Burdick: Story of Anastacia differentiates pigmentology and oppression in Brazilian women

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
John S. Burdick, chair of anthropology at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, discusses the Brazilian saint Anastacia and the implications of slavery in Brazil’s cultural identity during the Interfaith Lecture Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy.

The image of Escrava Anastacia is a powerful one. The young girl’s blue eyes stare like sentinels from behind a gold face mask, one that clings to her head and covers her mouth like a muzzle. A gold collar coils around her throat.

Escrava (“Slave”) Anastacia is a saint in Brazilian culture, and has more than a few stories surrounding her history, said John Burdick, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Syracuse University. Two versions of her story — along with their past and present implications for Brazilians of color — were the topic of Burdick’s 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy. His lecture, “Racial Inequality and Religious Belief in Brazil: The Mysterious Case of Slave Anastacia,” touched on Week Six’s theme, “Brazil: The Interplay of Religion and Culture.”

“There are different ways among [Anastacia’s devotees] of interpreting what that mask is about,” Burdick said.

In Brazil, people of color officially declare themselves on government documents, like census surveys, in two ways: as parda or morena, meaning “brown” or “lighter skin,” or as preta or negra, meaning “black,” Burdick said. In reality, there are multiple other levels on the color scale, he said, but these are two official declarations of race.

“The puzzle I want to engage in today is how do these different versions [of Anastacia’s story] relate to their adherents’ lived experiences within Brazil’s notoriously complex system of race relations?” Burdick said.

In the first version of Anastacia’s story, the slave master falls in love with her, and Anastacia reciprocates those feelings. They have a passionate love affair, but when the slave master’s wife discovers how tenderly he loves Anastacia, Burdick said she imposes the facemask and neck iron on the young slave as revenge and punishment.

The second version does not involve love, Burdick said. The slave master is filled with lust for Anastacia, but she does not reciprocate his desire. When her master tries to rape her, Anastacia is able to fight him off and he does not succeed. In his anger, the slave master is the one who puts the mask and iron on the girl.

“All versions, written or oral, agree that Anastacia was a young woman of African descent who was enslaved in Brazil in the late 18th or early 19th centuries,” Burdick said. “All agree that she was beautiful, and that beauty is a very important part of who she is.”

The ending of Anastacia’s story is also the same in both versions, Burdick said.  After being muzzled, she began to develop healing powers. Other slaves would come to her and she would heal their wounds with her hands. The neck iron cut into her, though, and she became weak. Ultimately, she developed gangrene and began to die.

At one of her weakest moments, the slave master’s child also became deathly ill. Burdick said that when the master came to Anastacia and begged her to help him, she did. In her final act of healing the slave master’s child, Anastacia died and her spirit ascended to heaven, becoming a saint for her unyielding kindness, ability to forgive and her healing powers.

“Adherents to the different versions pretty clearly aligned with an important difference in racial self-identification,” Burdick said.

Women who called themselves morena believed in the first story of love, while women who identified as preta aligned themselves with the second story, Burdick said.

This difference, he said, stems from a few key elements: the physical differences between the racial identification, the mythical history of the slave that started circulating Brazil in the 1930s and the social standing of the Portuguese term mulato — those of mixed African and indigenous South American ancestry.

Morena are women of color, dark but not comparatively as dark as pretas. Hair is not frizzy; it is slightly straighter. Noses tend to be more aquiline, lips tend to be less full,” Burdick said. “That is stereotypically less of the African associated features — more Euro — but still women of color.

Pretas and negras are at the farther end of the continuum of Afro-phenotypical features,” he continued. “So darker, frizzier hair, broader nose, thicker lips.”

While Burdick noted that it’s considered a socially inappropriate and graphic way to differentiate between the two classes, “we’re talking about a very difficult reality that leads to differential treatment in society.”

The next element is the mythical history that arose in Brazil. Burdick said female slave nursemaids were glorified for their role of bringing up the slave masters’ children and tending to their needs. Stories of compassion and mutual love between master, child and slave were put down in history books, so that the notion of slave rebellion was erased. Despite the fact that there are documented incidents of runaway slaves in every year of the four-century practice and evidence of torture, disease and a drastically short life span, Burdick said the master-slave relationship was romanticized.

But, Burdick said, an element of truth in this otherwise mythological history is the birth of the mulato. Masters and slaves had children together, essentially creating the current morena category.

“The mulato category, as an officially institutionalized classification with its own special privileges and legal protections, came into being during the slave period as a way to create a social class of people of color who could be depended on to protect the demographically small, white ruling class from a huge mass of enslaved blacks,” he said.

This created a pigmentology that is still present in Brazil today, Burdick said. Historically, lighter-skinned blacks had better social standing and fought against the darker-skinned slaves. Today, lighter skin and European features such as straight hair are seen as more beautiful in Brazilian culture.

Statistically, Burdick said more morena girls hold jobs in retail, interacting with customers, and are better represented in social positions. The statistics don’t expose what he called “ground zero of oppression,” though. Preta girls feel inadequate, he said, while the morena girls he encountered know that they are privileged and pretty.

Relating back to Anastacia’s story, the morena girls believe in the first version of sincere love because, “at some level, these women understand themselves to be the outcome, at some point, of a sexual encounter between the races. Between master and slave or later white and black. For women who regard themselves as heirs of miscegenation, the narrative or reciprocity and love offers the reassuring message that they are not the result of an act of domination and violence,” Burdick said.

The morenas also use the story as a way to feel comfortable in and justify their higher status in Brazilian culture, Burdick said. It supports the mythology that said the mulattos were loved.

For the pretas, who never bought in to the mythological stories of compassion and love between master and slave, the second version of Anastacia’s story reaffirms their people’s strength.

“By telling the story of Anastacia as resisting rape, pretas push back against a key feature,” Burdick said. “The idea that slaves did not fight back.”

This story gives blacks a sense of dignity — if Anastacia would rather be tortured then submit her body to her master, then they too can stand up to social injustices, Burdick said. He encountered blacks in his research who use the story to empower young preta girls.

No matter which version, Burdick said the story of Anastacia helps Brazilian women of color cope with the complicated, hierarchical pigmentology of the nation.