1839 portrait of “Slave Punishment“ used to protest mask-wearing in California, 2020.
In May 2020, as the social movement to remove racist monuments grew and the COVID-19 pandemic spiraled out of control, two white women protesting against social distancing and masks were photographed with a sign. It read: “Muzzles are for dogs and slaves. I am a free human being.” It featured a picture of a Black woman with a torture device strapped to her face.
Images from the protest went viral, and this one prompted particularly widespread outrage and condemnation. One of the white women apologized: she explained that the sign had simply been handed to her at the rally and that she was not aware of its racism until after the fact. But while the outrage prompted by the image helped to raise consciousness about the appropriation of images, there has not been enough discussion about the Black woman depicted on the sign.
Who is she?
On Twitter, Uju Anya, a professor of applied linguistics at Pennsylvania State University, knew: she identified the woman as Anastácia, “an enslaved African,“ whose owner punished her with a device that immobilized her mouth and tongue, silencing her, and giving him authority over anything she ate or drank. As Anya points out, Anastácia is now a folk hero in Brazil, venerated by some as a saint, and a symbol of Black female empowerment.
So, how did Anastácia end up on a sign in California carried by white women who object to wearing cloth masks as a public health measure? The answer, which crosses continents and centuries, asks us to reckon with the intertwined histories of white privilege and Black erasure in both Brazil and the United States. Anastácia’s path to this right-wing American protest winds first through the entanglements that made the United States a vital participant in Brazilian slavery, and then through a remarkable labyrinth featuring a spirit medium, a princess, and the internet.
From Virginia to Brazil to California
Anastácia’s portrait first appeared in a collection of travel writings published by the French author Jacques Arago between 1838 and 1840. Arago labeled the portrait of Anastácia, her face obscured by the iron torture device, “Slave Punishment, Brazil.” We know nothing more about the woman in the portrait, even her name. Severing her personal details from her image, Arago employed the woman who came to be known as Anastácia as a stand-in for the unquantifiable universe of pain and suffering of Brazilian slavery.
Although North American slavery is usually an exemplar of the cruel system of bondage that underwrote global capitalism, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, more than 5.5 million enslaved African men, women, and children arrived in Brazil, an astounding number that dwarfs most other nations by multiples. Slavery also persisted there longer than anywhere else. In 1888, Brazil became the last country in the hemisphere to abolish the trade in souls.
While some aspects of Brazilian slavery are distinct, it was part of a larger American system. Slave traders and ship builders in New England provided crucial support to the Brazilian slave trade, and men such as Virginian Matthew Fontaine Maury, a staunch supporter of the Confederacy, worked assiduously to connect Brazil and the U.S. South in a hemispheric slave empire. In 1929, the city of Richmond honored Maury, whose stature in the Confederacy historian Gerald Horne likens to General Robert E. Lee, with a monument.
Though Maury’s project — and the Confederate States of America — failed, slavery persisted in Brazil until May 13, 1888, when Princess Isabel signed the Golden Law. In some circles, Princess Isabel is a heroic figure and liberator of the enslaved. Because of this, in 1971, her remains were moved from Portugal to Brazil.
In a fascinating book, the late anthropologist John Burdick explains how that voyage also helped to shape the legend of Anastácia. Before being interred, Princess Isabel’s remains were placed on display for two weeks at the Museu do Negro in Rio de Janeiro. In preparation, the museum’s director visited the National Archive (also in Rio); there, he found Arago’s drawing and placed it on display at the museum to illustrate the forms of slave torture ended by the Golden Law.
As Brazilians came to pay their respect to Princess Isabel, the image drew more and more attention. A Black woman who visited the exhibit recalled years later, “While Isabel was there, you could hear the humm-humm. Some were saying: This is her! This is the picture of Anastácia! They had known about her, but there she was!” For years, possibly since the nineteenth century, Black communities had revered her as a saint. When the portrait was put on public display alongside Isabel, Anastácia became more popular and celebrated.
If Anastácia was best known among Black working people, her role as a symbol of a mixed-race nation was elevated by a white woman named Maria Salomé, who in the 1970s wrote a popular biography, the first written account of Anastácia’s life. Salomé claimed that Anastácia had spoken directly to her from the afterlife. As Anastácia’s spirit medium, Salomé described repeated rapes, and that Anastácia’s owner and his wife separately ordered her to be punished with face and neck irons. Wearing them, Salomé wrote, ultimately killed her.
This first written account of Anastácia’s life is a fiction. There is no indication that she is the woman in the portrait; yet, at the same time, it represents a larger, generalizable truth about slavery. With Arago’s help, Anastácia was now a visual symbol of a universe of cruelty and punishment, now available to a wider public.
Elevated to a national stage, Anastácia also became newly controversial. To some anti-racist activists, Anastácia represented defeat, a contrast to other Black icons that had become symbols of resistance. It did not help that some images depicted Anastácia with blue eyes, an apparent reference to Salomé’s account, which also described her children, born of rape, as blue-eyed. Drawn by a white Frenchman and then narrated by a white Brazilian woman, Anastácia had become to some the antithesis of Black militancy.
