Escrava Anastacia, Brazilian Saint and Icon (Culture Brief, no.7, Summer 2014)

by Jamillah R. Gabriel

Upon visiting Brazil, one might notice the perpetual image of a dark-skinned woman with blue eyes, and an iron mask and collar fastened on her face and around her neck. An iconic image that is often seen in Brazilian art and other manifestations, “Escrava Anastacia,” or the slave Anastacia, is also a popular figure amongst practitioners of both Brazilian Catholicism and Umbanda. The illustration seen below was originally a drawing of an unidentified Brazilian slave by French artist Jacques Arago which later came to be associated with the stories of Anastacia.

While it is unknown if she was a real person, there are several variations in the oral tradition that describe who she was, and most accounts agree that Anastacia was enslaved by a sugar plantation owner in Brazil, where she was subjected to rape and abuse by the overseer and many other white men. Her attempts to fend off these advances along with other acts of defiance were inevitably the cause for her punishment resulting in confinement to an iron mask and collar and her subsequent death. It should also be noted that, historically, enslaved people often were forced to wear iron masks for a variety reasons, one of which was to prevent any attempts at committing suicide by poisoning themselves through the ingestion of dirt.
Anastacia has come to represent many things to the people of Brazil. One perspective is that the emphasis on her blue eyes within the oral narrative is meant to detract from her Africanness and implies that if the eyes are the mirror of the soul, then Anastacia is good and saintly because she has a “white” soul. This belief reflects an obsession with whiteness (Dos Santos Soares, 2012, p. 84). But the most common representation of Anastacia is evidenced in the movement among Catholic women who have embraced her as a long-suffering character who was able to both maintain her virtue and forgive her attackers, despite the brutality that characterized her life, thereby making her worthy of sainthood. She has become synonymous with “the sufferings not only of slaves but of female slaves and black women in general” (Handler & Hayes, 2009, p. 37).

Dos Santos Soares, M.A. (2012). Look, blackness in Brazil!: Disrupting the grotesquerie of racial representation
in Brazilian visual culture. Cultural Dynamics, 24(1), 75-101. doi: 10.1177/0921374012452812
Handler, J.S., & Hayes, K.E. (2009). Escrava Anastacia: The iconographic history of a Brazilian popular saint.
African Diaspora, 2, 25-51. doi: 10.1163/187254609X4307682014-jul-CULTUREBRIEFS7


Black Death, a Father’s Perspective


A Father’s Cry for Justice

 by Bishop T.D. Jakes

When Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. made plans to drop off their 18 year old son Michael at Vatterott College, a technical school near their Ferguson, Mo. home for the start of his freshman year, never could they have imagined that rather than celebrate his triumphs, these deeply grieved parents would instead be planning his funeral.

As I glance at the 20 candles glistening atop my own son’s birthday cake on a warm August afternoon, the irony is not lost as I too prepare for the trek that millions of parents make ritually each fall, dropping their offspring off at colleges, universities and trade schools across the nation. Yet, unlike the majority of parents, I now have the added burden of knowing that recent events have placed my sons squarely on the endangered list.

It’s becoming an all too familiar vignette of distraught mothers and fathers helpless to shield their sons and daughters against societal woes, and unforeseen circumstances that would find them scanning crime scene photos instead of gleefully posting ‘first day of school’ snapshots on Facebook and Instagram.

The seemingly willful killings of unarmed black men like Michael Brown, Jr. in Missouri, Trayvon Martin in Florida or Eric Garner in New York, all have their origins in the odious practice of racial profiling.

According to U.S. News and World Report, African Americans in Ferguson, Mo. are not only stopped more often, they are also searched and arrested more than whites, even though the data show that whites are more likely to be caught with contraband if searched. In short, whites were stopped for actual suspicious behavior, whereas black were routinely stopped for racially motivated reasons.

Although legislation was put forth to end this heinous exercise, the state of Missouri’s own 2013 statistics show the disproportionate execution of “just-us” Ferguson-style: Of the 5,384 police stops, 686 were white, while 4,632 were black. Of 611 searches, 47 were white, 562 were black. Of 521 arrests, 36 were white, 483 were black.

