Celebrating Black History Month: Slave Anastasia (Escrava Anastacia)

As you may remember, I promised to do a Black History Month post last week. We all know the big players that I could talk about in the hair game — Madame CJ Walker, Angela Davis, etc.– but I wanted to do someone that had more of an impact on my decision to go natural.  The answer came to me rather quickly and requires us to take a little trip together down to BRAZIL.

Brazil is home to beautiful beaches, men in zungas, gorgeous super models, Carnival, the 2014 World Cup, the Amazon,  and the largest Black population outside of Africa.  Yes, even larger than the US!  More people were taken as slaves to Brazil than anywhere else and as a result there continues to be a strong presence of African culture in contemporary Brazil.  Within Brazil, the state of Bahia is known as the  Afro-Brazilian capital of the country where most of this culture, tradition and population continues to thrive today.

It was on a trip to Bahia in 2009, that I first learned about Slave Anastasia (Escrava Anastacia si voce fala Portugues)  to whom I credit with my decision to go natural.  There are many different versions of the story of Anastasia, but the gist goes something like this:  Anastasia was in an royal African family (most likely from Angola) and was captured in 1820 and brought to Brazil as a slave.  Her beauty was great and revered by all who were in her presence.  As a result of her stunning beauty many of the slave owners made sexual advances at her, but as a woman of great virtue she always refused.  Finally, after being refused so many times, her masters punished her by placing an iron mask and collar on her.  It was believed that the mask was encouraged by the wives and daughters of the slave owners who were jealous of her beauty.  Eventually Anastasia died from gangrene and infection caused by the mask and collar.

In the version of the story that I learned about Anastasia, there was an accompanying slide show that included two images that shook me to the core and remain very vivid to me to this day.  The first was an image (and I regret that I could not find it) of Anastasia before her capture and in it her hair was the largest most amazing, lush head of kinky coily hair.  Something like this

And the very next image was

The transition between between the large beautifully free hair and the cropped and muzzled slave these two images shook me.  It struck me that in addition to the mask and collars her masters sought to diminish her beauty by stripping her of her crown, of her hair.  Then I realized that I was really doing that same thing to myself by taking great pains to straighten my hair  and remove my  natural kinks, coils, and crowning volume.  I was losing a very unique and powerful part of my identity in this process and I knew that I had to stop.  The very next day, the woman braiding my hair recommended that I go natural and I was more than happy to oblige!

Today Slave Anastasia is revered as a saint and a martyr in many of the religions in Brazil.  And today, this month, and everyday moving forward, I will celebrate the history of my enslaved ancestors all over the world  by wearing my hair FREE and in its natural state.

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37 Comments

  1. I love when I get to hear a different story during black history month. Not to dismiss Dr. MLK, Harriet Tubman, etc; but I’d never heard of Anastasia before.
    Also, you’re hair looks fabulous!

  2. such an inspiring story! It’s an amazing feeling to know that we can all continue to inspire others by sticking to what we believe in & not being afraid of change.
    thanks for sharing!!

  3. Love it! I can see how this story could inspire one to go natural. Thank you so much for this post.

  4. this is great!!! I will post this on my fanpage!!! thank you!!!

  5. Great write up Cassie! Black History month needs to focus more on the Diaspora in general and this is a great start!

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  7. Wow, this almost brought me to tears! The 2 pictures are like night and day, in one the person is at peace and thriving and in the other, someone is being tortured and dehumanized. The “iron mask” picture really sums up what slavery is all about. I always thought that the slave owners saw their subjects as being ugly and undesirable. Now I believe that they did see something beautiful and unique in them but they chose to devalue it and take it away so that the Africans would lose their self worth and submit. Thanks for this little bit of history!

  8. I have always seen the picture of this woman with the muzzle, but I neither knew her name, nor did I know that there was a cult of worship surrounding her. This is so interesting. I just googled a bit, and apparently she is portrayed with blue eyes: http://arturovasquez.wordpress.com/2009/04/26/the-eyes-of-escrava-anastacia/.
    This gives me pause for reasons that are partially explained in the link. I’d still love to visit Brazil, though. It’s my dream to sing quiet bossa nova songs in a bar. I’m not even kidding. Have you seen David Byrne’s film, Ile Aye: House of Life? There are some beautiful images and music in it. Here’s an extra: There’s a film called Besouro that came out a few years ago. I haven’t looked for it yet, but I’m dying to see it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghmo7_5A8U8

    • Yes, the blue eyes / cult of worship are very fascinating as well!! i would also check out a book called “Samba” which is one of the best cultural anthropology reads I’ve ever read! All about the history of Samba and afro-brazilian roots in Brasil. Thanks for the recs of the movies! Ily Aye interests me as Caetano Veloso sings a beautiful, beautiful (beautiful) song with the same title!

