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University of California Press
Diaspora Conversions: Black Carib Religion and the Recovery of Africa / Edition 1

Diaspora Conversions: Black Carib Religion and the Recovery of Africa / Edition 1

by Paul Christopher Johnson
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ISBN-13: 9780520249707
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/03/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 343
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Paul Christopher Johnson is Associate Professor in the Department of History and the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, and author of Secrets, Gossip and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomblé.

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Diaspora Conversions

Black Carib Religion and the Recovery of Africa
By Paul Christopher Johnson

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-24970-7

Chapter One

What Is Diasporic Religion?

We can also say of every religion that it reproduces in more or less symbolic forms the history of migrations and fusions of race and tribes, of great events, wars, establishments, discoveries, and reforms. Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory

We are not a diaspora, we are just trapped. Emeline Michel, Haitian singer

This chapter lays out the parameters for the central theoretical issues of the book, moving from the widest to the narrowest distinctions. I examine, in turn, diaspora, diasporic religion, African Diaspora, and African diasporic religions, the latter specifically in New York City. The attempt to establish a solid theoretical footing for the starring phrase among these, diasporic religion, may appear a fool's errand, since both diaspora and religion are highly conflicted terms. How can we cheerfully head for the mountains with only these two frayed ropes in our packs? I wager that the two ropes can be sufficiently rewoven, and woven together, to hold the needed weight.

That Shared Something: Defining Diaspora Analytically

The notion of diaspora has been progressively widened over the last century to include not only the dispersions of the Jewish, Greek, and Armenian populations but also diasporas as disparate as those of Calvinists (Weber 2002: 7), the Portuguese (Klimt and Lubkemann 2002), the Mormons (Smith and White 2004), and the New Orleans victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (Gross 2006). The term has even been applied to the dispersion of individuals from a position of social valuation to one where little is accorded them, as in "the sexual diaspora of older women" (Merkin 2006: 18)-the experience of being sexually "in exile." Suddenly, it appears, everyone is in diaspora. Well, why not? We all came from somewhere else and are at least dimly enough aware of it to be able to call up sentiments about our origins. Ethnic revivals are at least in part a reactive move, a standard means of vying for a fair share of the socioeconomic pie (Barth 1969; Comaroff and Comaroff 1992; Rumbaut and Portes 2001: 5; Baumann 2000; Berking 2003), and diaspora has become their reliable vehicle. The practical, colloquial use of the word suggests affiliations by virtue of biological descent, which allegedly transmit blood continuity across space: The Jewish diaspora, from this perspective, is the set of people whose families were from, but then were exiled or otherwise departed from, Israel during dispersions under Babylonia, Rome, or other conquerors. The Irish diaspora is built of the descendants of the families that left Ireland during the potato famines of the nineteenth century, and so on.

This concept inspires groups and galvanizes political mobilizations, but for analytical and comparative purposes it falls short on at least two counts. First, in this view, there exist natural groupings of humans who, through emigration, inevitably become diasporas. But there are no such natural groups and, it follows, no natural diasporas, either. The second obvious problem with the everyday uses of diaspora is that the category is overly broad. It is true that if we go back far enough, all human beings have their origins in East Africa (Palmer 1998); but the assertion that we are all members of an East African diaspora is not useful. Although we all have ancestors from that region, that memory is not part of our conscious experience; nor is it constitutive, so far as we know, of our bodily habitus; nor is each of us seen by others as a member of that category. Folk invocations of diaspora fail to specify its cultural particularity: it depends not merely on having a family tree that sprouted in another place but also on having a double consciousness in relation to place. For members of a diaspora, that awareness is central, even actively conjured in their lived experience. They feel a gap between here and there, where they are "really from." They may even value that gap, seeing it not as a deficiency but as a resource or mark of distinction, and actively cultivate a sense of it (Malkki 1997: 62).

The prevalence of these confusing folk usages, not to mention the mixed approaches of analytical meanings-as social form, as type of consciousness, as mode of cultural production (Vertovec 2000: 142)-suggests that we need to spend some time giving boundaries to the notions of diaspora and diasporic religion.


The ascent of diaspora as an analytical term has taken several routes. One of these is the route of roots, the tracing of its etymology as a way to delimit its semantic range (e.g., Tölölyan 1996; R. Cohen 1997; Baumann 2000; Sheffer 2003).

Diaspora comes from the Greek verb speirein (to sow, or scatter, as in seed) and the preposition dia (over); thus, "to scatter over." The same Indo-European root, sp-, appears in words like "spore," "spread," and "sperm." Diaspora was first used by Greeks to describe the colonization of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean world, and it probably connoted a sacrificial loss of the homeland for the cause of Greek expansion; hence irretrievable separation though not necessarily forced migration or enslavement (Tölölyan 1996; Baumann 2000).

