Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomble

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Black Atlantic Religion illuminates the mutual transformation of African and African-American cultures, highlighting the example of the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion. This book contests both the recent conviction that transnationalism is new and the long-held supposition that African culture endures in the Americas only among the poorest and most isolated of black populations. In fact, African culture in the Americas has most flourished among the urban and the prosperous, who, through travel, commerce, and literacy, were well exposed to other cultures. Their embrace of African religion is less a "survival," or inert residue of the African past, than a strategic choice in their circum-Atlantic, multicultural world.

With counterparts in Nigeria, the Benin Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Trinidad, and the United States, Candomblé is a religion of spirit possession, dance, healing, and blood sacrifice. Most surprising to those who imagine Candomblé and other such religions as the products of anonymous folk memory is the fact that some of this religion's towering leaders and priests have been either well-traveled writers or merchants, whose stake in African-inspired religion was as much commercial as spiritual. Morever, they influenced Africa as much as Brazil. Thus, for centuries, Candomblé and its counterparts have stood at the crux of enormous transnational forces.

Vividly combining history and ethnography, Matory spotlights a so-called "folk" religion defined not by its closure or internal homogeneity but by the diversity of its connections to classes and places often far away. Black Atlantic Religion sets a new standard for the study of transnationalism in its subaltern and often ancient manifestations.

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Editorial Reviews

History of Religions - Kelly E. Hayes
Readers with an interest in Afro-diasporan studies and the historical development of 'creole' or 'hybrid' cultures, as well as those attentive to contemporary debates about modernity, nationalism, and globalization, will find here a provocative reflection on Black Atlantic culture.
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2006 Melville J. Herskovits Award, African Studies Association

"Readers with an interest in Afro-diasporan studies and the historical development of 'creole' or 'hybrid' cultures, as well as those attentive to contemporary debates about modernity, nationalism, and globalization, will find here a provocative reflection on Black Atlantic culture."—Kelly E. Hayes, History of Religions

History of Religions
Readers with an interest in Afro-diasporan studies and the historical development of 'creole' or 'hybrid' cultures, as well as those attentive to contemporary debates about modernity, nationalism, and globalization, will find here a provocative reflection on Black Atlantic culture.
— Kelly E. Hayes
History of Religions

Readers with an interest in Afro-diasporan studies and the historical development of 'creole' or 'hybrid' cultures, as well as those attentive to contemporary debates about modernity, nationalism, and globalization, will find here a provocative reflection on Black Atlantic culture.
— Kelly E. Hayes
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691059440
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/5/2005
  • Pages: 376
  • Sales rank: 773,999
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

J. Lorand Matory, Professor of Anthropology and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, is the author of the forthcoming "Sex and the Empire That Is No More: Gender" and the "Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoroba Religion", second edition.
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Read an Excerpt

Black Atlantic Religion

Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé
By J. Lorand Matory

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-05944-0


This is a story of Africa in the Americas. But it is just as much a story about the Americas in Africa, in defiance of the outmoded supposition that internal integration and the isomorphism of cultures with local populations are the normal conditions of social life. This story suggests that lifeways, traditions, and the social boundaries they substantiate endure not despite their involvement in translocal dialogues but because of it. Candomblé (pronounced cahn-dome-BLEH, with a final vowel sound resembling the e in "pet") is one such lifeway and tradition, which is both the product and one of the greatest producers of a transoceanic culture and political economy known as the "black Atlantic."

Candomblé is an Afro-Brazilian religion of divination, sacrifice, healing, music, dance, and spirit possession. The only rival to its beauty is its complexity. Though this religion is headquartered in the coastal Brazilian state of Bahia, it has counterparts and offshoots all over urban Brazil. Believers attribute miraculous powers and exemplary flaws to gods known variously as orixás, voduns, inquices, andcaboclos, depending on the Candomblé denomination. The adventures, personalities, and kinship relations of these superhuman beings are described in an extensive mythology and body of oracular wisdom, which also serve to explain the personalities and fates of their human worshipers, as well as the worldly relations among those worshipers. Through blood sacrifice and lavish ceremonies of spirit possession, the gods are persuaded to intervene beneficently in the lives of their worshipers and to keep the foes of those worshipers at bay.

