The Eyes of Escrava Anastacia

26 04 2009


Race, Gender, and Religion in Brazil

For American students of Latin America, the idea of a “racial democracy” in Brazil has long been an intoxicating prospect, especially when compared to our own very polarized racial history. Indeed, it is a myth that the Brazilian intellegentsia has itself been pushing for over sixty years. The myth is basically that since there was far more miscegenation in Brazil than there was in the United States, there is far less racism. The fact that the racial hierarchy is more complex is seen as being indicative of a society where class and not race is important. It was only about twenty years ago that such ideas were challenged by black intellectuals. The reality on the ground turns out to be as ugly, if not uglier, than the American situation.

According to one professor of mine, until twenty years ago, it was an unwritten code in many Brazilian cities that if a black person saw a white person walking down the street, he was expected to either cross the street or get off the sidewalk so that the white person could pass. When the American black choreographer Katherine Dunham tried to check into one of the most luxurious hotels in São Paulo, she was turned away since it was a given for the staff that the only way a woman of her hue could afford such a room was because she was a prostitute. This led to a rather ugly international incident. The statistics also don’t lie, and they say that a white person or a light skinned “colored” person is far more likely than a black person to go into professions and trades that are the highest paying in Brazilian society. Also, the omnipresence of blondes on Brazilian television and the dearth of dark skinned stars in anything but supporting roles makes the idea of racial democracy seem not much more than a myth propagated by elites for the sake of public relations.

The American scholar John Burdick in his book, Blessed Anastacia: Women, Race, and Popular Christianity in Brazil seeks to analyze these relations from the perspective of the “lowest rung” of Brazilian racial society: dark skinned black women. In Brazil, women of color are graded by how closely they resemble white women. The lighter skinned the woman, the straighter the hair, the less “African looking”, the more appealing she is considered to be. Indeed, the Brazilian morena, or light skinned woman of color, is a national sex symbol, often seen dancing in the samba troupes during Carnival as the lustful powder keg of femininity. The arrangement, of course, is that white men are more than willing to go out and have casual sex with morenas, but when it comes time to marry, they are expected to marry white women. Even black men, if successful, are expected to “marry up”, if possible to a white woman, but at least to a morena. Black women are considered the last possible option for a man to marry, and as many black women interviewed by Burdick affirm, they are treated badly by their mates because of this.

Burdick seeks to address in his book three responses by religious groups to the underlying sexualized racism in Brazilian society. The first is the “inculturated Mass” of progressive Catholics that seeks to enshrine all aspects of “African femininity” in Catholic ritual. The second is the Pentecostal “color blindness” that equates all crentes (believers) in a brotherhood of the Spirit. The third is the cult of the slave Anastacia that both enforces and challenges the predominate racial paradigms of Brazilian society. In all three of these responses, black women often still remain marginal in the conversations, still often struggling for a voice due to the idea of the black woman as supporter and unconditional giver; in a few words, the “mammy” complex.

Progressive black Catholics have sought to create a Mass based on “African values”: one that incorporates rhythm, music, and movement into the traditional Eucharistic ritual. Some of the central figures in these ceremonies are young black women in traditional African hairstyles and dress, gyrating to the same music used in the rituals of the Afro-Brazilian religion, Candomblé. Though the liturgical activists have to often defend themselves from charges of syncretism, the purpose of their inculturation is to “educate” the masses that black is indeed beautiful, especially black femininity. One of their main intentions in using Catholic ritual is to once again bestow respect on black women as pillars of the home and foundations of the black family; an important idea in a society that encourages black men to have casual sex with any woman who is lighter than he is.

The Pentecostal approach is far less race-conscious but often tends towards the same objectives. Black activists often see blacks who convert to Protestantism as being sell-outs, people who want to be white by adopting a white religion. Burdick shows that this is not the case in many circumstances. While black women in Pentecostal churches have a more color-blind attitude towards their situation, having been made “new creatures” in the Spirit, they still are very much aware of the racism even in their congregations and often fight against it when they enter into leadership roles in their churches. The other surprising statistic that Burdick brings up is that Pentecostal men of all colors are far more likely to marry dark black women than any other group in Brazil, a sign that some men do indeed take the “color-blindness in the Spirit” quite seriously.

