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


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