The Candomblé temple, or "house," also serves the social and economic needs of its class-diverse and largely urban membership. It is usually the primary residence of the chief priest, some of his or her lieutenants, and their wards, as well as a temporary shelter for fugitives from police persecution, domestic crises, and poverty. The temple is also often a conduit of bourgeois largesse, a source of job contacts, an employer in its own right, and a major port of call for politicians. Yet priests and practitioners, no less than the social scientists and politicians who seek to speak for them, tend to emphasize the ancientness and fixity of Candomblé and of the ritual "tradition" that both constitutes its ultimate purpose and shapes the deepest part of community life.

This book is a sequel to my Sex and the Empire That Is No More: Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Òyó-Yorùbá Religion (1994; also forthcoming b), and shares in the intent of that book to understand supposedly local and primordial "folk" cultures and "primitive" religions not primarily in terms of their roots in a pristine past but in the context of the dynamic politics, economics, and long-distance communication that are the lived realities of the "folk." The five-hundred-year-old black Atlantic is five hundred years older in its translocalism and more than two hundred years older in its disruption of nation-state boundaries than the epoch now fashionably described as "transnationalism," giving rise to the suspicion that the chief exponents of this term have chosen to disregard Africa or to disregard the past generally. Yet my aim is not to nominate a new date for the beginnings of transnationalism so that it encompasses African history but, instead, to embrace the truths that this term actually highlights about both the African diaspora and the entire course of human cultural history: the isolation of local cultural units has long been the exception rather than the rule, and territorially bounded social groups have never monopolized the loyalty of their members.

The 15th- to 19th-century Atlantic slave trade and European colonialism were the founding conditions of the black Atlantic but were hardly the first moments of dynamism or translocalism in African cultural history. Commerce and migration across the Sahara, across the Indian Ocean, and across the diverse regions of sub-Saharan Africa are among the forces that have long made Africa a cosmopolitan and ever-changing place. Hence, the focus of this project on the past two hundred years is intended to demonstrate not that we can no longer treat geographical isolation as a condition of cultural reproduction in Africa but that we never could, in Africa or anyplace else.

Moreover, far from emerging from the death throes of the nation-state, translocalism long predated nationalism everywhere in the world. Indeed, translocalism was a founding condition of nationalism. I regard transnationalism less as a sudden thirty-, forty-, or fifty-year-old challenge to the nation-state than an analytic focus on how important translocalism remains, even at moments when the rulers of a few exceptionally powerful nation-states claim to believe that their territorial jurisdictions are culturally, economically, and politically autonomous. What is most worthy about the recent literature on transnationalism is what it ultimately implies about a very old phenomenon: territorial jurisdictions might command great loyalty from their citizens and subjects, and they might impose significant constraints on their conduct; however, territorial jurisdictions have never monopolized the loyalty of the citizens and subjects that they claim, and they are never the sole founts of authority or agents of constraint in such people's lives. Such is true of the nation-state now, as it was and is of kingdoms, empires, religions, acephalous republics, and fiefdoms.

By way of illustration, this book documents a series of transnational dialogues-involving West African, Afro-Brazilian, and Afro-Cuban priests alongside European and American slave traders, European imperialists, postcolonial Latin American and African nationalists, black trans-Atlantic merchants, and an international community of ethnographers-in the absence of which the massive changes in the ethnic identities, sacred values, and gendered leadership associated with Candomblé over the past century and a half would have been difficult to explain. Hence, this story defies not only the current fashion to describe transnationalism as a recent phenomenon but also the old chronotrope (Fabian 1983) that homelands are to their diasporas as the past is to the present and future. The irony at the core of this story is that diasporas create their homelands. The circum-Atlantic forces that have produced the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé, which range from the slave trade to the return migration of Afro-Latin Americans to Africa, as well as Boasian anthropology itself, have also produced a range of novel West African ethnic identities.

