Florestan Fernandes and the periphery at the university

photo by Guilherme Gaensly


“All we have is us” (Emicida).

In the 1960s, a current in linguistics maintained that young African-Americans resorted to dialects because they were unable to learn standardized English in schools. Against this approach, William Labov (1984) refuted the thesis that the use of dialects would imply a cultural deficit. In his research, Labov found that young people in the Harlem ghettos are equally able to use dialects and standard English.

The verbal deprivation hypothesis of African American ghetto students is a linguistic and educational myth. Instead of questioning the problems of the educational system, this myth blames students, their families and communities for the experiences of school failure. At the limit, this myth can lead to the racist hypothesis “of the genetic inferiority of blacks” (LABOV, 1984, p. 146).

At the origin of this myth, argues Labov (1984), is a mistaken linguistic theory about the relations between non-standard English and standard English. Like the English widespread in the ghettos, the standard English adopted in schools and universities can also be understood as a dialect. For political reasons, these language variations do not have the same prestige in society (LABOV, 2008).

In a text about language, Bell Hooks recalls a verse by Adrienne Rich (2018) that marked her experience as a university student: “This is the language of the oppressor, however, I need it to talk to you” (HOOKS, 2008, p. . 857). Standard English, says Hooks, “is the language of conquest and domination, (…) it is the mask that hides the loss of so many languages, (…) native communities that we will never hear” (2008, p. 858). The black vernacular promoted a break with standard English that “enabled and still enables rebellion and resistance” (HOOKS, 2008, p. 860).

Some of the variations developed by specific social groups are incorporated by other speakers of the standard language. This occurs, points out Labov, because variation is “an inherent and regular property of the system” (2008, p. 262). Following this position, Deleuze and Guattari (1995) take inherent variations as fundamental elements in the transformation of culture and the arts. In this sense, both linguistic and non-linguistic variations, “variables of expression and variables of content” (DELEUZE; GUATTARI, 1995, p. 42), contribute to intellectual creation.

Influenced by the work of Labov and other authors, the academic world began to reflect on the importance of plurilingualism and curricular justice (CONNELL, 1993). It is argued that the university becomes a plural space for the production of knowledge. The democratization of education implies the recognition and study of a wide diversity of languages ​​and knowledge!

In recent years, with the progressive adhesion to the Unified Selection System (SISU) and with the investments in the Support Program for Permanence and Student Training (PAPFE), the University of São Paulo now has a significant number of female and male students from public schools. A part of these students lives in the outskirts and in cities close to the capital.

As Deleuze and Guattari (1995) maintain, the exchange between people from different cultures and social classes can contribute to the originality of academic production. This occurred, from the 1940s onwards, in the research of Florestan Fernandes.

From humble origins, Florestan was an exception at the Faculty of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters (FFCL) at the University of São Paulo. Among his college classmates, Florestan was the only one who came from the lumpenproletariat: “I was like an outsider and, in many respects, an outsider. (…) If they did not prove to be hostile, they also did not open the floodgates of their 'circle'” (FERNANDES, 1976, p. 158-159).

Son of a washerwoman, Florestan faced the violence of the São Paulo project to expel the poor classes to the outskirts (SANTOS, 2003). One of the strategies of this “hygienization” was the absence of a rent regulation policy: “We lived in small tenements or in basements and when the rent went up we were forced to leave the place where we were” (FERNANDES, 1997, p. 227 ).

One of the reasons for school evasion among poor children (PATTO, 1999), Florestan had to live with his mother in several neighborhoods: Bom Retiro, Bela Vista, Brás, Bosque da Saúde and Penha. When he was taking an undergraduate course in social sciences, Professor Arbousse Bastide asked him what he was reading, Florestan replied that he was reading Durkheim on the tram that was taking him home (SOARES, 2021).

During his student period, Florestan lived in Penha, a working-class and peripheral neighborhood in the East Zone. The college and the firm he worked for were downtown. On these journeys, he went from the starting point to the end of the tram line. In an interview, Florestan comments: “both when I went to work and when I came back, I spent a lot of time on the tram. I could read” (SOARES, 2021, p. 63).

This peripheral experience influenced Florestan's sociology. Because of gaps in his secondary education, he had to follow a “monastic discipline” of reading and study to keep up with his undergraduate degree. In the testimony of Antonio Candido: “it is necessary to mention his rare power of concentration, one of the most important instruments of intellectual life, which allowed him to read non-stop, in any situation: on the tram rails, in the doctors’ waiting room, in the cinema lobbies, not to mention public libraries” (1996, p. 44).