But to others, she continued — and continues — to represent what she had already symbolized informally for years, and perhaps centuries: A Black saint. But how did she end up on a sign in California?
Enter the internet, and a second appropriation. Published in the first half of the nineteenth century, Arago’s book — and with it, Anastácia’s portrait — are now in the public domain. Internet sleuths determined that the white anti-mask protestors had taken the image from Wikimedia Commons, a rights-free platform owned by the company that runs Wikipedia. From there, Anastácia’s increasingly decontextualized portrait has migrated to a broader North American audience. PBS.org includes it in its Resource Bank under the title “Slave with Iron Muzzle.” There is no mention of Brazil, much less any discussion of Anastácia, and why those who revere her believe that it is her image.
Anastácia’s path to the United States, and her appropriation for a white anti-government protest, raises important questions about the intellectual property of Black communities in a twenty-first century. The dehumanizing “Slave with Iron Muzzle” portrait, created centuries ago, is a symbol of colonization, one that can be reproduced uncritically by right-wing protestors and major media outlets. Simultaneously, she is a symbol of affirmation and dignity for Black communities, especially Black women. Thus, Anastácia has become the victim of, and an answer to, the dehumanizing anonymization that Black women in the Americas have experienced for five-hundred years.
While claiming and advocating for Anastácia, Black Brazilian women have been deeply inspired by Patricia Hill Collins’s ethos of “lived experience as a criterion of meaning.” The fact that we will never even know if “Anastácia” was really named Anastácia does not make her any less important or powerful to them.
Recently, intellectuals and activists have debated the importance and fate of other Black female icons with similarly unknowable histories. Some argue that when there is no archival proof of their existence, it is problematic to maintain them as heroes. Another, more imaginative and, we think, productive approach, that has taken root in Brazil is Black feminist Lúcia Xavier’s formulation of the “Black female political subject,” whose meanings and mobilizations often emerge from devotion and belief. A figure like Anastácia can become real because of the daily acts a countless number of Brazil’s 50 million Black women, a quarter of the population, engage in: caring for small shrines to Anastácia, or affixing images of her to their cell phones and wallets. With prayers and promises, women ask for the protection of her spirit, who, even after suffering multiple forms of dehumanizing violence, conveys a legacy of courage and recognizes alternative forms of production of political meaning.
An important Brazilian example that brings all these ideas together is writer and visual artist Yhuri Cruz’s “Monument to Anastácia’s Voice.” A beautiful and powerful rewriting of the past, the piece removes the irons from Anastácia’s face. “Slave with Iron Muzzle” becomes a new Anastácia, who, in the words of her creator, is a free Black woman, possessed of a “secret smile” that smashes chains of racist objectification and inspires us to continue writing our own histories.
Towards New Monuments
Coincidentally, several weeks after the Humboldt County, California protest that called Anastácia to the attention of an American audience, the city of Richmond, Virginia took down its Matthew Fontaine Maury monument. Though there was little (if any) mention of Maury’s role in the slave system that entangled Anastácia and so many others, the fall of a man who supported U.S. and Brazilian slavery reminds us that the “peculiar institution” in the United States was not peculiar at all, but one branch of a murderous and highly profitable hemispheric system.
Monuments fall, but the ugly ties that link the intertwined history of United States and Brazilian slavery are there, should we choose to see them. Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, and other African American women slain by the police in the United States are joined in violent death by Brazilians such as Marielle Franco, a Black activist and politician assassinated with police bullets in 2018. She would have turned 41 this week.
We dream of the day when Black women are not killed with impunity and when monuments and memorials to Jefferson, Taylor, Franco, and others are built in place of their captors. Above all, we dream of a culture that truly celebrates, honors, and respects living Black women. We also yearn for a monument to Anastácia in Brazil, where she is already widely recognized but too often as a generic symbol of pain and suffering, and another in the United States, where she would give a name and even a face to the anonymous image that showed up in California and circulates on the internet. There, she could call attention to hemispheric stories of slavery, and to transnational struggles for justice and equality led by Black women in Brazil, the United States, and beyond.
If it at first might seem strange to build a monument in the United States to an enslaved Brazilian woman who, as far as we know, never traveled to North America, it shouldn’t. After all, Columbus never set foot in the United States, where he is nonetheless honored with statues and a national holiday. In a nation that, for decades, has built glorious monuments to racist, murderous men, it is well past time that Anastácia and the other countless Black and Indigenous women who built the Americas with blood, sweat, and tears, be given their due.
Giovana Xavier is a historian and associate professor in the School of Education at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. She is a fellow in the Program for the Advancement and Development of Black Women Leaders Marielle Franco/Baobá Brasil Foundation for Racial Equity. Find her on Instagram @pretadotora.
Marc Hertzman is associate professor of history and Conrad Humanities Scholar at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His most recent book, Refazenda, was published this spring. Find him on Twitter @MarcHertzman.