Race and “place”: Whether in an elite school or dreaming of an opera career, Brazilian society continues to tell blacks where they don’t belong


Note from BW of Brazil: The idea of race-oriented “place” is a common discussion on this blog. Despite the idea that “money whitens” or that if one has money in Brazil, race is not a problem, many middle-class blacks continue to disprove this as yet another Brazilian myth. The incidents below bring to mind recollections from the Autobiography of Malcolm X (book and film).

Malcolm X Speaks of his Dream to be a Lawyer

As a young student, Malcolm tells one of his teachers of his desire to one day be a lawyer. The white teacher recommends that he become a carpenter because being a lawyer is not a realistic expectation for a “nigger.” In other words, the law profession is not the “place” for black people. On comment boards all over the internet in which the debate is Brazilian issues, one constantly reads that this type of thing only happens to African-Americans. As reports have consistently shown, Brazil has more in common with its neighbor to the north than it cares to admit. 

Education of black culture still suffers resistance in schools

By Maurício Moraes

Celina was advised to move Michael to public school, “so he knows his place.”
Celina was advised to move Michael to public school, “so he knows his place.”

Although half the population identify themselves as preto (black) or pardo (brown), the history of African roots in Brazil is still a rarely treated subject in classrooms. Enacted ten years ago, law 10.639, which requires the teaching of Afro-Brazilian culture, is hindered by a lack of teacher training and even by veiled racism that permeates society, according to a report from BBC Brasil. But there has been progress.

Now 19, Michael Sodré is another tense student because of the vestibular (college entrance exam). In the early years of the college, however, there was another source of tension. The only black boy in his classroom, in a famous elite school in the southern zone of Rio de Janeiro, the boy was a frequent target of bullying from classmates.

“They called him Bombril (scouring pad) because of his hair,” said his adoptive mother, Celina Sodré. In a tough conversation with the coordinator of the school, the dialogue ended in an unusual recommendation:

“She simply told me that the solution of the problem was that my son would study in public school, because then he would know where his place was.”

Scenes of bullying from colleagues and racism by the system are reproduced in schools throughout Brazil. More than a century after the end of slavery, the country that most received black workers still treat these people as if they were subordinate, according to experts interviewed for this article.

Law 10.639, enacted in 2003, was created precisely with the intent to appreciate the African roots of the country and to overcome racism.

“It’s necessary to overcome the vision of the negro as a slave. This is how he usually appears in the textbooks,” says Rafael Ferreira da Silva, Coordinator of the Núcleo de Educação Étnico-Racial da Secretaria Municipal de Educação (Center of Ethnic-Racial Education of the Municipal Secretary of Education) of São Paulo. The mayor’s office of São Paulo did last year, a new survey in schools in the city in order to see the reach of the application of the law.

“The survey showed that there is progress. More than half the schools work with the theme. But in most cases, it is usually an isolated initiative of a teacher who likes the theme. And there is also the problem of discontinuity. If the teacher leaves the school, often the subject ceases to be addressed,” he said.

Accepted myths and hidden myths

“Discussing Africa is not an easy thing in schools,” says Stela Guedes Caputo, researcher and teacher in the subject at UERJ (Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro or State University of Rio de Janeiro).

In addition to the specific cases of prejudice registered in the classroom, she says that when the law is enforced, there are cases where “parents meet with the children and go to the school to question and criticize teachers who want to discuss the history of Africa.”

Stela also questions the absence of elements of African origin in textbooks. The question becomes especially tricky when dealing with personalities related to Afro-Brazilian religions.

In this case, the concealment of this chapter of the national culture is not just the prerogative of schools. In many cases, the children themselves hide their religiosity in order not to suffer prejudice from colleagues.

“The myths that children learn in Candomblé terreiros (temples) are not accepted in the school, the Itans (myths of the Yoruba culture), African stories they know, are the most beautiful human literary creations and they need to hide them. Their knowledge is denied. Why are Greek, Roman and other myths so common in the school and African myths are demonized?” he questions.


Editais do MEC exigem que livros didáticos tenham conteúdo sobre a história afro-brasileira

A trained teacher, Macaé Maria Evaristo do Santos says that ten years ago when she was still  teaching in a school in Belo Horizonte (state of Minas Gerais) , the visibility of Afro-Brazilian culture was much lower.

“Once I arrived at a high school classroom and asked students how many had read a book with black characters. Few raised their hands. After more than ten years of schooling, they cited Tia Nastácia, Saci Pererê and Negrinho do Pastoreio…Not even Zumbi dos Palmares was part of the repertoire,” she says.

Macaé is now the Secretária de Educação Continuada, Alfabetização, Diversidade e Inclusão do Ministério da Educação (Secretary of Continuing Education, Literacy, Diversity and Inclusion at the Ministry of Education) or MEC. A decade after the enactment of the law, she still sees challenges but celebrates the results.

“This is an issue that is gaining relevance. Before it was only talked about on the Day of Black Consciousness. Gradually it will integrated itself into the pedagogical project of the schools,” she says.

The secretary says that in 2012, the most requested course by the directors of the nation’s schools in the Rede Nacional de Formação Continuada do MEC (National Network of Continuing Education of MEC) was precisely what enables teachers to teach Afro-Brazilian culture. In the last decade, the edicts for the development of textbooks funded by MEC also require this content.

Jean William was advised not to pursue a career as an opera singer because there were "no black princes"
Jean William was advised not to pursue a career as an opera singer because there were “no black princes”

Tenor was advised not to sing opera because there are no ‘black princes’

By Maurício Moraes

Tenor has performed in various venues such as the Lincoln Center in New York

At only 27, tenor Jean William has performed at iconic venues for opera music, such as the Sala São Paulo and Lincoln Center in New York. Soon he will perform with an orchestra at the Metropolitan Museum, also in the American city.

Considered a promising artist of Brazilian Opera Music, the tenor says he had to face prejudice early in his career because of skin color. At 17, he was discouraged by a teacher in Ribeirão Preto (state of São Paulo), where he spent his teens, to give up the dream of singing in an opera. According to the professor, this would be arduous task since there were no “príncipes negros (black princes).”

Years later, the singer won a scholarship in Italy and debuted in a Danish opera. With the amazement of his selection, he heard that there was no inconsistency in the fact that he was playing the part of a white character. To the composer of the piece, “music has no color.”

Jean William recently released his first CD.
Jean William recently released his first CD.

Jean William would go on to release his first CD entitled Dois Atos (Two Acts), June 4th of last year at the Teatro Bradesco and performed accompanied by the Camerata Bachiana Philharmonic – SESI SP. With a degree in music from ECA of the University of São Paulo, William’s presentation at the Bradesco Theatre marked the pre-release of his first solo CD with a repertoire mixing Brazilian music and Italian opera. The album, also recorded on DVD, as its name suggests is divided into two parts, there are 16 songs in all, with eight popular songs and eight opera.

Source: BBC Brasil 1, BBC Brasil 2, Aplauso Brasil, Black Women of Brazil

Jean William in performance from July 17, 2013

Jean William shows off his piano and vocal skills

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


  1. I am going to keep saying this. Stop looking to your oppressors to fix the problems because they aren’t interested and you don’t have the money or alternative service/product to make them change direction.

    The Black Community not just in Brazil but everywhere a sizable Black population exist, needs to turn INWARD not OUTWARD. Build your own society and make it better than theirs. You can accomplish this by being better than they are from the get-go.

    Education is key and I would say one of the foundations is to learn English.

    • So so true, we need to not expect for them to always do for us or give us equal treatment. Its a damn shame that we as apeople on a worldwide basis look up to whites to do everything for us and except us.

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