Dr. Petronilha Beatriz Gonçalves e Silva, Ph.D in Education and Humanities, is a researcher and professor of Curriculum & Instruction and Ethnic-Racial Relations at the Federal University of São Carlos (Brazil). She served on Brazil’s National Higher Education Commission (2002-2006), and contributed to the development of Brazil’s National Curriculum Standards for Ethnic-Racial Relations and for the Afro-Brazilian History. Her current research focuses on: international research on epistemology of African roots; overcoming racism in schools; research agenda in Black education; human rights; social praxis and educational process; and curricular politics.
Her studies and theories on education are helping to pave the way for a re-assessment of methodology in teaching Afro-Brazilian children. The interview below is from March of 2002 but even 10 years later it provides a great introduction to her thoughts and ideas of improving the educational achievement of Brazil’s black population.
In 2002, she became the first black woman representative of the Conselho Nacional de Educação (CNE – National Council of Education). In 2012, she became the first black woman to become Professor Emeritus of a Brazilian Federal University when the University Council at UFSCar (Federal University of São Carlos) awarded her this title in October*. This title was approved in December of 2011 by Consuni (University Council).
“Racism expels the black child from school”
Professor Petronilha Beatriz Gonçalves e Silva, 59, will be the first black woman to occupy a seat in the National Education Council (Conselho Nacional de Educação or CNE). Her appointment was made official in the “Diário Oficial” of the Union by Minister Paulo Renato Souza (Education) and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1). The choice of a black woman for one of the 24 seats didn’t happen by chance. It was part of a promise of Paulo Renato to include a representative of blacks and Indians on the board.
The representative of the Indians is the professor Frances Novantino Pinto de Angelo. In the case of Petronilha, her selection was based on her academic production that focused on the black presence in Brazilian education.
For her, racial inequalities in education remain, not because of lack of access to basic education, but the absence of a policy to stimulate the permanence of blacks in the classroom. In addition to factors such as the need to start working very early to help the family, Petronilha cites racism and lack of black images in textbooks as evidence that expels the black child from school.
According to Petronilha, the problem is lack of real knowledge of the history of blacks in Brazil. A story that begins, as we remember, in Africa and not with the arrival of slaves on Brazilian soil. Solutions to these problems, she says, should be discussed at the CNE, the body that serves to assist the MEC in the implementation and development of standards and policies for teaching.
Black history was taught to Petronilha by her family, and not in school where he studied in Porto Alegre (capital city of Rio Grande do Sul). She says that her grandmothers, even black, reached the maximum enrollment permissible for a woman at the beginning of last century. Petronilha followed the same path. After her doctorate in humanities from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, she did post-doctorate work in educational theory at the University of South Africa in Pretoria where he was a visiting professor. Today, she participates in the coordination of the Center for Afro-Brazilian Studies at UFSCar (Federal University of São Carlos).
Read the highlights of her interview with Folha.
Folha – A primary school is practically universalized in Brazil, with almost all children having access to it. However, the impression is that the difference between blacks and whites does not decrease. What’s wrong?
Petronilha Beatriz Gonçalves e Silva – The schools are receiving black children in their beginning classrooms. By the 4th grade, the service is even reasonable. The problem is that there is no public policy to ensure the permanence of these children in school. One of the reasons for dropout is that families need for the children to help out with family income, and many black children have to start working. In addition, numerous studies have shown that racism expels the child from school. One of the first was made in 1985 by Professor Luiz Roberto Gonçalves of UFMG (Federal University of Minas Gerais), and it spoke about the silence of the teacher. It showed that black children suffer discrimination from other colleagues, but the teacher does not know how to handle it or doesn’t see it.
Folha – This is only a problem of the teacher?
Petronilha – No. There is an almost complete absence of images of the black population in the schools. We see pictures and posters of the middle class, but we do not see the poor, the black, or the fat. In the case of black people, history in Brazil is not even properly presented. The images of blacks in textbooks appear almost always in a negative way. The derogatory manner it treats the black population makes the student pull away from school and not identify with it.
Folha – But the history of black Brazilians is also a story of suffering. Wanting to submit another version would not embellish a historical fact?
Petronilha – Since the The Masters and the Slaves [Gilberto Freyre, published in 1933] (2) this story was embellished. We refer to Africans who came to Brazil as slaves only. But people don’t enslave themselves, they were enslaved. They were brought here, but before that they had a story. There is an interesting experiment in the 80s in Bahia, the training of history teachers from pre-colonial Africa. There are many things we don’t know. I, for one, never studied in school that there were African kingdoms, such as those of the Congo and Zimbabwe. When we speak of the ruins of ancient civilizations, we speak of Greece and Rome. It is ignored that already in the 13th century there were three great Islamic universities in the region in what is now Mali [sub-Saharan Africa]. Blacks also are descended from educated people, with culture. Another thing that is not said is that black slaves were brought from regions where they had agricultural experience, or were not unqualified man-power. What is lacking is a real knowledge of history. Who doesn’t pride themselves in the history of their ancestors who brought development?
Folha – What can the National Council of Education and the MEC can do to tackle this problem?
Petronilha – The training of professionals who know the history of blacks may be a policy that the CNE might imprint. It’s necessary to find these studies and put them in the form of educational material. Our goal is that everyone has the right to enter schools and carry out these studies. In addition to teacher training, we [at UFSCar] are starting this year with a course project of the college entrance exam. Our goal is that in addition to preparation, the students receive information that gives them security to pursue a university life, knowing how to cope and combat discrimination and secure the history of their people.
Folha – The history of blacks should be included in the school curriculum only to improve the self-esteem of these children?
Petronilha – The race issue is not exclusive to blacks. It is that of the Brazilian population. It’s no use to support and strengthen the identity of black children if white children don’t rethink their positions. Nobody tells the child that he must discriminate against the black, but the way one treats the employee, the jokes, the sayings and other gestures have an influence in education.
Folha – You are favor of quotas for blacks in universities?
Petronilha – I am absolutely in favor. The Movimento Negro says that quotas have always existed in Brazil. They benefited whites and descendants of Europeans, who have always had guaranteed position in the universities.
Folha – The entry of blacks without meeting the criterion of merit is not a blow to the self esteem of the students who would benefit from quotas?
Petronilha – Nobody is saying they will enter the university without qualification. The quota system that we suggest is that which takes into account the approval of the student in the entrance exam. In ‘95, I was part of a group that studied the adoption of this system at USP (University of São Paulo). The quotas that we propose would benefit students who passed the entrance examinations, but that didn’t manage to get classification for a vacancy.
* – Article originally published on May 27, 2012 and updated on November 2, 2012
1. Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002) was Brazil’s president at the time of the interview.
2. The Masters and the Slaves or (Casa Grande e Senzala in Portuguese) of Gilberto Freyre is highly influential work that documents the relationship between white masters and black slaves in colonial era Brazil. In the world of the social sciences, it remains a frequently cited masterpiece in the understanding of race relations in Brazil. This work has been interpreted in various ways since its release nearly 80 years ago. Some see the work as promoting the importance of black slaves in the history of Brazil while activists of the Movimento Negro see the work as sugar-coating slavery and race relations while helping to promote Brazilian society as a racial democracy.