Companhia das Letras collects books with children on a slave ship

Social scientist JS was outraged when she chose the children’s book “ABECÊ da Liberdade: A História de Luiz Gama” as a gift to a friend’s son. In the work about the childhood of writer and lawyer Luiz Gama (1830-1882), a historical figure in the abolitionist struggle in the country, he read scenes in which black children in the hold of a slave ship jumped rope with chains and found it funny to play at Job’s slaves. as they sailed towards slavery.

After being questioned by the report of the UOL, Companhia das Letras, the publication’s publisher, decided to block the sale of the book on its website and collect the work in bookstores.

JS is a white woman and was shocked by the images, which she labeled “symbolic violence”.

“It was a surprise and a shock to read the scene of children playing a sieve inside the slave ship. I was wondering if it would have crossed the mind of someone to do the same scene with children in Auschwitz, you know? to enter the incinerator?” he asks, referring to the Holocaust, which killed millions of Jews during World War II (1939-1945).

Lourival Aguiar, a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at USP (University of São Paulo) and father of a 7-year-old boy, also criticized the publication, which he acquired with the intention of reading to his son.

As a parent and race relations researcher, it was embarrassing to read the book. The biggest problem, for me, is the romanticization of this period of terror in Brazilian history. The way it is placed in the text and in the illustrations takes away the importance of what these facts were. The enslavement was real. The suffering was real and left historic marks on the way black people are seen
Lourival Aguiar, doctoral candidate in Anthropology at USP

Originally released in 2015 by the Alfaguara label of Editora Objetiva, the book was automatically incorporated into the Companhia das Letrinhas catalog when Editora Objetiva was acquired by the group. A second edition was published in 2020, unchanged, and sold around two thousand copies throughout Brazil.

The publication is written by José Roberto Torero and Marcus Aurelius Pimenta, with illustrations by Edu Oliveira.

In a note to the report, the Company retracted to its readers: “We deeply regret that this or any content published by the publisher has caused pain or embarrassment to some of our readers”.

According to Isabela Santiago, from the publisher’s Children’s Marketing Division, now the copies on consignment in bookstores and distributors across the country are being collected and the current edition is in the process of evaluation and review by the publisher.

Unfortunately, this title was not revised when it was reprinted with the new label. But, when the criticism came from the reader who came to UOL, it was already in the process of internal re-reading, which would soon be passed on to the authors. We assume our failure in this process and are in conversation with the authors for the proper review of the book. This edition is out of the market and will not be sold again
Isabela Santiago, from the Children’s Marketing Division of Companhia das Letras


One of the authors of the book, Marcus Aurelius Pimenta, explained to UOL that the production of the book was not accompanied by any specialist or black author.

“It’s hard for a person not to be moved by the story [de Luiz Gama] and with me it was no different. José Roberto Torero was also enchanted with the character and we went to do research. There weren’t many sources, not so much new information, but it was enough to prepare a structure”, he explains.

For Torero, the book is a historical novel for children and has been rewritten ten times until its final version. “It is a novel, a work of fiction. There is no search for historical accuracy. The idea is to have the freedom to create”, he argues.

In addition to the games on the slave ship, the book features scenes in which young black people even find it fun to have to dance to show off their physical attributes while being sold into slavery. About this joyful and harmonious treatment, the writer argues that “irony is a way of working with pain”.

If the kids didn’t know what was going to happen [na escravidão], maybe they played. Children play at wakes, for example. It’s a way to get away from the pain. We also had to be faithful to Luiz Gama, a man who had a lot of humor, so much so that he wrote “Burlesque Trovas”. Maybe it would be easier to do something dramatic. But we resist that temptation. A child is more complex than that
José Roberto Torero, one of the authors of ABECÊ da Liberdade: the story of Luiz Gama

After analyzing the editions of the book, the historian Beatrice Rossotti identified “serious historical errors”. “The reports of enslaved people show that children did not play on slave ships. Conditions were precarious, many people died on the way. There was no room for playful games. The chains were big and heavy, there was no way to jump chains like jumping ropes” , scores.

For her, the fun scenario and the supposed ironies of the text create in the readers’ minds the idea that the enslavement of black people was something light and even fun. “The book intends to tell a part of what the history of Brazil was, so much so that it is entitled Abecedário da Liberdade, but it relativizes what was one of the most traumatic experiences that the black population has ever experienced in its history,” he concludes.

Ana Célia Silva, retired professor at UNEB (University of the State of Bahia), also identified passages that she considers problematic after reading the first edition of the book.

On page 26, for example, the slave ship is accompanied by dolphins, which suggests a cruise ship with happy people on board, says Silva, also a specialist in representing African descendants in textbooks. For her, the production of the publication is a practical example of structural racism in Brazil.

“The identified mistakes may not mean deliberate intentions to reduce the inhumanity of the slave regime and the intentional repression of the ethnic-racial diversity of the black population in the country. In many situations, there is an internalization and naturalization of the dehumanization and repression of the other. This text may be present. included in this hypothesis,” he says.