Of all of the social phenomena investigated by Burdick, the most complex is the cult of Escrava Anastacia, of which I have written on this site before. On the ground, Burdick found that most of Escrava Anastacia’s adherents, both black and white, do not consider her a political symbol in a struggle against oppression. Like most saints in Latin America, she as seen merely as spiritual intercessor who answers prayers. This is the main reason that black activists in Brazil have given the folk saint such a cool reception; she is seen as an entity people go to for their individual problems and not as a symbol of black resistance. The other problematic aspect for them is iconic: she is portrayed as muzzled and with blue eyes. In many quarters, a muzzled black is an image that they want to avoid; for them, blacks have been muzzled for four hundred years, and such an image is more an object of pity than reverence. She is also portrayed with blue eyes since she is, according to the many and diverging stories of her life, either a product of race-mixture or they are a gift from God to her that distinguishes her from ordinary blacks.  Such imagery for black militants is seen to be feeding into the stereotype that all things white, like blue eyes, are the only things truly desirable.

In all of these movements, Burdick sees some unchallenged ideas about the role of black women in Brazilian society. As in black nationalism in this country, black women are often seen as the providers who give of themselves to the point of utter selflessness. In the culture of the “inculturated Mass”, as progressive as it claims to be, issues of sexism are often not addressed since the main thrust of the movement is to embolden the black man to take charge of his family and the social movement, the woman being always in the background as a supporter, comforter, and nurturer. In the Pentecostal churches, the color-blindness of the Spirit can often do what critics of Protestantism say that it does in the broader political context: cover-up the real racial tensions at the heart of Brazilian society. In the eyes of Anastacia, people may see the enforcement of the idea of the black suffering woman who helps people unconditionally, just as black nannies raised children who were not their own and suffered for them. In all of these ecclesial ideologies, the individual black woman can once again be silenced in the name of the social “cause”.

As I have written before, the enslavement of black Africans is an act of ontological violence that is far more brutal and significant than any other atrocity in history, and to pretend that we have recovered from it is beyond wishful thinking. The idea that people are inferior and ugly because of what they are and not because of what they have done is far more central to our own ideological heritage than we would care to admit. Burdick opens the book telling of his visit to an old black woman on a hot summer morning in Brazil. Having finished his glass of cold water, he asked if he could have some of hers. She agreed, and motioned to start to empty her glass into his. Burdick, by that time quite thirsty, took her glass and began to drink from it quite eagerly. At this, the old black woman was reduced to tears, saying that never in her life did she think that a white man would ever drink from the same glass that she had shared. If this is the case even in that part of the world, we indeed have a long way to go in making a color-blind society.



18 responses

30 04 2009

“I just can’t fathom why there are people who will not admit that racism against people of African descent exists in the Western Hemisphere and is a problem, and a severe one. All of this hair-splitting and resorting to abstractions is just distracting from the real issues at hand.”

Because, if that is the case, then I as a whitebread American might be complicit.

But then, whitebread or not, of course I am complicit in all human sinfulness:

But repentance is possible. Repentance is possible because God loves me and desires, thirsts for, my love in return.

30 04 2009
Arturo Vasquez

To the last comment:

Again, you are resorting to abstraction in order to analyze a very concrete, historical phenomenon. It is true that in places like Easter Island, the now defunct population used to be divided between long and short eared peoples, and that led to a genocidal massacre that eliminated the population (so we think). And to say, “it has been that way since Adam” sheds very little light on the subject.

I just can’t fathom why there are people who will not admit that racism against people of African descent exists in the Western Hemisphere and is a problem, and a severe one. All of this hair-splitting and resorting to abstractions is just distracting from the real issues at hand.