As a father of three African American sons and a pastor to more than 15,000 black men not to mention the other 23 nationalities that make up The Potter’s House of Dallas, I’m deeply troubled by the constant erosion of the black males whose battle to survive poverty, drugs, violence, dropout rates and other community maladies only to come to such a forlorn and hideous end! We certainly don’t need the added burden of racial profiling or any form of injustice leveled against our already perplexing ills.

And while the exact details of Michael Brown’s death continue to unfold, his parent’s anguished cries on television remind me of how onerous the task is for mothers and fathers in our communities to dodge the bullets of black-on-black crime, disenfranchisement, disillusionment, and a justice system whose own statistics reveal racial disparities and poverty itself as the twin scions of sociological toxicity.

I cringed at the attention that would not likely have been given to this case had the community in one accord not demanded a thorough investigation! Nevertheless, I am grateful for the attention that this outcry has received from the highest levels of government!

read more @

The very Black in Nina Simone’s skin…

From the New Yorker:

A Raised Voice

How Nina Simone turned the movement into music.

by Claudia Ruth Pierpont

“My skin is black,” the first woman’s story begins, “my arms are long.” And, to a slow and steady beat, “my hair is woolly, my back is strong.” Singing in a club in Holland, in 1965, Nina Simone introduced a song she had written about what she called “four Negro women” to a young, homogeneously white, and transfixed crowd. “

And one of the women’s hair,” she instructed, brushing her hand lightly across her own woolly Afro, “is like mine.” Every performance of “Four Women” caught on film (as here) or disk is different. Sometimes Simone coolly chants the first three women’s parts—the effect is of resigned weariness—and at other times, as on this particular night, she gives each woman an individual, sharply dramatized voice. All four have names. Aunt Sarah is old, and her strong back has allowed her only “to take the pain inflicted again and again.” Sephronia’s yellow skin and long hair are the result of her rich white father having raped her mother—“Between two worlds I do belong”—and Sweet Thing, a prostitute, has tan skin and a smiling bravado that seduced at least some of the eager Dutch listeners into the mistake of smiling, too. And then Simone hit them with the last and most resolutely up to date of the women, improbably named Peaches. “My skin is brown,” she growled ferociously, “my manner is tough. I’ll kill the first mother I see. ’Cause my life has been rough.” (One has to wonder what the Dutch made of killing that “mother.”) If Simone’s song suggests a history of black women in America, it is also a history of long-suppressed and finally uncontainable anger.

A lot of black women have been openly angry these days over a new movie about Simone’s life, and it hasn’t even been released. The issue is color, and what it meant to Simone to be not only categorically African-American but specifically African in her features and her very dark skin. Is it possible to separate Simone’s physical characteristics, and what they cost her in this country, from the woman she became? Can she be played by an actress with less distinctively African features, or a lighter skin tone? Should she be played by such an actress? The casting of Zoe Saldana, a movie star of Dominican descent and a light-skinned beauty along European lines, has caused these questions—rarely phrased as questions—to dog the production of “Nina,” from the moment Saldana’s casting was announced to the completed film’s début, at Cannes, in May, at a screening confined to possible distributors….

[

African Divinity, Black Gods

This week I have chosen to explore the Orixás of Brazil’s spiritual knowledge tradition known as Candomblé. What will succeed is an excerpt from Dr. Heather Shirey’s article ‘Transforming the Orixas: Candomble in Sacred and Secular Spaces in
Salvador da Bahia, Brazil’ (2009); followed by an art gallery of Orixas woodcuts produced by João Makray.


In the streets and plazas of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, representations of the orixás , the deities of the African Brazilian religion Candomblé, are visible throughout the city. Mural paintings appear on walls and signs where they blend in with advertisements and graffiti, allowing motorists to contemplate the entire pantheon of orixás while filling up the gas tank. A sculpture of Exú, the guardian of the crossroads and the orixá who oversees all forms of communication, is positioned, most appropriately, in front of the city’s central post office; a painted mermaid associated with Yemanjá overlooks the sea; and on the Dique do Tororó, a large lake and recreation zone in the middle of the city, a group of orixá statues dances in a circle on the surface of the water.

