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The Trajectory of a Black Academic Who Returns to His K-12 Roots to Reconnect With Society

From the Conversation.com

By Álvaro Pereira do Nasciemento

(Translation of article from the Portuguese by Rafael De Moura)


The academic life can paradoxically insert us into bubbles impenetrable to the majority of society. We go on involving ourselves in our research, classes and orientations until graduation, and at post-grad, we go on to produce scientific articles, and exercise our administrative duties…When we take stock, we find ourselves in a bubble exclusively for researchers and students, and beyond that, how we transform everything outside the bubble into objects of research.

I entered one of those bubbles and almost floated, solely within the walls of the academy. But I popped it in time to remake my own existence as an academic researcher.

We enter these bubbles for various reasons (from the pettiest, such as elitism, to even the altruistic desire to save the world). In my case, for twelve years, being in that bubble led me to a serious professional crisis.

I started to not believe in my classes. I’d discuss the recent research in the field of Brazilian history, and would present the methodologies and theories used to achieve academic results. All in all, I was the teacher of a teacher-training course, like almost all the History grads in the country, but I didn’t teach them to instruct children and teens in Basic Education, the career that receives the most trainees.

My studies, even in crisis, became ever more refined with great results, leading me to enter a select group of Researchers of Productivity at CNPq (the National Council of Research). The lack of motivation, however, came to accompany me intensely. To make things worse, my classroom was full of workers, who became students on the night shift, with less time for lectures, making the classes even more difficult.

The come-up was far from what I’d wanted. Colleagues would report on the average academic performance of the students; others discussed the lack of reading on the part of student workers etc., but few questioned the methodology they offered in classes.

I came to research about the issue, and to have patience and sensibility in the classroom to make changes.

When I studied undergrad I faced the same problem: I worked during the day and studied during the night. From the age of 15, I’d fix and install electronic gates, intercoms, electric typewriters, computers and printers, but I also fixed plant vases and paintings on the walls and household appliances. My bag had all kinds of tools, and so, professionals like me would call themselves Zé da Mala (like Handy Manny?)

It took seven years for me to graduate in History. Few teachers were sensitive to the struggles I and other workers (men and women, part of whom had kids and stay-at-home partners) were confronting to be there in the classroom.

But I also realized the absence of bridges between the academy and society. What bothered me was the lack of commitment from academics with regards to the schools of Basic Education and social movements. Some decades later, after studying post-grad and becoming a professional historian, I saw myself reproducing the same class format as my old professors in the academy.

Beyond that, I lacked interest in what was going on outside the walls of the university. Six years after getting my job as a professor in the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, the crisis came knocking down my door.


Three black women educators and an experience in a Rio public school were essential to safeguarding my joy in academic activities: they helped me architect and construct the bridges between my actions in the university and Basic Education.

The wonderful couple of educators Azoilda Trindade and Janete Ribeiro, not to mention Giovana Xavier, have taught me that my monologues and class formats would not make good professors for Basic Education, especially pertaining to gen Z kids and adolescents.

In addition, there was the implementation of class and racial quotas in public university and the acuteness of the struggles against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. I read a good part of what was indicated by them and curated various experiences upon hearing and observing them.

From then on, music, theater, games, classes in historic sites, workshops, dance, dialogues with families and educational legislation made my classes more vibrant and suited to the formation of teachers in Basic Education. This practice would be renewed every semester or every year, and is directly related to the story I’m about to tell.

What was missing now was my own direct experience with Basic Education, looking in the eyes of mostly black children and teens.

I had that opportunity in the City of Lisbon State College, in Madureira, a suburb of Rio that was next to my neighborhood growing up. There was, no doubt, a return to my origins, rummaging through my memory and my emotions.

In that school, the professor Sandro Vinicius invited me to organize a lecture alongside journalist Isabela Reis. The theme of the month was Black Consciousness. My memories came to the fore very intensely. I spoke about that train station in Madureira, and how, from there, I would go to work every day as an electronics technician, broadening my horizons and goalposts until I became a university professor.

