At what point does the label “Sambo” or “House Negro” actually fit? The case of Congressman Hélio Lopes, avid supporter of far right President-Elect Jair Bolsonaro
By Marques Travae
In the months that just seemed to have flown by since about March, I followed the campaign of the then presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro with a mixture of disbelief and, with such support, a little less hope for the future of the Brazilian masses. Sometimes this guy said things that were just difficult to believe. And worse, as bad as so many of his declarations often were, even worse was the arrogance that came across as he said them. But perhaps the worst thing was the realization that there were people who supported this sort of rhetoric.
As the count down to the November election began, I started noticing the appearance of another politician who would frequently show up next to Bolsonaro. A very dark-skinned black man, Hélio Lopes, known as Hélio Negão (meaning ‘big black man’), 49, who received the most votes of any candidate for state congressman in Rio de Janeiro with 340,000. But as surprising as that might have been, black Brazilian activists were more puzzled by why he supported a man known for making racist statements as well as incendiary comments about women and the LGBT community. An avid supporter of Bolsonaro, during the election campaign, Lopes not only defended Bolsonaro against accusations that he was racist, he even started using the name Bolsonaro as part of his own name, presenting himself as Hélio Bolsonaro.
OK, Lopes and Bolsonaro are from the same party, the PSL, but for many, including myself, that wasn’t convincing enough to understand such support. Back in October, I wondered why I got the feeling that this black man seemed to be letting himself be used publicly to deflect accusations that posited Bolsonaro as a racist. To substantiate this feeling, I point to the fact that Bolsonaro frequently made references to the black father of his wife, Michelle, who he called Paulo Negão, again to defend himself against the possibility that he could be a racist. So, here we had a leading presidential candidate who many within the black community and movement believed to be anti-black using the names and presence of two black men, both of whom had the nickname of “negão”.
One other point that makes me wonder what reason Lopes is consistently the only black presence in the Bolsonaro camp is the fact that the President-Elect recently completed a list of 22 people who will be part of his cabinet and Lope was NOT one of his choices.
Rapper Marcelo D2 got the same feeling. A few months ago, the rapper divulged his sentiments by way of this Twitter account. D2 wrote the following:
“I’ve been trying to touch on this subject, super delicate subject, for a few days. And Bolsonaro’s negão, huh? Maybe this is the new nomenclature for escravo da casa grande (house slave). He claps for the boss, in the case here, he licks the captain’s boots. I’m not racist, I even have a black friend.”
With the last comment, D2 made reference to a sentence that black Brazilians point out is commonly used by white Brazilians when they are accused of being racist: “How can I be racist? I even have a black friend.”
D2 further wrote that “Helio was chosen to shield the ‘Dirty Ass’ from being called a racist,” which I also suggested a few weeks before the election.
The rapper was blasted for his comments. Below are just a few of the comments taking shots at rapper D2.
“Marcelo D2 has just created a new offense for the left to attack blacks who think independently: “negão do Bolsonaro”, who joins the capitão do mato (captain of the woods), traitor of the race, slave of the big house, among others. Only a racist would. It is case of process. Urgent! # MARCELOD2RACISTA” – Sérgio Camargo (@scamarsn) October 31, 2018
How the hollow head of the leftists works when they want to attack Bolsonaro: If he does not have a black friend, he is racist, but if he does, he will also be considered a racist. The left is made up of idiots who try to defile everyone with their idiocy. # MARCELOD2RACISTA” – RODRIGO MOLLER (@Ro_Moller) October 31, 2018
Some after the comments of Marcelo D2, Hélio Lopes “Bolsonaro” soon began to defend himself and personally debate the rapper:
“Dear Marcelo D2, stop pre-judging me or why I was standing next to the man/brother who gave me his hand and listened to me. I was voted for because of merit and thanks to God for the acceptance of the people. I applaud my brother, not my boss,” wrote Lopes “Bolsonaro”.
Marcelo D2 then responded to Hélio by citing the name of famed American activist Malcolm X, pointing out the how Hélio’s relationship with the presidential candidate looked like that of employee/employer?
