Black Conscience in Brazil (english)

Interview with: 
Wilson Honório da Silva

Gay and Black rights activist Wilson Honório da Silva reflects on the Black Movement and its history in Brazil.

Please introduce yourself and tell us something about the organizations in which you are active.

I was born in the suburbs of São Paulo in 1964, but my family moved when I was very young to the area of the ABC Paulista, where I grew up. There, in the cradle of the workers' union movements and with leaders such as Lula, in the late 1970s, I came into contact with political militancy, including the Black movement, which was then starting to get organized in the fight against the military dictatorship.

Besides being Black, I am gay, and the fight against the oppressive and repressive authoritarian military dictatorship was almost a matter of "survival", and I finished getting closer to socialist groups that were trying to organize these sections — specifically a group, at that time known as "Socialist Convergence", that had an important role in the creation of the Workers Party (PT, currently the governing party and which at that time, served as a channel for this fight).
Years later, after being expelled from the PT, the "Socialist Convergence" created the party in which I am now active, the "Socialist Party of United Workers", where I helped to found the General Secretary of Black People, as well as the Secretary of LGBT.

During the last decades I was one of the founders of the (Black Awareness Nucleus) at the University of São Paulo (in 1988) — which, just like the other public universities of the country, has a ridiculously low percentage of Black people, something around 2%. I am currently involved in the movement called "Quilombo Raça e Classe", whose priority is to organize Black men and women within social and youth movements (such as unions, student bodies and popular movements).

For us it is also very important to learn about the history and why it was named the "Black movement".

For us, militant and anti-racist activists, the Brazilian "Black movement" began when the first Black men and women grouped to resist slavery and racism. Therefore we counted, as part of our history, the fight of the quilombolas, between the 16th and 19th centuries, of which Palmares and Zumbi are our best examples; important urban revolts, such as the Revolt of Malês, in the beginning of the 1800s, in Salvador, with the presence of leaders such as Luiza Mahin; and fight of radical abolitionists, like Luis Gama, at the end of the 1800s; the "Chibata" Revolt, led by sailor João Cândido, in 1910; the creation of the Black press and Brazilian Black Front in the 1920s and 1930s. All of this is part of our history and it has helped to organize Black men and women against racism.

From a historical point of view, the contemporary Black movement has its origins in the late 1970s, when there was the fight against the military dictatorship and for the re-democratization of Brazilian society. It was in that process that the main groupings of the movement were formed (particularly the Unified Black Movement, created in 1978).
In the time, what motivated the organization were the scandalous cases of racism that were covered up by the dictatorship and the understanding that the fight for a democratic society also meant the conquest of a society without racism, machismo or homophobia. It is so much like this that we can say that the LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender), feminist and Black movements were constituted practically in the same process.

How was this term "Black" adopted, instead of for example, "Afro-Brazilian", or "Black" as used in Great Britain or South Africa, identifying the movement rather "political" than "ethnic"?

This is one of those constant discussions within the Brazilian Black movement. And, certainly, you can find different explanations (starting from different social and political conceptions) for the adoption of the term "Black". Essentially, in my point of view, as well as from a significant part of the movement, the adoption of the term "Black" essentially has a political content. First because, in a country that created and fed the myth of racial democracy (based on the intellectuals' theories like Gilberto Freyre, author of "Casa Grande & Senzala", published in the beginning of the 1930s), the statement that we are "Black" (not "mulatinhos", "escurinhos" or any similar nonsense) is, at the same time, a political and ethnic matter.

It is enough to remember that in the last national census of the country, which took place in 2000, only 6.2% of the Brazilian population declared themselves "Black" (a little more than 30% are said "parda", which is a derivative of the Portuguese word for "dirty"). To have an idea of the problem that we face, it's enough to recall that in Salvador, the capital of Bahia and considered the "blackest" city of the country, only 13.3% of the population declared themselves "Black", which demonstrates the enormous lack of "racial identity" in this country, an element that we consider extremely important, even so that we can organize the movement.

How important do you think is self-identity for the way Black people act and the way they are treated in Brazil?

First, it is necessary to remember that, in Brazil, "race" is something that mixes with "shade of the skin" and not with ethnic inheritance. That is an enormous problem for the creation of a political and racial identity. Whenever I give lectures, I mention an experience that I had after seeing the film "Malcolm X", directed by the North American Spike Lee. If you watched the movie, you should remember the scene in which the young Malcolm, imprisoned and completely unconscious of his social and racial situation, is advised by another detainee to check the dictionary about how society defines "Black" and "White". After watching the movie, when I arrived home I made the same, checking it in the most famous dictionary of the country, the "Aurélio". It was without surprise that I verified that "black" is defined with adjectives such as: "It is said of the individual of the black race (…); black, dirty, soiled, black (…), very sad, dismal, (…) melancholic, fateful (…), damned, sinister (…), perverse, atrocious (…) slave." On the other hand, "white" has synonyms such as "with the colour of the snow, of the milk, of the whitewash (…) it is said of the individual of the white race (…) without stain, innocent, pure, white, naive".

