertility. One day, joking, we talked about writing a book, and he was thrilled with the idea,” she says.
The death of her son Róbson Gil last year caused Waldete, in a process of reconstruction, to resolve to return to the literary project to give rise to personal and professional concerns. The union with Caco Bressane, illustrator of the book, occurred in August. “It is a work with interactive language so that the child could perceive that the orixás are gods of nature, that are present in the forests, in the sea, in the lakes, and that a whole whitish sky on a rainy day, for example, is the presence of Oxalá covering us with his sacred mantle,” she points out.
Throughout the book, the characteristics and particularities of 17 orixás are presented in their colors, days of the week, favorite foods and the force of nature that each of them commands. In addition to curiosity, the exemplary dialogue with law 10.639, of 2003, which makes compulsory the teaching of Afro-Brazilian and African culture in public and private networks, from primary to secondary education. “Unfortunately, some people understand that these initiatives must start individually from pessoas negras (black people), committed to the militancy, of the black teachers. Pedagogical projects that should permeate every day of school are not yet a reality in Brazil.”
Tpm: What were the concerns for writing this book?
Waldete Tristão: It has a bit of the personal and professional. I have been a teacher, coordinator and director, and I have always understood that religiosity, as a culture, needs to be present in the daily life of the schools, also by having been a black child and not represented in children’s books, especially with regard to history and the culture of black people. But I didn’t know how to make this path, bringing together religion and the professional, that didn’t disrespect the secular state. Unfortunately, my son is no longer with us, but he was kind of a motivator and also gave me some clues as to how important it was to make this book. He studied Greek mythology as a teenager and, as always happened in our house, I gave him many books with black characters that talked about Afro-Brazilian history and culture in a way that he didn’t learn in school. In studying the Greeks, he began to make analogies between Zeus and Xangô, Hera and Oxum, and so on. One day, joking, we talked about writing a book, and he was thrilled with the idea. But because of the masters, doctorates, work, we were putting it aside. With his departure last year, a lot of people helped me, and Diego de Oxóssi, my holy brother, who owns the publishing house Arole Cultural, asked me if I wouldn’t like to write a book. I told him the history of the project and he got excited, introduced me to the illustrator Caco Bressane and the work was born naturally. (Waldete Tristão Teaches Children About African Gods)
Has anything changed in the teaching of black culture topics after Law 10.639, which is completing 15 years? How does your book fit into this context? The law amends the Law on Guidelines and Bases (LDB) for national education, but this understanding that it is not a choice, a choice of school, is still commonplace in everyday life. People don’t have the understanding that introducing the history and culture of Africa is not to opt for another paradigm, that is, to replace the Eurocentric with the African. It’s bringing this African paradigm to the schools of basic education to higher education, because this discussion is not to be done only in elementary or middle school. It must permeate all schooling. Unfortunately, some people understand that these initiatives must start individually from pessoas negras (black people), committed to the militancy, of the black teachers of history, of geography. Pedagogical projects that should contemplate the history and culture of Africa and Afro-Brazilians, which are not yet a reality in Brazil.
How have you perceived the children’s reaction to the story of the orixás?
There are some materials with this theme, children’s books that have this intention. This book was released on December 8th, and the return we have had so far is that the children are accepting it very well. It is a work with interactive language, so that the child could perceive that the orixás are gods of nature, that are present in the forests, in the sea, in the lakes, and that a whole whitish sky on a rainy day, for example, is the presence of Oxalá covering us with his sacred mantle. It’s showing another perspective because they know that Zeus is the god of thunder. If we can learn about Greek mythology, why not give children and young people access to African mythology? It’s like I said, we don’t want to replace one content with another. But are we going to learn about the Greeks? So let’s get acquainted with African mythology.
You have spoken briefly about the managers and these unique initiatives. How have they worked on the ethnic-racial issue, whether in the public school or the private school?
It’s important to emphasize the private, because this is not a demand only of the public school, but of all children, in all systems of education. We live in a society that is hierarchical. Because it is hierarchical, most of the time, the direction of the school defines and determines if a content will enter or not because of its political-pedagogical project. School management is not always democratic. If a director finds that the subject has to do with religion, if there is racism, which we cannot put aside, it doesn’t enter the school project. The religions of African matrix are persecuted also by the racism, because they refer to the povo negro (black people). It’s an experience of enslaved peoples who have been brought in with their history, culture, and culinary, and this is a component that cannot be overlooked when there is this evaluation of the managers.(Waldete Tristão Teaches Children About African Gods)
On the African-born religions that you have highlighted, how does the book discuss, though not directly, the religious intolerance of today’s times?
Intolerance is present and affects children, black or white, who belong to an African-born religion, such as candomblé. Candomblé advocates a kind of initiation, the wearing of white clothes for a while, and this has made some children suffer. Some research shows that children lie about their religious belonging due to fear of being discriminated against. The school is an institution that expresses racism by the voice of those who are intolerant of those who have a different religion from theirs. This work is not about religion, but children, knowing a book like this, they will learn what the Orixis are from the time they’re little and also perceive their colors and, perhaps, reduce the religious intolerance that we have seen today.
Source: Revista Trip