Between those two points of exit and entry, I filled in the history, presenting at various Brazilian and international cities for work visits, like Buenos Aires, Lisbon, Chicago, and especially, Evanston, in the USA, where I was a visiting professor at Northwestern University.

In the eyes of academic professionals, this is quotidian, but not so for the teens of Brazilian peripheries, who seldom left their own neighborhoods. By hearing me, those students where observing that an ex-resident of Turiaçu, Black, ex-Handy Manny, and son of a poor family, had realized that academic path. Why couldn’t they be inspired and move forward?

What was missing, after all, was informing them that my story wasn’t meant to have happened. In that opportunity, on the November of 2018, still in the heat in the moment, I posted on Facebook:

“Speaking to young people in-depth about the matter was one of my best experiences as a Black intellectual. I showed them all the barriers confronted, explained how the racist system violates, discourages and closes paths, and how it’s because I’m someone who was not meant to be there. How the week may serve to heighten our awareness, to take (yes, take, for the system doesn’t guarantee ratified constitutional rights for the Black and poor) what should also be ours.We are already taking steps forward, and that makes them want to ‘beat us down’ even more, now with “snipers”. But our journey is just beginning. Not one step backwards! You can call me to the schools, for I will go!”

At that time, the governor of Rio was elected on the promise of killing criminals with professional police snipers. But such a practice was not exclusive to this government, but indeed pertained to a majority of the regimes since the end of slavery. The post-abolition period is that in which most Black people were and are killed in a violent fashion in Brazil, and it’s almost been 140 years.

Since that post on social media, I went on to be invited by colleagues from different schools to present that motivational lecture, offered free of charge and at my own expense. This is one of the columns I’ve erected to construct my bridge between the university and Basic Education. I offer them to public schools in the peripheries. Unfortunately, part of them, due to being in areas commanded by militia and traffickers, require special care, like entering the neighborhood on a ride with someone recognized by the criminals, entering at specific times etc.


The expectation of these students in regards to their academic future rarely surpasses high school. Higher education is unheard of or seen as unachievable. They don’t know which are the criteria for achieving a position, imagining that public university is sold or exclusive to rich people.

I explain the existing opportunities, free and quality, offered by public universities, such as having doctorate professors, access to libraries and didactic material, receiving a budget to keep them studying, meals at symbolic prices, internships, trips and other benefits.

In regards to my colleagues in the academy, I don’t fault them for their own absence of bridges to society. In the greater part of Brazilian public universities, we see them performing innumerous functions. Our support staff team is virtually non-existent. Beyond being teachers and researchers, we are instructors, buyers, investors, accountants, secretaries and dispatchers. Even still, our projects are approved and financed by publishing companies, filling the university library with books, paying for air conditioning units in the classrooms, putting computers in the labs, supplying offices with materials for daily consumption, bringing scholarships to young researchers and developing diverse and impactful academic products.

What leads me to work even more is the memory that I was once a youth on the periphery. I know that their lives can measure up to almost nothing for governors and legislators – and for the gangs of militia and traffickers, who also kill and destroy them. These young people suffer the effects of racism and the terrible distribution of wealth in Brazil: they can’t study (their nutrition kept low and/or based on on cheap and overprocessed products; irregular sleep with the heat and mosquitoes in the rooms; an excess of people in the house; taking care of younger siblings etc.) and end up raising themselves with difficulties.

They work in under-employment from a young age (helping their father or mother in various trades, like stonemasonry and housecleaning; traveling as merchants; selling sweets or wiping windshields at the traffic-signs; selling drugs at retail; gig economy driving…). They become fathers and mothers in their earlier years, having to assume responsibilities before investing and taking on promising professional careers. And worst of all, they can turn to crime, not to mention the usage of heavy drugs.

This is why I’m so preoccupied with the training of future professors, ones who can mitigate the invisibility of Black and poor people in the peripheries’ schools. Like the thinker, intellectual and activist Azoilda Loreto once said: ‘ invisibility is death in life’.

I think I learned very well the meaning of that lesson. And from there, to finish things off, I turn to the accomplished Caetano Veloso. After all, ‘people are to shine, not to die of hunger.’”