Florestan's childhood in tenements and cellars marked his research into folklore: “Due to the conditions of my own life as a child, my knowledge of the neighborhoods of São Paulo, the contacts I had with certain people, it was very easy for me to collect a lot of material. ” (2011, p. 29). His research with Roger Bastide on the black issue also evoked his experiences: “A deep psychological identification base was established, partly because of my past, partly because of my previous socialist experience” (FERNANDES, 2011, p. . 72).

In his research on the social organization of the Tupinambás, Florestan (1989) found elements of their “culture” of “folk” (MUSSOLINI, 2009), arising from the peasant origin of his family and the people who were close to him. In the work activities he has carried out since childhood, Florestan has known the companionship of other children who also had to earn a living on the streets. This form of solidarity exists in the indigenous tribes that the sociologist studied: “those who have nothing to share share their people with others” (FERNANDES, 1976, p. 144).

Since his first texts, Florestan was concerned with creating a new language, a dialect that aimed at rigor and conceptual precision. According to Maria Arminda Arruda, “Florestan Fernandes' language emerges surrounded by terms drawn from the conception of the scientific method” (1995, p. 142). It was with this innovative attitude that this peripheral sociologist contributed to academic knowledge.

* Paulo Fernandes Silveira Professor at the Faculty of Education at USP and researcher at the Human Rights Group at the Institute for Advanced Studies at USP.


ARRUDA, Maria Arminda (1995). Sociology in Brazil: Florestan Fernandes and the “São Paulo school”. In: MICELI, Sérgio (org.). History of social sciences in Brazil, v. 2. São Paulo: Vértice, p. 107-232.

CANDIDO, Antonio (1996). Florestan Fernandes student and scholar. In: Remembering Florestan Fernandes. São Paulo: Private Edition, p. 44-49. Available in: https://marxismo21.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Lembrando-Florestan-Fernandes.pdf

CONNELL, Raewyn (1993). Schools and social justice. Madrid: Ediciones Morata.

DELEUZE, Gilles; GUATTARI, Felix (1995). November 20, 1923: postulates of linguistics. In: A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia, vol. 2. São Paulo: Editora 34, p. 11-59.

FERNANDES, Florestan (1976). In search of a critical and militant sociology. In. FERNANDES, Florestan. Sociology in Brazil: contribution to the study of its formation and development. Petropolis: Voices, p. 140-212.

FERNANDES, Florestan (1989). The social organization of the Tupinambá. São Paulo: HUCITEC/ Editora UNB.

FERNANDES, Florestan (1997). Florestan Fernandes, by Paulo de Tarso Venceslau. In: ABRAMO, Bia (org.). Rememory: interviews about Brazil in the 223th century. São Paulo, Perseu Abramo Foundation, p. 240-XNUMX. Available in: https://fpabramo.org.br/publicacoes/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/05/rememoria.pdf

FERNANDES, Florestan (2011). Interview: Florestan Fernandes, TRANS/FORM/AÇÃO: Revista de Psicologia, 34, p. 25-106. Available in: https://revistas.marilia.unesp.br/index.php/transformacao/article/view/1060

GAENSLY, William (1916). Photo of public transport/workers. Available in:


HOOKS, Bell (2008). Language: teaching new landscapes/ new languages. Feminist Studies Magazine, v. 16, no. 3, p. 857-864. Available in: https://www.scielo.br/j/ref/a/GWcB7QS3ZNxr3jn6qj6NHHw/?format=pdf&lang=pt

LABOV, William (1984). There english logic in the standard, Education and Society. Interdisciplinary journal of education, n. 4, P. 145-168. Available in: https://issuu.com/enguita-eys/docs/educacion-y-sociedad-04

LABOV, William (2008). Sociolinguistic patterns. São Paulo: Parabola Editorial.

MUSSOLINI, Gioconda (2009). Persistence and change in folk societies in Brazil, Field Notebooks, v. 18, no. 18, p. 287-300. Available in: https://www.revistas.usp.br/cadernosdecampo/article/view/45609

PATTO, Maria Helena (1999). The production of school failure: stories of submission and rebellion. São Paulo: House of the Psychologist.

RICH, Adrienne (2018). what times are these. São Paulo: Editions Jabuticaba.

SANTOS, Carlos [Casé Angatu Tupinambá] (2003). Not everything was Italian: São Paulo and poverty, 1890-1915. São Paulo: Annablume/FAPESP, 2003.

SOARES, Eliane Veras (2021). First interview with Florestan Fernandes. In: SOARES, Eliane Veras; COSTA, Diogo Valença (eds.). Florestan Fernandes: trajectory, memories and dilemmas in Brazil. Chapecó: Marxismo 21, p. 49-75. Available in: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QvjPT9jz7CPEkHRj8RzYtxcYZUk_S5uf/view

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