The word took on a different valence when applied to the Jewish experience, as a translation of the Hebrew term galut in the Greek version of Hebrew scripture, connoting severance and exile (Deuteronomy 28: 25, 58-68) and the Jewish dispersions (732 B.C.E., after conquest by Assyria; 586 B.C.E., after conquest by Babylonia; 70 C.E., after conquest by Rome). Yet, at least in the later context of rabbinic teaching, the notion also carried the promise of ultimate return (Cohen 1997; Baumann 2000). In Jewish thought diaspora carries within it a soteriology, the promise of the future salvation of the people through a return to the place of origin. As Thomas Tweed (1997: 42) notes, other groups' religious diasporic practice may proffer analogous promises of geopiety projected into the future: "Next year in Jerusalem! Next year in Havana! Next year in Saigon, Palestine, and Llasa!" (cf. Wright 1947; Tuan 1976; Smith and White 2004). This common feature suggests how different diasporas draw on different imaginative and sentimental sensibilities: diasporas of hope, of terror, of despair, of desire (Appadurai 1996: 6).


A second route to definition has been the attempt to specify the empirical contents of a diaspora, so as to enable us to differentiate "diaspora societies" from other societies (Safran 1991; Tölölyan 1996; R. Cohen 1997; Van Hear 1998; Baumann 2000; K. Butler 2001). Scholars have reached a relative consensus on the traits constituting diasporas. Most obvious in these lists is the dispersion of a present group or of past ancestors from an original center to two or more new sites. Next is some retained collective memory about the homeland.

A third criterion is the maintenance of relations with the departed homeland, at least as an imagined community, which defines in significant ways the contemporary experience of the hostland. These relations may include economic as well as social and cultural remittances (Levitt 2001) in both directions, or it may entail ritual performances that call the homeland to mind in order to improve or transform the experience of the hostland.

Fourth, the best of these list-based definitions also call attention to institutional infrastructures that make and sustain diasporic sentiments in what I refer to as "stagings," or performatives (Axel 2004). This issue is important for the present study because, when a group of new arrivals in New York City claims identification with the religious African Diaspora, that group must enter the diaspora through institutional networks, material repertoires, and spaces already present in the city (David Brown 1999). Emigrants rely on artifactual representations that recall the homeland to mind (Appadurai 1996; Tweed 1997: 97; P. Werbner 2000; Miller 2005).

A fifth defining feature often invoked is that a diaspora group remains at least partly separate, distinct, or alienated from the mainstream society in the host country. "Whoever passes from one [territory] to the other finds himself physically and magico-religiously in a special situation for a certain length of time: he wavers between two worlds," wrote Arnold Van Gennep at the beginning of the twentieth century (1960 [1901]: 18). By this criterion, full assimilation in the new place or the total severing of ties to the homeland renders a group no longer diasporic (Saint-Blancat, quoted in Baumann 2000: 326).

A sixth typical characteristic is the nostalgic idealization of the homeland and ancestral time, which may or may not be linked with the desire for actual permanent return (Appadurai 1996: 37-38; Tweed 1997: 94). Relatively few African Americans will actually return to live in Africa, though the ritual experience of momentary "return" both in space and in time is widely performed in African Diaspora religions of the Americas.

These rough criteria offer a fairly standard set of markers to use in analytical definitions of diaspora. These in turn should allow us to distinguish diasporic religious forms from nondiasporic ones.


Diasporas differ from ethnic communities in themselves, Tölölyan writes, "by the extent to which the latter's commitment to maintain connections with its homeland and its kin communities in other states is absent, weak, at best intermittent, and manifested by individuals rather than the community as a whole" (1996: 16). Tölölyan's point about "extent" or degree of diasporization is important, but it may prove useful to confront an apparently simpler problem, at least as a thought experiment: Who is not in diaspora? To put this differently, if groups can undergo "de-diasporization" (Van Hear 1998: 48), what exactly does this process entail? One of Nicholas Van Hear's examples seems clear enough: when people return permanently to wherever they consider home, they cease to be in diaspora. Recent such groups include ethnic Germans and Greeks returning to homelands from the former USSR after 1989 and Palestinians who returned to the West Bank from Kuwait between 1990 and 1992 (Van Hear 1998: 6, 48, 195, 200). A second example is those always in transit, for example as nomads (Cohen 1997): the lack of any established homeland location precludes any sense of territorial dislocation. The Bedouins and the Romani ("Gypsies") represent this type.