This enormous negative load thrown upon Black people is one of the elements that cause Black men and women want to "escape" their racial identity. Just to have an idea of the social consequence of this, it is enough to remember that in 1980, when the National Census left the option for race/colour open, the 50% that identified themselves as "non-white", declared nothing less than 136 different "colours" (that included absurd things such as "dawn-dark", "almost black", "almost white", "sun-tan", "white-tan", "toasted") or any other thing that denies the word "black", seemed as an indicator of social inferiority.

In this sense, it is worth mentioning an example of the consequences of this that involves a known celebrity in Europe, the soccer player Ronaldo Nazário. In June 2005, interviewed about a case of racism in Brazilian soccer, the player (rich, famous and beloved …) said: "I think all the blacks suffer [with the racism]. I, who am white, suffer with such a tremendous ignorance."

When and why was the Black Conscience Day in Brazil instituted?

November 20, the "National Day of the Black Conscience" was instituted as a form of opposition to the May 13, the day in which the slaves' abolition is celebrated, due to the signature of the so-called "Golden Law" that made Brazil the last country to finally abolish slavery in 1888. Ever since, the date has been used to celebrate the "kindness" of the Brazilian elite (synthesized in the figure of Princess Isabel) in the slaves' liberation. When we defined November 20 as a counterpoint, we were trying to rescue the history of the struggle that marked the end of the slavery. In other words, there was no kindness or concession.
On the contrary, like Zumbi (murdered on November 20, 1695), many gave their lives for our freedom. It is that awareness of the struggle that we want to rescue with this date. The campaign for the institution of a holiday on November 20 began at the end of the 1970s and, until today, in spite of several cities and capitals having adopted it as a local holiday, it is still not nationally instituted. Even in the cities where the holiday was indeed approved, there is resistance in its adoption by part of the employers, who refuse to respect it.

What is the objective of the Black movement in Brazil?

I could say that our common objective is to combat racism that has permeated all aspects of national life. Two examples: the last research done by the "Annual Report of Social Information" ("Rais") revealed that, while the monthly medium wage of a Black woman is R$ 760, a white man's average salary reaches R$ 1.671; on the other hand, a young Black man's (15 to 24 years old) probability to be murdered in Brazil is three times higher than that of a young white man. Numbers as these can be subtantiated in all of the social sectors in the country.

Therefore, a significant part of the fight is for the implementation of public policies (quotas, affirmative action, etc.) that minimize the effects of our racism. The organization which I'm part of, the "Movimento Quilombo Raça e Classe", supported by a new Brazilian syndicalism central, the National Coordination of Struggles (Conlutas), as well as by the General Secretary of Black Men and Women of the "Socialist Party of United Workers" (PSTU) in which I am active, has a quite particular evaluation of the fight against racism. As well as Malcolm X said at the end of his life, we believe that "there is no capitalism without racism." In other words, even though capitalism did not "invent" racism, it was formed and grew, deepening the racial oppression in order to profit from it. Therefore, as opposed to most organizations, we think that the anti-racist fight should also be an anti-system fight. It is what we call a fight of "race and class." A battle that should be fought united with other oppressed groups (such as LGBT, women, youth, etc.) in alliance with all the others who are exploited by the system, the workers in general, independent of race. But today most of the Brazilian Black movement, unfortunately, believes that there are solutions built only and exclusively in the institutional field, and for that reason, are now in their great majority allied with the government (which was, as a matter of fact, composed in alliance with the same patronised and oligarchic sectors that always benefited from racism).

Is the movement in Brazil linked with other international movements?

Exactly because we believe in this relationship between racism and the capitalist system, we don't believe that we can fight against racism if not in an internationalised perspective. The persecution of the "undocumented" and immigrants in general in Europe; the situation of the indigenous people in Latin America or of the "Chicanos" and "Blacks" in the USA (in spite of Obama's victory) demonstrate that the racial issue is today at the centre of all of the tensions and crises in the world. In this sense, to struggle against racism is a need for all those who really defend a fairer and free world.

For that reason it is fundamental that we build international mechanisms, independent of our respective governments and of the employers and bourgeois sectors that try to co-opt the movements, so that we are able to build an international unit, that allows us to exchange experiences, develop united campaigns. Just as examples of some possibilities, we can speak about the fight for Abu Jamal's defence and other Black people pursued by racism in the USA, or the fight for life and freedom that is happening with the immigrants in Europe, or also the fight against racial violence in the countries of the so-called "Third World".

Anti-racist greetings.
Wilson Honório da Silva

Interview: Cristiane Tasinato