The other day, I was visiting my wife’s old neighborhood—Silverlake—and happened to stumble upon one of my favorite things: a garage sale. If you’ve been going to garage sales, you know there are all sorts—all different categories: the spring cleaning garage sale, the old person garage sale, the hipster garage sale.
I like the old person garage sale—a sale filled with the hoarded stash of a lifetime (some trash, some treasure). You can always find something interesting that an oldtimer no longer wants and make off with it for a song. Once I got fifteen French cut glass serving bowls for four bucks. They came in a punch bowl, which I did not want and which I promptly donated to Goodwill. “I don’t have any use for jello. I’m glad nobody eats jello anymore,” said the old man. It was a steal: These bowls normally go for 5 bucks a pop on ebay but I was never going to sell them. I immediately saw in them a new purpose: side dishes for all the little pickles that Asian people love to eat.
The Silverlake sale was a hipster garage sale—my least favorite sale. Hipster garage sales are usually overpriced. At the garage sale was all sorts of knick knacks and useless interesting-ness, artfully arranged and the hosts were busy drinking wine from mason jars and talking about their favorite bands. It was there that I saw the bust: A small chalk sculpture of a beautiful black woman with striking blue eyes, wearing a muzzle on her mouth and chain around her neck—a gruesome image that evoked slavery and sadomasochism.
“Look,” I said to my wife.
“Do you know what that is?” said the German man. He seemed embarrassed to be in possession of the sculpture. “An old roommate left that behind and I kept it on display but had to take it down.”
“That’s Anastacia,” I said. “Anastacia is a cult figure in Brasil—a religious saint.” I launched into the kind of Wikipedia explanation that only a one-time college professor can give: that Anastacia was a mulata slave, a child born of rape perpetrated on her mother by a white master; that Anastacia resisted her own white master’s advances; that she was punished for her resistance through the manacles and the muzzle; that her story is one of triumph. “Anastacia’s eyes are blue because they are testimony to her rape. They are fierce because they signal that she can be silenced but unbroken.”
All throughout Northern Brasil—that plantation zone where slaves were worked to death under the merciless hot sun—it is common to see striking black people with blue eyes, eyes as blue as Dresden China. I spent a month in Northern Brasil, in the city of Salvador, which was the entry-point for the slave trade and the administrative center for the surrounding plantations. The historic center, which stands at the top of the hill, affording views of the harbor upon which ships filled with slaves arrived, is called Pelourinho: The Little Pillory—the place where slaves were whipped as public spectacle.
During that time in Salvador, I bought a rosary with Anastacia’s image at one of the major white-washed cathedrals on a hill. This is not uncommon: throughout the region, you can buy trinkets of Anastacia to put on your home altar. She is a major figure in Candomble–a religion that fused Catholicism with West African religious traditions. And people do worship her.
“What is that?” I asked a young black man, when I first bought my rosary.
“Anastacia,” he said. But he did not say it like me—with a shock of recognition. He uttered the name with reverence, as if she were everything to him, and that everybody should know who she was, and that there was no need for further explanation—even to a tourist.
“This is just like the Antique’s Road show,” said the German. “Do you know what it’s worth?”
“Probably not much. The images are common and probably brought back as a tourist souvenir.”
I didn’t buy that bust of Anastacia. I would feel weird displaying it in my house. I didn’t even take a picture of it, because of some superstitious idea about graven images—the indelicacy of taking pictures of pictures. Of course, Anastacia was a picture of a picture herself: We don’t know what she actually looked like. Her image was made by the hand of a Frenchman who visited the Portuguese colonies much earlier—a man who then created a lithograph of an anonymous slave girl as a document of his travels. And this lithograph with the eyes later painted blue would become the de facto image of Anastacia whose eyes may have done the witnessing but who herself was never witnessed by anybody who could live to document her.
After the garage sale, we drove past my wife’s old house—a beautiful house behind the reservoir. Silverlake is one of Los Angeles’s first gentrification neighborhoods and has moved from the grungy to ritzy over the course of two decades. Today, it is a status area, filled with muckety-mucks and industry-types. Eric Garcetti, our very own mayor—a man of much wealth and status who grew up in hoity-toity Bel Air—bought his first house in Silverlake. And monied hipsters from all over the world converge upon it. I doubt that we could ever live there now.
And this got me to thinking about the strangeness of the life of an object—how it can move in and out of so many people’s hands and have so many different meanings, from sacred to profane. You see: the image of Anastacia, only a few months earlier was the object of a big internet war. A designer in Brasil put her image on a dress and marched it down the catwalk on the body of a white Brasilian model. And that image, much like Anastacia’s image, got sampled and instagrammed. It took on another life in different continents and when it made its way to England and America, it became the source of outrage—an image of white people appropriating the image of black slavery and turning it into a money-making opportunity.
In none of these discussions was Anastacia named. Anastacia was simply now a black female slave with a muzzle: demoted to the position that the white Frenchman gave her when he first created her. And in the outrage, the fact that Brasilians revere Anastacia—that they have even created a popular television soap opera depicting her life—was notably absent.
All this was floating in my mind as we visited my wife’s old neighborhood. “Do you think you could bring yourself to display that thing in our house?”
“We have too many things already,” said my wife. “You go to too many garage sales.”
“We could turn around and maybe I could buy it and put it away. I could give it as a gift to Tracy.” Tracy is a professor of African American Studies and I was sure she would find it interesting and not insulting.
“It’s too late. I don’t want to turn around,” she said. And I guess I was already thinking too much about things. I was making too much about something that was simply a bust.