30 04 2009
love the girls

Arturo Vasquez writes : “What I implied by the phrase “ontological violence” is the fact that the emergence of modernity was based on the idea that some people were more human than others, and others not human at all. . . . the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

No. The argument has nothing to do with degree of humaness, or of being or not being human. While no doubt that argument has been on occasion made, the common argument which as its roots as old as slavery itself is that some men are not capable of ruling themselves, (with capableness encompassing a number of subjects), and are thus better off being ruled by others.

30 04 2009

The Scylding,

I was specifically referring to conditions in the United States. The continent of Africa is so diverse that it would be ridiculous to assume that issues pertaining to race and color are similar to the way they are here. I think that the Civil Rights Movement was instrumental in changing many ingrained racial notions. For example, examine “The Birth of a Nation” and examine “Roots” (both are available on Youtube). Both movies are essentially telling the same story, but from a very different perspective. Although the African post-colonial movement of the 1960s also re-evaluated the values of colonialism, I’m not really sure to what extent “ordinary people” participated in these movements and how these ideas may have impacted their thought processes.

When I was speaking of color conflict it was with regard to inter-black dynamics. These things have less to do with aesthetics (i.e., whether light skin is more attractive than dark skin) and more with how blacks perceive each other. For example, it’s not unusual to hear darker skinned women complain about how successful black men only date white or “high yella” women. If you look up singer Lena Horne on youtube and examine most the comments for her videos, they almost always revolve around complaints about how light she is or how her voice sounds “white” or some variation on the same theme. Once you add hair to the mix, it gets even uglier, with the people with the natural hair accusing those with perms of denying their roots both in the literal and figurative sense. For cinematic depiction of these issues, watch this clip from the film “School Daze”:


I’m aware of all of the issues that you mentioned, which is why I’m not an Afrocentrist. Catholicism has the most adherents among blacks, when one includes those in Africa, the Americas, and Europe, so one can’t say that the Church is a “white man’s religion” as some would say. I also have a great deal of respect and admiration for people such as St. Katherine Drexel, St. Peter Claver, and those unknown priests and sisters who labored against slavery and racism.

I think I was responding in an implicit way to the issue mentioned by Arturo previously of the oddly persistent belief in some circles that the Confederacy was the one place in America where traditional Catholicism could have flourished. This is empirically false, since it should be obvious that the Old South was and still is culturally Protestant. While it is true that there were Catholic communities in the Old South and some Catholics in very high places, they were tolerated in the same way that Jews tended to be. This tolerance waned considerably by the end of the 19th century, when increased levels of immigration meant that Catholicism was associated with swarthy Mediterraneans (who were considered a “degenerate race” according to the racial theory of the time) and declasse Irish whose drunkenness made a bad impression on black and white Southerners alike. This, and the monarchical nature of the papacy, is why Catholicism was listed among the many enemies of the KKK when it reformed in 1915 at Stone Mountain, GA. So given this environment, I’ve never understood why the Old South was supposedly a latent hotbed of traditional Catholicism.

In any event, I actually agree with everything you said Cyrus, and I thank you.

30 04 2009

There were a number of encyclicals by Popes in the “Latin”/Western/”White”/European/”Roman” Church since the 1500s condemning slavery and also equal treatment for all human beings. They can be found online generally and specifically at
Pope Eugene IV: 1431-1447
Sicut Dudum on slavery

Pope Paul III: 1534-1549
Sublimus Dei on slavery

Pope Gregory XVI: 1831-1846
Mirari Vos traditionalism, false “renewal”
In Supremo Apostolatus on slavery

Pope Leo XIII: 1878-1903
Humanum Genus Freemasonry
In Plurimis on slavery
Libertas on liberty
Sapientiae Christianae citizenship
Catholicae Ecclesiae on slavery
Rerum Novarum on Capital and Labor

The Portuguese were always the worst at obeying the Catholic Church on Slavery.

To earlier comment: There were many Catholic priests in the Civil Rights movement (and some in the abolitionist movement in the US and some that were supporters of the North)–one marcher (his blind eye and maybe criminal actions in sexual abuse notwithstanding was Cardinal Law of Boston who marched for Civil RIghts.