      • No problem. I’ll put “Samba” on my to-read list. Is the title “The Mystery of Samba”? There are a few books coming up on Amazon. *inhales dramatically* Um Canto de Afoxe Para O Bloco do Ile (Ile Aye). I’m all over it! Haha. I love his voice. This post just reminded me of this series called Music in High Places. Do you remember it? A bunch of singers would perform all over the world. Boyz II Men went to South Korea, Craig David was in Costa Rica, etc. Well, India.Arie went to Bahia. You’ve probably seen it. I need to dust my DVD off and take a look at it.

        • Nope. Just “Samba” by Alma Guillermopreito. So glad you like the Caetano jam.

          I’ve never seen the series actually! Sounds super up my alley!! All this talk of Brasil is making me want to go back :)

          • Thanks! You’ve never seen it? Zomg! Here’s a clip

            I only have the episode with India and one with Angie Stone. She was in Canada somewhere. I have no clue why the program ended; it came on MTV when they still played music. I am going to search for this on the internet.

  9. Great post! I’ve learned a lot today.

    Just as an aside, I hope you plan to link the photo you used above to illustrate Anastacia’s “before” look. I think it’s from BGLH’s interview with a reader, and not just random clipart.

    • Hi B—

      ooh! thanks, I just double checked and my hyperlink to the original didn’t save…I actually got it from blkgirlsrock :) fixed now!

      • You’re welcome and thank YOU. I work in a library so sometimes little things like that catch my eye. If you want the lady’s story, here’s the original post I mentioned before from BGLH http://bit.ly/gxZ2OC . The blkgirlsrock site doesn’t seem to give original cred either.

        The lady in the picture’s story that is outlined in the link kinda brings Anastasia’s story full circle (at least in my mind).

        Thanks again for this post. It’s inspiring how both her story and her virtue lives on so many centuries after her death. There’s real power in standing up for what you believe!

        • Great follow up! See it take a village to have a blog— all of the appropriate links back to BGLH are now in place :)

          So glad I was able to share a personal story that resonated with so many!!

  10. Thanks so much for sharing! I started my natural journey over a year ago. There is nothing like loving yourself, just the way you were created to be.

  11. Great story! I learned something today, thanks for sharing!

  12. Thank you so much for this. Can’t wait to share with my family.

  13. Wow, thanks for sharing this info. Great post. I had never heard of Anastasia. I say she’s the saint for natural hair! =)

  14. Love this! When I studied Portuguese as an undergraduate I fell in love with the rich history and African centered culture of Brazil. That is when I learned of Anastasia and the beauty of deference that came about through her pain. Thanks for posting this!

  15. Hi… I am sooo happy I came across your page and to read this story OMG!!!! Finally other Americans are speaking out about Brazil and its rich African culture. Many Afro Brazilian unfortunately does not see the beauty of their skin and hair and so I’ve created a Natural Hair site for Brazilian/ Portugues speaking ppl. Where in Bahia did you hear about Anastasia (my future daughter’s name) lol… such a powerful story. Also check out my Brasilian videos – http://youtube.com/iheartmyhair6 and of course the fan page -http://facebook.com/euamomeucabelo.com.

    I look forward to hearing more thank you.

    Anya

    • Hi Anya—

      I heard it in the Pelorihno na Salvador da Bahia. There was some sort of event there that involved a slideshow/talking buildings telling about the history of slavery (kind of weird I know, but the moment was still powerful!) What is the name/url of your site for naturals brasileras??

  16. Cass,
    The term “crowning volume” is aboslute genius and creates an immediate picture of black beauty and POWER. The power of that beauty and the pain of the enslavement came throught with incredible poignancy in your piece today. thank you. caty

  17. Beautiful and powerful story Cass!

  18. I just found your blog. Thank you for sharing this story. I had never heard of Anastasia.

  19. I appreciate you sharing the story. I have learned about her a few years back when learning more about Yemanja, the Goddess of Deep Waters. One story I heard about Escarva Anatascia is that she was a Yoruba High Priestest and was conveying messages from Yemanja to the enslaved to rebel, break free, revolt, etc. and set up a land that welcomed African Gods. When Anatascia’s words became too powerful they muzzled her. Then she began to speak with her alluring eyes which they said were blue. I know that scared those white folks to death…a black woman with blue piercing eyes. Her spirit was so powerful, it could not be contained even when muzzled and iron cast around her neck. Her eyes were so powerfully expressive it was said that when she died of gangrene her eyes were wide open and the mortician could not close them. They buried her with her eyes open with the muzzle and neck iron still affixed to her. The power we hold as women of African descent shall forever be revered. Wonderful choice for Black History!

  20. Wow La tronda… this is amazing thank you for the added information… I didn’t know about the part with Yemanja no wonder I was so attracted to Senhora Anastasia’s story. Thanks again.

    Anya

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