No, Covering Your Face To Keep Out The COVID-19 Isn’t Slavery

People who don't have the sense to come in out of the coronavirus aren't known for their racial sensitivity. This is probably why they keep comparing themselves to Rosa Parks. It was only a matter of time before they cranked the appropriation up a notch. Rosa Parks, after all, was able to get a haircut and presumably purchase all the garden supplies she wanted. No, white people a few months into a global pandemic are just like SLAVES, except for the part where they are legally free and can't be bought and sold like chattel.

Last week, during a protest at the Humboldt County, California, courthouse over the state's stay-at-home orders, Gretha Stenger was photographed holding a sign with a black-and-white image of a young black woman wearing a muzzle. Next to the photo are the words "Muzzles are for dogs and slaves. I am a free human being."

First place, slaves were human beings. That, and the hours, was the whole problem with slavery. Apparently, the newest injustice for spoiled suburbanites is that they might have to wear masks in public. No one likes having mandated accessories, but putting on a mask is a small price to pay if it means we can leave the house again without killing each other.

Mask rules vary across California. They're required whenever you're outside your home in Los Angeles, but in San Francisco, you only have to cover your face when entering or inside public facilities and when waiting in line outdoors for public transportation. Unlike the tyranny of shoes, you'll probably only have to worry about masks for another couple years at the most. Slavery dragged on for what felt like centuries because that's how long it was.

Stenger once worked for North Coast Preparatory Academy in Bayside, a top-ranked charter school where she directed plays. They were probably ... fine, which is my standard, polite review for theatrical productions involving children. She's no longer employed at the school and it's unclear how she currently makes a living. Maybe she could spend less of her free time at these protests and more of it reading The 1619 Project.

Hey, she did apologize, though! Her statement is awesome. It's like a letter from a Jane Austen novel.

Holding that sign up at the lockdown protest was a grave mistake and I ask forgiveness from all those who I have caused pain. As I had no sign of my own, it was handed to me by another protester and a photographer took the picture before I considered the racist implications. My intent was to take a stand for the freedom of all human persons and I mistakenly held a sign that conveyed the opposite. Please know that I respect the dignity of all people and I sincerely regret any suffering it has caused.

It's impossible to read the words “As I had no sign of my own" without laughing. Stenger was too lazy to bring her own sign to the protest but felt self-conscious because everyone else had signs, so she got stuck with someone's secondhand racist sign. It's a classic comedy of errors.

Larkin Small, another protester at the event, was photographed with a similar sign, but no one's confirmed that it was the one Stenger borrowed. Small has not apologized or released a statement. Fortunately, she doesn't represent the theatre community.

That's enough about these fools. Let's discuss the woman whose image they used for their enslavement cosplay. Dr. Uju Anya, an assistant professor and all-around smart person at Penn State, packs a lot of painful history into three tweets.

The image this woman chose to illustrate her oppression is Anastácia, an enslaved African in 1700s Brazil. Her mistress ordered that iron spike torture device put to deform her face and squeeze her neck out of rage and jealousy that her husband wouldn't stop raping Anastácia.

Story also says Anastácia knew medicinal cures, healing practices and was painfully muzzled to curtail her influence. In time, she became a revered saint among Brazilian Catholics and Umbanda practitioners. More popularly, she's a symbol of Black women's power and resistance.

You rarely see images of Anastácia outside her story of a resilient head held high above depraved criminals who enslaved and tortured her. Mouth silenced, but her face still screaming testimony against their evil. But when you do, it's always interesting what they do with it.

In 1987 the Catholic Church declared that Anastacia "never existed," and we all know the Catholic Church doesn't waste its time on imaginary beings. Anastacia's image was removed from Church-owned properties, but independent shrines in Rio are still around.

Even if Anastácia was a myth, the pain and resilience she represents did exist among countless enslaved women over the centuries. She's more than just a rhetorical prop for people who can't see past themselves.

Cover your face but don't steal hers.


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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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