In terms of “Slavery”-that was a racial thing and also not insofar as most people were in bad conditions and slave like with “indentured servitude”.
There were attempts at peaceful conversion in the New World (the first and greatest sin of Europeans and members of the Church in the New World was the genocide of the natives and not Slavery or not just Slavery or not just African/Black Slavery) like Vasco de Quiroga and the Jesuit Reducciones (the movie the Mission) just Google Inca in the original Sarabite for an essay by Arturo. Yes, there is much racism that is nuanced and deep in Brazil and Mexico despite intermarriage of races. But compare that to Protestantism (some Dutch-African, Dutch-Indonesian exceptions) but you do not see Anglo or Dutch Mestizo populations–there is just pure racism and separation like in the United States.

Remember, Bartolome de las Casas won the debate and King Charles made new laws and sent people like Vasco de Quiroga–de las Casas made the Church officially recognize the humanity of all people and specifically the “Indians” and the spiritual equality (as no society is equal in power and wealth. There was a debate but it ended quickly. The downside (perhaps uninentionally and he regretted it later) to Bartolome de las Casas protecting the “Indians” is he imported Black slaves from Africa because Indians were dying.

Racism is a sin. Racism is evil. Some racial separation is natural (birds of feather flock together) and there are cultural issues. It is a result of original sin and our flawed and fallen nature. If children of the Catholic Church sin it is not or not necessarily because of something inherent in teaching or culture.

Opus Dei insisted on a mixed race High School in Kenya unheard of at the time.
St. Katherine Drexel who built famous traditionally Black colleges and other institutions was threatened by the KKK and other racists.
Jean Baptiste DuSable was the first settler in Chicago and a Black-French African Catholic.
Yes, of course there was a lot of racism, and backs of Churches, and worse–but there are also nuns who ran excellent schools for Black kids in the south who became lawyers and doctors. There are large Black French African communities in Louisiana that have a lot of pride, culture and autonomy in their race and religion.
Yes, there is also color consciousness and a caste system based on color that is not consistent with human dignity and the equality of the soul. The soul is color blind–it is the body that has a race and physical characterestics that usually accompany a culture–so race and culture are important because we beleive that Jesus is True God and True Man but that God-Man transcends race (neither Greek nor Jew, Male nor Female, Slave nor Greek) and the Church was clear on condemning slavery since the 1500s and the Spanish Crown was very progressive on human rights. Protestantism (the Scottish National Church took almost Nazi like positions in the 20s) were much more racist and eugenists. The Catholic Church in the last 100 years has made a number of schools, hospitals etc for non Catholic Black (American descendants of slaves) people.

It should also be noted that African Blacks selling other African Blacks into slavery was part of the problem and maybe the origin. The Muslims were also part of the slave trade (and still to this day) so it is not a mere Christian/white/Imperial issue. Arabs and Muslims (at least practically as the last sermon of the prophet Mohammad PBH teaches universal brotherhood) but Arabs and Muslims did plenty of slave trading as did other cultures.

I just want to say that there are some factual errors in some of the statements above and we should put this into context.

30 04 2009


Thank you for your candor. I’d say that particular heterodox bodies, like Anglicanism, have demonstrated tremendous pastoral success in areas, such as slavery and political liberty, where my Church’s hierarchs have demonstrated such abject pastoral failure. The Church’s presence in America and other Westernized countries has forced the hierarchy to confront issues of personal freedom. It’s long overdue.

29 04 2009
Arturo Vasquez

To the last comment:

I think we were primarily discussing the dynamics of slavery in the “New World”, that is, the fate of the millions of slaves who were brought to this continent and the aftermath of that institution. There are always exceptions, but that does not negate the overall trends of political/economic history. Nor does such exceptionalism absolve the severity of a historical atrocity.

29 04 2009
The Scylding

Observations: Slavery is by no means a white-black issue only. Neither is racism. Internal African racism (although the word is a bit redundant in such a situation – tribalism is maybe more useful) is a complex matter.