Richly varied in scale and medium, visual references to Candomblé in the streets of Salvador are so frequent that they blend in with the surrounding urban landscape, merging with the multitude of colors that adorn nearly every surface. Although most Candomblé ritual practices take place in private spaces, the frequency of public art with a focus on the religion makes the presence of these images in the secular realm seem as natural and acceptable as advertisements for toothpaste and legal services. The movement of imagery from the sacred space of the Candomblé terreiro (temple) to the city streets, however, requires extensive intervention, as the complicated aesthetics of Candomblé must be recast in a way that is comprehensible and palatable to a broad public…..

The Candomblé orixás are named deities with complex personalities and attributes, and people who practice Candomblé develop close relationships with particular orixás that are nourished through ritual practice. The orixás in Bahia relate to Yoruba orishas that have remained relatively intact in Candomblé. It should be noted that in Bahia, the vast number of individual Candomblé communities are not unified under one
larger ritual authority and liturgy is not completely  standardized. Individual Candomblé communities are effectively independent from one another, and consequently
beliefs and practices are not entirely consistent. Bahian Candomblé communities identify with a number of
nações (nations; sg. nação), one of which, Nagô, has come to be seen as the dominant Candomblé nation in scholarship as well as in the popular understanding of the religion. Followers of Candomblé Nagô are particularly devoted to the orixás and the ancestry of these entities is rooted specifically in Yoruba practices from Nigeria. Members of Candomblé terreiros of other naroes, such as Jeje and Angola, however, accord special attention to other kinds of spirits (caboclos and exus, for example), usually alongside a variety orixás, some of
which differ from those revered in the context of Candomblé Nago. In this case, the origins of the spirits can be found throughout West Africa as well as in Brazil. Given the diversity of beliefs and practices along the various naroes, is it not surprising that connections to Yoruba ritual practice vary from community to community; along some followers of Candomblé , Yoruba is spoken as a liturgical language, for example, but this is certainly not universal. Likewise, the relationship of the Candomblé orixás to similar spiritual entities in Yoruba practice is by no means precise….

The presence of Africa is quite visible in this city, where a large percentage of the population is African descent. African-derived rhythms dominate popular music, and local culinary specialties–based on ingredients like okra, black-eyed peas, and palm oil– would not be out of place in West Africa. Since Candomblé has strong connections to West African traditions, it is often held up as a symbol of the presence of Africa in Bahia. A billboard campaign in 2001 sponsored by the State Board of Culture and Tourism referred to Salvador as “Black City: The Most African City of Brazil”. This speaks to the fact that the region’s unique “African” identity serves to sell Bahia to visitors from other parts of Brazil and abroad. The incorporation of a popularized version of Candomble into the cycle of festivals promoted by the state and local governments has served as an important device to draw national and international tourists to Bahia, and this has also provided Candomble with visibility and perceived legitimacy in mainstream society. But of course the acceptance of Candomblé and other cultural practices defined by the dominant culture as “African” is relatively recent in the history of Bahia.

From the time of their arrival in the slave port of Bahia, Africans
and their descendants began to transform the beliefs and
practices of their diverse ancestors into Candomblé, the religion
as it is practiced today. Scholars across the disciplines have examined the history of Candomblé, exploring, among other questions, its relationship to self-help organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church and its role in identity formation in Bahia and elsewhere. Emerging from these numerous rich studies is a history of repression, sometimes violent, and the development of the religion as a subculture and a site of resistance). In addition, many of these studies have sought
to trace the complicated and shifting relationship between the
dominant class, mostly wealthy and identified as ‘white;’ which
recognized and feared the power of Candomblé, and those who
practiced the religion, most of whom were of lower socio-economic status and identified as “black” or “African:’

After the abolition of slavery in 1888 and until the 1930s, the
state of Bahia repressed the practice of Candomblé by outlawing ceremonies, confiscating sacred objects that are central to the religion, and ordering the arrest of individuals who were caught in possession of its material culture . A notable shift occurred in the conceptualization of Brazil and its national identity in the 1930s…

Candomblé’s previous image as a “primitive ritual”-one that was perceived to be potentially dangerous and corruptive to the dominant culture-was recast as a “religion” that contributes to the shared identity of Bahia.


Orixás by João Makray