Brazil was the last country in the Western hemisphere to legally abolish slavery, 131 years ago today. The so-called Golden Law was the last bill signed during the imperial rule on May 13th, 1888, after more than three centuries of forced labor.
But the bill signed into law by Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil on May 13th, 1888 freed people while also leaving them in inhumane conditions. The journalist and writer Oswaldo Faustino argues that the date should not remember or celebrate the daughter of Emperor Dom Pedro II as the benefactor of black people.
Faustino worked with several media outlets and is a member of the Commission of Journalists for Racial Equality Committee (Cojira), and is a prominent writer in the African-Brazilian literature for children. He spoke with Brasil de Fato about the struggle for freedom and resistance of those who were enslaved, and also bemoaned people who now boast as being racist.
“Comedians think it’s fun to tell racist jokes and feel entitled to make those jokes, claiming they are ‘just making people laugh.’ So we are living one of the worst moments of Brazilian racism, because now we have people who are proud of that. So it’s not a black struggle, it’s everyone’s struggle, and society will suffer a lot if we don’t stamp out racism.”
Read the interview below.
Brasil de Fato: What is the May 13th and why is there a controversy about the end of slavery, marked by the bill signed by Isabel on this date?
Oswaldo Faustino: The biggest problem with the May 13th is this idea that the Golden Law was almost like a charity, something that was just granted, a freedom that was handed over, when actually in the 19th century, in that moment, there was a huge abolitionist movement. There were a lot of freed slaves, a lot of people rising up, there were quilombos [communities settled by escaped slaves] scattered all over the country.
But anyway, there was institutionalized slavery. I am part of a group of people that is not against the Golden Law, but against considering it the way it was established. But I am not against acknowledging its importance. Yes, the law is important, but it is not the outcome of the struggle of kind, charitable abolitionists. No, a lot of black people took part in the abolitionist fight as well, even though they are not acknowledged in history.
So the May 13th is not a completely useless date – so much so that African-derived religions, especially Umbanda, celebrate and remember it. There is that wonderful song Clementina de Jesus sings, and the words go, “I was sleeping, cangoma [the drums] called me, I was sleeping, cangoma called me, they said ‘rise, people, captivity is over.’”
Well, celebrating the end of captivity is fundamental, it is very important, it is at the root of our people, it’s people’s festivities. And the May 13th cannot be denied in that sense.
Now, to think of it as an act of charity by the princess or the Congress – because the princess actually received the decision by the Congress and just signed it – and say “from that point on, it was over”... How was that over? In what conditions were those who were captives up until that date left? What did they receive? How was May 14th? So May 13th, for us, became a day of reflection, a day to think, “Wait, how was that never-ending May 14th in our lives?”
The problem does not lie in acknowledging that a bill was signed into law on May 13th  freeing slaves, but it actually lies in not acknowledging the main role black people played in that struggle, and just link that with some kind of benevolence white people had with black people – which is what we learn at school –, as if black people were just passively accepting that. Is that it?
Yes, that’s it. Actually, that is what they teach us at school. That’s what society teaches us. That’s what they rub in, when a white person wants to joke about it, they say the Golden Law was signed in pencil. In 1988, around May, there was this story that the Golden Law was only in effect for 100 years and that all of us would go back to... Anyway, it's nothing like that.
That “freedom” that was announced, what do we have to reflect upon it? There is a samba song by Mangueira [samba school] that goes like, “don’t forget that the blacks built the wealth of our Brazil too.” And I say the song is wrong. Black people didn’t build it “too,” black people built it. It was black labor and black blood that built all this wealth for almost four centuries, that’s for sure. So the central role in building this wealth is not acknowledged, the central role [of black people] in fighting for freedom is not acknowledged.
The rebellions, the quilombos, the actions, everything that was brought from the African continent, including the production technology, none of that is acknowledged. So May 13th is a great day to think, it’s a day of reflection. Applauding those who want the princess to be canonized, that kind of thing, just makes us laugh.
On the other hand, I cannot deny how important freedom is, because we’ve always had freedom. We had our freedom by creating our cults, we had freedom by creating our concepts, our families, our cultures. Even though we were chained, we found ways to live our freedom.
Now, the important thing was the law saying slavery no longer existed. It’s what we fight when we see workers in slave-like conditions today. That’s what we hold up to say “wait a minute.”
Now speaking of today, what are the challenges, how can we bring that to people’s lives in a way they can understand what racism is in everyday situations, what has improved since that time, but also what hasn’t, and what do we still have to be aware to avoid this type of situation?
The biggest problem for black people is that black people don’t acknowledge themselves as the oppressed. Well, if we knew our people’s history and culture, if we knew a little bit of African history, we would not accept a number of things they say about us and a number of things they do to us, overtly racist things, and even things that are not overt.
So we do need to start to organize ourselves again. There was a huge movement in the early [20th] century, in the first three decades. But in 1937, during the Getúlio Vargas dictatorship, our most important organization, the Brazilian Black Front, shut down, an organization that had become a political party in 1936.
The movement starts to reemerge in the 1960s with some actions, with social clubs… We were still teenagers, still young, and we would go to the balls and we didn’t just dance and flirt, but we used the social clubs to showcase the books we were reading. So this whole thing cast a light again to finally boom in the 1970s with our demonstration outside the Municipal Theater [in São Paulo] and the establishment of the Unified Black Movement.
So all this is a way to become more aware, and what we have been doing on the May 13th is to constantly feed that awareness. I’m not one who leans into sectarianism. I believe in good, natural, loving, affectionate coexistence between each other. I believe in that possibility.
Now, they have to understand that, to take part, they are supporting actors, they cannot be the main actors, they cannot be the main characters. We are the main actors of this fight, we are the ones who experience it, we are the ones who have to elaborate on it. We do accept opinions and collaborations, we accept the energy and support, but we do not allow them to take the flag from our hands and pose as heroes.
I think that people who become aware of this issue start to understand that racism is not a condition of black people. Racism is society’s condition. A racist society is a sick society and it needs to be cured. And it is cured many times by actions by non-black people, by people who become aware of the issue and start to tell their peers, “stop that.”
To finish off, amazingly, Brazil used to be ‘a country with no racists.’ Well, look how great that was! But it’s not because Brazil was a “racial democracy.” It was because it was a country where everyone you’d ask “are you a racist?” they’d feel ashamed to say they were. Everyone said they were not. So no one was a racist, but everyone knew at least one racist: “my father is, my neighbor is…” Everyone knew a racist, but no one was a racist.
Now, partly because of these characters who are in power, people take pride in claiming they are racists. Comedians think it’s fun to tell racist jokes and feel entitled to make those jokes, claiming they are “just making people laugh.” So we are living one of the worst moments of Brazilian racism, because now we have people who are proud of that. So it’s not a black struggle, it’s everyone’s struggle, and society will suffer a lot if we don’t stamp out racism.
*With collaboration by Emilly Dulce
Edited by: Aline Carrijo | Translated by Aline Scátola