And Leah – have you ever lived in Africa? In Southern Africa, amongst the Swazi, darker coloured skin is seen as inferior, as that inidicates prolonged exposure to the sun, and therefore inidicates such a person to be too proletarian. Among the Xhosa, a common traditional beauty treatment is the smearing of a white clay on the countenance, thus lightening the countenance.

Contrary to that though, historically the black tribes displaced the more brown Khoi, Nama and San peoples, who were Southern Africa’s true “First Nations”. Through a complex series of events, the modern day “coloured” population group in South Africa find themselves to be descendants of the Khoi, Nama, some black (mostly Xhosa) tribes, Malay and Malagassy slaves and European (mostly Dutch) settlers. Their main mother tongue is Afrikaans, a European (Germanic) language. A common political complaint from this population group is that previously, they weren’t white enough, now they are not black enough.

Simplisitc generalisations about race and connected phenomena such as slavery will always be that, simplisitc generalisations. Reality is a very complex thing indeed.

29 04 2009
The Shepherd

Although St. Paul states in pretty plain language to accept your lot as a slave the difference is that during the 16th century it took on a completely racial aspect. In St. Paul’s time i think it was based on debt and what color your skin was really didn’t matter.

29 04 2009

“Isn’t the notion that slavery sucks a modern one? It certainly isn’t a traditionally Christian one.”

First of all, when do modern times begin? 1968? 1789? 1517? I know that Hilliare Belloc said that one of the great things about Christianity was the fact that it got rid of slavery, and there were probably other intellectuals of his time who believed the same thing.

Let’s look at the issue of slavery from a different perspective. Under American chattel slavery, marriages between slaves weren’t considered valid, either by the state or the churches (I include the Catholic and the Protestant churches here). Families were routinely broken up when various members were sold off to other plantations. Slave masters “bred” their slaves like show dogs, thereby encouraging fornication and lax sexual morality. Rape between white slave masters and black women was also very common. This accounts for the wide range in skin colors exhibited by American blacks. So if nothing else, slavery was responsible for a gross devaluation of the family and flagarent violations of the sixth and ninth commandments. All of this sucks to me.

Also consider the fact that many blacks who were owned by Catholics became Protestant after they gained their freedom. These conversions were not based on a sudden change of heart regarding the Marian dogmas or what constitutes justification, but because the black Protestant churches were the only institutions that were controlled by blacks. As Catholics, they were relegated to the back pews and took Communion last if they were lucky (many Catholic parishes, whether in the North or South, wouldn’t tolerate the presence of blacks, period). As a rule, disenfranchisement makes a poor evangelization tactic. So if you believe that the Catholic Church is the true church, or at least less wrong than Protestantism as I note that Visibilium is Orthodox, then the effects of slavery have condemned more than 28 million people to a life of heresy.

29 04 2009

Isn’t the notion that slavery sucks a modern one? It certainly isn’t a traditionally Christian one.

Let’s skip to the Confederacy. If the maintenance of slavery as an economic institution had been the most important driver of Southern behavior, then secession would never have happened. Southern slavery was keenly dependent on society’s underwriting the owners’ cost of keeping slaves captive on the plantations. Locally, this underwriting took the form of slave patrols, which involved a duty of the local citizenry akin to jury duty. The Dred Scott decision ensured that the whole country underwrote the cost of returning escaped slaves. Seceding from the Union would have deprived slaveowners of an important societal subsidy. Economically, slavery is a highly inefficient way of organizing production. Owners needed every subsidy that their pet politicians could throw their way.

Stephens was pandering to the choir, as skilled politicians often do.

28 04 2009

“the emergence of modernity was based on the idea that some people were more human than others, and others not human at all.”

Fair enough.

“the economic foundation out of which modernity emerged…”

I agree with this history of economics, knowing that you recognize the obscene caveats that arise – the slaveowner who wants to see his slaves “get saved” etc., a spiritual out that does not rock the boat of the overall program of economic determinism.


I am not an expert, but among both ghetto and middle class blacks here in Memphis, I do not think that Pan-Africanist and Afrocentrist views of the sort you suggest are much considered. I hope I am wrong, if only for the venerable contrast.