Third, a community that is entirely uprooted to a new homeland is no longer dispersed; it remains "intact," merely in a new place, and the key spatial feature of diaspora, the engagement of hostland and homeland communities across a gap, is forfeit. Next, at least as a logical possibility, we can imagine a group that remains dislocated from a homeland community but which so fully assimilates in the hostland that it is no longer cognizant of the homeland and abandons the sort of "coresponsibility" that is constitutive of active diasporas (Saint-Blancat in Baumann 2000; P. Werbner 2000: 17). Eric Hobsbawm, for example, describes his childhood family life among the assimilated Jews in interwar Vienna. In his memory, Jews were simply part of the cosmopolitan cultural fabric of the city. Despite prevalent anti-Semitism, any specific meaning accorded to Jewishness was slight, as were his sentiments of loyalty: "I have no emotional obligation to the practices of an ancestral religion and even less to ... the nation-state which asks for my solidarity on racial grounds" (Hobsbawm 2002: 10-12, 24).

Finally, a group lacking the resources, time, energy, and political clout to guard and fan the sparks of memory can cease to live in diaspora, as the exhausted-sounding epigraph from Emeline Michel suggests: "We are not a diaspora, we are just trapped." Diasporic affiliations and representations come into being under certain historical conditions and may be transformed or disappear under others (Clifford 1994: 315). Hence, writes Eddie Glaude of African Americans, "Most people don't live diasporic lives" (2000: 103).

In the most restrictive and precise definition, diasporic social formation is determined by consciousness and discourse about spatial dislocation, as in Martin Baumann's admirably concise definition: "The relational facts of a perpetual recollecting identification with a fictitious or far away existent geographic territory and its cultural-religious traditions are taken as diaspora constitutive" (2000: 327, italics in original).

To this review of definitions by etymology, list, and relation, I would like to add five further considerations to sharpen the meaning of diaspora, and by extension diasporic religion, to a more incisive point.

A diaspora is a specific kind of culture. Diasporas are cultural rather than biological forms. For a diasporic culture to be maintained or transmitted, information like memories, tastes, and habits must be communicated from one individual mind to another. Each leap of "contagion"-to borrow an epidemiological metaphor (Sperber 1996)-entails a new reception, the adaptation of incoming information to a new psychosocial and material context. Change occurs as that memory is reconfigured within a semantic field of relevant schema or scripts by which an individual lives (Kertzer 1988; Shore 1996; Sperber 1996; Sewell 1999; Zerubavel 1999; Boyer 2001; Whitehouse 2000, 2004).

Individual minds must receive and reproduce the words, habits, and tendencies which, when assembled densely and consistently enough with those of a group of people located in another place, come to be called a "diaspora" in comparisons with other clusters of habits, memories, aesthetic preferences, or languages. Diasporic culture names a relative match among these clusters carried by individual minds, a sufficient though never complete similarity (Boyer 2001: 35-36). The reproduction of such a similarity requires communications between individuals. But diaspora culture is distinctive in that the transmissive gaps to be bridged are enormously widened.

Diasporas are cultures that cross wide transmissive gaps and are also about such gaps. Diasporic cultural transmissions entail not the reception and incorporation of words or ideas passed contiguously, through direct contact or immediate networks, but rather the exchange of signals and symbols through electronic media, the post, videotapes, or secondhand gossip networks. Cultural transmission is conducted not only through human copresence in known places, as in the homeland, but also across empty space dividing homeland from hostland. The wider the spaces those transmissions must cross, and the greater the number of rival signals in the cultural field of reception, the more variation may occur-even if, as is often the case in diasporic religions, strident discourses insist on fidelity to tradition and absolute continuity between the homeland and the diasporic group (Gupta and Ferguson 1997: 39).

Corollary to the spatial gap is the oft-perceived temporal gap, or "lag" (Brent Edwards 2003), where the homeland is made by those in diaspora to carry the symbolic weight of the "original" and the "inherent"; just as, for those remaining in the homeland, the diaspora often must bear the load of "modernity" (Gilroy 1993: 191, 197). Even messages exchanged in the here and now may be incorporated by individual persons according to schema derived from their memories of a place located in the past-depending on how long ago the emigration occurred-rather than the present. When a Garifuna person in New York receives a videotape of a ritual from a Honduran village and watches it in her high-rise apartment, she may view the videotaped actions as occurring not only in a different place but also in a different time, the time of her childhood (cf. Richman 2005: 25, 196, 213). The homeland is conceived both as a geographic backwater compared with the city, and as a hallowed place: hallowed because it mediates the past in some way that resists transience, even though the homeland village may be fully engaged with processes of modernity. Diasporic Garifuna often caricature the imaginary homeland and its dwellers, both to fortify their own superiority and to endow the homeland with the sacralizing power of ancestral authenticity.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. What Is Diasporic Religion?
2. “These Sons of Freedom”: Black Caribs across Three Diasporic Horizons
3. Shamans at Work in the Villages
4. Shamans at Work in New York
5. Ritual in the Homeland; Or, Making the Land “Home” in Ritual
6. Ritual in the Bronx
7. Finding Africa in New York

Appendix. Trajectory of a Moving Object, the Caldero

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