“Helio, I don’t know if you know the story of a certain Malcolm who preferred to take the X as a surname rather than having the boss’s name after his and he said ‘in this country the negro is treated as an animal and animals have no surname.’ .. Get up, man,” wrote D2.
In turn, Hélio Bolsonaro took to Instagram posting a printout of the online sparring match between himself and the rapper, offering one more reply:
“In fact the X was the symbol to represent the forgotten name of his African ancestors, it does not change the mise-en-scène (placing on the stage). ‘Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?’ Matthew 7: 1-5.”
Of course, one would expect that Lopes would defend himself against such attacks whether he simply believed Bolsonaro was the right man to lead Brazil, or if he was voluntarily allowing himself to be used in a manner that suggested he was playing the role of a house negro. But something just doesn’t sit right with me when I see a black man so willingly supporting such a controversial figure, a man who not only believes that black quilombolas, descendants of fugitive slaves, don’t even deserve to reproduce or that will give Military Police an open check to murder more than the insanely high number of mostly non-white people they already kill every year.
Then, just a few weeks ago, I came across this news.
Lopes accompanied the President-Elect in a meeting with center-right politicians of the DEM (Democratas) political party. At a certain moment in President-Elect Bolsonaro’s comments, he points toward Lopes and made the following statement: “Quilombola? There’s more no land for quilombola. This time is over.”
After the comment, the video camera shifts over to Lopes who is shown chuckling after the statement. Let me just say, I wasn’t there so I cannot say for sure why Lopes started laughing at that very moment. Did someone near him say something funny at the time? Who knows, it’s just appearing very disturbing that Lopes would be laughing after Bolsonaro made such a statement. Like, dude….What’s funny about that?
Let me explain if you’re not sure why I’m taking issue with this.
Quilombolas having been living on the lands established by their fugitive slave ancestors since before the abolition of slavery in 1888. Some generations of these families go pretty far back in history and the vast majority still doesn’t own the titles to these lands. Over the years, people have been tricked into handing over these lands through deceptive means and leaders of these communities have been assassinated. On top of this, the process for attaining legal titles to these lands has been extremely slow. According to a report from May of this year, 92.5% of these lands still don’t hold titles. Today, there are over 1,200 certified quilombola communities across Brazil in nearly every state with the exceptions of Acre, Roraima and the Federal District. The states with the largest numbers of quilombolas are Bahia with 229, Maranhão with 112, Minas Gerais with 89 and Pará with 81.
The question of attaining legal rights to quilombo lands their ancestors have lived on for generations is a major issue for Brazil’s black leaders, but besides Bolsonaro having previously insulted them, now he clearly states how he will be dealing with quilombolas under his presidency when he says there’s “no more land” for them, and Lopes laughs? Let’s assume for a moment that that’s not the reason Lopes was actually laughing at that moment. Even so, he obviously knows Bolsonaro’s stance on BLACK quilombolas, yet he stands in firm support of the soon to be president on this issue.
So, if you’re keeping score of the question of whether Lopes has earned the title of “Sambo” or “House Negro” or the label is not a fair assessment, let’s recap.
- Lopes is the only consistent black presence in the Bolsonaro camp.
- Lopes has defended Bolsonaro against accusations that he is a racist.
- Lopes was not named to any position in Bolsonaro’s Ministry.
- Lopes adapted Bolsonaro’s last name during the campaign as a show of support.
- Lopes laughed and apparently supports Bolsonaro’s position on black quilombolas.
- Although I haven’t heard Lopes make a statement on Bolsonaro’s stance on other issues important to black Brazilians, I would assume that he is also against affirmative action policies and supports Bolsonaro’s views on the origins of slavery and Brazil’s debt to its African descendant population.
In my conclusion, I will acknowledge that the aforementioned six points perhaps aren’t necessarily enough to qualify Lopes as a certified “Sambo”, “House Negro”, or “capitão do mato“, but these signs are most definitely enough reason to keep our eyes on Lopes’s words, presence and actions in the coming months, as there are only two days left before the Bolsonaro era officially begins.