28 04 2009
Arturo Vasquez

What I implied by the phrase “ontological violence” is the fact that the emergence of modernity was based on the idea that some people were more human than others, and others not human at all. This is behind all of the discussions of whether or not the indigenous people of the “New World” had souls, and the pragmatic approach of later slave owners to act as if their millions of slaves didn’t have them. It was these acts of violence that served as the economic foundation out of which modernity emerged, and it is these wounds from which we are still recovering.

As an addendum to this, I have always been astounded how some conservative Catholic pundits could praise the institution of the Confederacy against the “tyrannical” North in the “War Between the States”. I recently stumbled across a quote by Confederate Vice President, Alexander Stephens, where he explained the raison d’etre of the Confederate government:

“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. [Applause.] This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science.”


I think that should make it abundantly clear what I meant.

28 04 2009


It is true that being light-skinned is oftentimes perceived as being more favorable among many blacks. However, it is also true that in some sub-cultures, being darker is better. Among some in the “thug culture” being light-skinned is perceived as being weak. Pan-Africanists and Afrocentrists often view being darker as being more beautiful and a sign that you’re rejecting a Eurocentric view of beauty. Even among non-Afrocentrists, being light is seen as being a sign that you’ve been given more privileges in life, which leads to further resentments between blacks. Closely related to the color complex is the hair complex, which is too convoluted to get into here.

28 04 2009

I am an outsider looking in myself, but I find it interesting that there people out there that say that the Mexican society has racism in it too. The more Spanish blood you have, the higher up in society you are placed.

28 04 2009

“being light-skinned means that you’re more compromised both genetically and culturally.”


I have no idea what you mean here. Blacks in the U.S. are notorious for being “racist” against the darker-skinned of their race, and those with more prominent “african” facial features. This is true in the ghetto, and it is true in middle class black cultures.

28 04 2009

“the enslavement of black Africans is an act of ontological violence that is far more brutal and significant than any other atrocity in history”

What do you mean by the phrase ontological violence? Levinas? Derrida? Do you refer to the enslavements of modernity, or throughout the whole of recorded human history? Do you posit a racial/ethnic exceptionalism with regard to human suffering, along the lines of some Jewish thinkers, or by more “brutal” and “significant” in reference to an “ontological violence” are you suggesting something along the lines of a quantifiable amount of an egalitarian ontological suffering that just happens to be “greater” than that of non-black African human persons of various divisible groups?

27 04 2009

The experiences of the Church in the New World have been inextricably shaped by slavery, a fact that seems to be overlooked by many writers both on and off the blogosphere. Slavery is the original sin of the Americas and the integrity of the Church was in peril the minute the first Africans showed up in the New World. The Church in the US (I don’t know about anywhere else) was never particularly interested in the status of slaves. Unless I missed something, Catholic involvement in the abolitionist movement was almost nil, since many of the clergy, who tended to be French, believed that abolitionism was related to modernism. This is why I think that it’s a mistake to use rhetoric that equates slavery and abortion, since it’s pretty easy to call out the Church’s less than stellar response to the former and claim hypocrisy.

What I’m seeing in this post, is an on-going struggle to figure out where Christianity (and here I’m including Protestantism) fits into black history. There are many black intellectuals who would say that Christianity, regardless of type, is a “slave religion” that needs to go the way of the lawn jockey. Then others say Christianity is good, but only as long as its defined in explicitly black terms (i.e. black liberation theology). Then others would say that Christianity should be abandoned in favor of traditional African religion or a syncretist system. The issue of the inculturated masses has always interested me, since they exist in the US as well. I know for awhile in the 1960s some black nationalists were calling for the establishment of a separate rite for blacks, which in a way sort of happened. I’d be interested to know what the politics are of such masses are in Brazil or anywhere else in Latin America.

The issue with the color complex is also interesting, since a similar thing exists in the US. In some circles, it’s almost been reversed, as being light-skinned means that you’re more compromised both genetically and culturally. I wonder if the religious landscape of Brazil would be different if it had a Civil Right Movement.

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