I have chosen to tell a story about the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé not simply because it presents some of the most beautiful spectacles of black divinity in the world but also because it illustrates black ingenuity under duress, an ingenuity that created its transnational, transimperial, and transoceanic networks before the word "transnationalism" was ever known. It is an ingenuity that refuses to be written out of history. Here I will tell a new tale of Candomblé's old past and its dynamic present, a present of which I myself am a part.

A Challenge to Ethnography

What would a culture look like, and how would an ethnography look, if we attended consciously to the transnational processes that have constantly informed the meanings and motives of its participants?

The genre of anthropological ethnography began as an effort to understand the deeply local character of meaning and the local institutional context of collective human endeavors. The conventions of the genre consciously demoted history because the only forms of history available for the Pacific island, African, and Native American societies in which anthropologists specialized seemed to be diffusionist speculations about where a local "trait" had come from or evolutionist constructions of how "high" a society had risen in some putatively universal trajectory toward the lifeways best exemplified by northwest European white men. The lack of long-term documentation of these societies' histories is more easily resolved now than it once was-social scientists have recognized the utility of oral history, some long-available written sources have finally come to light or been deciphered, and, after a century or more of colonization by Europeans, these societies have typically generated at least a century of written records of major social change.

The classical conventions of the ethnographic genre consciously demoted translocal forces as well, partly because of the speculative nature of early diffusionism and, more important, because the massive translocal force of colonialism itself seemed but a backdrop to or a distraction from the aim of archiving the recently superseded forms of life or potential administrative structures that interested colonial era anthropologists. Nowadays, however, we recognize colonialism as one of the many historical phenomena that, over time, have shaped these essentially dynamic societies. Colonialism and other such phenomena therefore require direct attention in our study.

The translocal, transnational, and trans-Atlantic slave trade and its consequences have, however, been a major blind spot in the genesis of the currently fashionable anthropological models of cultural history. The parallel study of African-American and Native American "acculturation" by Melville Herskovits, Robert Redfield, and others long ago fell by the wayside in American anthropology. Its lessons about the importance of exogenous political and economic inequality were far more easily ignored or taken for granted in colonized Africa and Asia, where the anthropologists' informants took longer to assert their citizenship rights and thereby open the eyes of anthropologists to the abnormalness of their oppression and of limitations on their movement. On the other hand, it has always been literally impossible to understand the cultural history of Africans and their descendants in America without understanding the massive transnational forces and the massive forced migration that brought them to the Americas. Well within the parameters of the "time-space compression" described by Harvey (1989), the slave trade resulted from and resulted in capitalist-inspired technological changes that, between the 16th and the 19th centuries, enabled the vast acceleration of human movement across the globe.

Hence the reasons for the exclusion of this case from current models of transnationalism must be sought in differences other than qualitative ones. Perhaps those who see transnationalism as new have excluded Africans and their descendants on the grounds of the Africans' appearance of passivity in the process, or perhaps Africans seemed marginal to the nation-state because of many Africans' aspirations to transcend, disrupt, or crosscut it. Or perhaps the African diaspora case has been so marginalized in anthropology because it is not widely known or thought of as an important instance of cross-cultural variety, worthy of consideration when universalizing historical models or theoretical propositions are advanced. However, what remains important and worthy in transnational-ism/globalization theory is the challenge it poses: If we can no longer write ethnography as though the present-day Eurasian societies focal to the argument were merely local and territorially bounded, then when and where were anthropologists ever correct in writing according to the assumption of local boundedness? Clearly, no place.

Historians such as Braudel (1992 [1949]), Curtin et al. (1978), Thornton (1992), and Chaudhuri (1990), as well as the art historian Robert Farris Thompson (1983) and the literary critics Paul Gilroy (1993) and Joseph Roach (1996), have clarified the standards of analysis for translocal fields far better for their disciplines than anthropologists have for our own. For example, though it has grown roots in a range of disciplines beyond his own, Thompson is the author of the felicitous coinage the "black Atlantic." Nonetheless, anthropologists are not without intellectual resources to contribute. Even the prototype of the ethnographic genre in anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), is focused on the translocal phenomenon of the maritime trade in kula valuables. But, with the exception of Ong (1999), there are few models for an ethnography that is truly attentive to both local meaning and transnational context. I have set myself to the task of clarifying a standard of analysis for a translocal field that is both one of the most neglected and arguably the most important in illuminating the central role of transnationalism in the genesis of the territorial nation and of global capitalism itself-the black Atlantic.

Trance Atlantic: A Thumbnail Sketch of the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé

The Atlantic perimeter hosts a range of groups profoundly influenced by western African conceptions of personhood and of the divine. Their religions include Candomblé, Umbanda, Xangô, and Batuque in Brazil, as well as Vodou in Haiti and "Santería," or Ocha, and Palo Mayombe in Cuba and in all the American countries where Cubans and Caribbean Latino music have traveled. These are religions of spirit possession, divination, and healing that also define peoplehoods called "nations," which link them with specific places in Africa. A nation avowing Yorùbá origins is called "Lucumí" in Cuba, "Nagô" or "Quêto" in Brazil, and "Nagô" in Haiti. A nation avowing links to the Ewè, Gèn, Ajá, and Fòn speakers is called "Arará" in Cuba, "Jeje" or "Mina" in Brazil, and "Rada" in Haiti. And then there is the Congo, or Congo/ Angola, nation found in Cuba, Brazil, and Haiti. In the Americas, well into the late 19th century, such black Atlantic nations brought their citizens together in work crews, manumission societies, Catholic lay brotherhoods, and rebel armies. Today they are held together-often with tremendous success-by obedience to shared gods, shared ritual standards, shared language, and, in some sense, a shared leadership.

With counterparts in Nigeria, the People's Republic of Bénin, Trinidad, Cuba, and everyplace where Cuban exiles have lived since 1959, Candomblé attracts many nonbelievers with its festivals, where the beautifully clothed gods and goddesses dance before drum orchestras and bring blessings to their earthly devotees. Its African-inspired gods and Native American-inspired caboclo spirits are associated with historical characters (kings, queens, knights, and Indian chiefs), with "forces of nature" (oceans, rivers, trees, hunting, rainbows, snakes, and storms), and with particular human personality and body types. The god a person worships personifies elements of his or her character and destiny and prescribes the worshiper's potential roles in the ritual life of the temple. A worshiper also obeys his or her god's food and behavioral taboos. Knowledge of other peoples' gods is taken to illuminate virtually any social situation.

When people are afflicted or in trouble, divination sometimes identifies the source of the problem as a neglected tutelary god, a malevolent spirit sent by an enemy, other people's jealousy, or a harmful "influence" picked up from the street. Candomblé priests command the technology to purify bodies, houses, and other vessels of unwanted influences and to insert, or secure the presence of, the divinities in the bodies and altars of their devotees. The ritual control of what enters and what stays out of people's bodies dramatizes people's situational and lifelong belonging in trans-Atlantic communities that crosscut multiple territorial nations.


Excerpted from Black Atlantic Religion by J. Lorand Matory Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii
Introduction 1
Chapter One: The English Professors of Brazil On the Diasporic Roots of the Yorúbà Nation 38
Chapter Two: The Trans-Atlantic Nation
Rethinking Nations and Transnationalism 73
Chapter Three: Purity and Transnationalism
On the Transformation of Ritual in the Yorúbà-Atlantic Diaspora 115
Chapter Four: Candomblè's Newest Nation: Brazil 149
Chapter Five: Para Inglês Ver
Sex, Secrecy, and Scholarship in the Yorúbà-Atlantic World 188
Chapter Six: Man in the "City of Women" 224
Chapter Seven: Conclusion
The Afro-Atlantic Dialogue 267
Appendix A: Geechees and Gullahs
The Locus Classicus of African "Survivals" in the United States 295
Appendix B: The Origins of the Term "Jeje" 299
Notes 301
Bibliography 343
Index 369

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