Oduduwa's Chain: Locations of Culture in the Yoruba-Atlantic

Oduduwa's Chain: Locations of Culture in the Yoruba-Atlantic

by Andrew Apter

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Yoruba culture has been a part of the Americas for centuries, brought from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade and maintained in various forms ever since. In Oduduwa’s Chain, Andrew Apter explores a wide range of fascinating historical and ethnographic examples and offers a provocative rethinking of African heritage in Black Atlantic Studies.
Focusing on Yoruba history and culture in Nigeria, Apter applies a generative model of cultural revision that allows him to identify formative Yoruba influences without resorting to the idea that culture and tradition are fixed. For example, Apter shows how the association of African gods with Catholic saints can be seen as a strategy of empowerment, explores historical locations of Yoruba gender ideologies and their variations in the Atlantic world, and much more. He concludes with a rousing call for a return to Africa in studies of the Black Atlantic, resurrecting a critical notion of culture that allows us to transcend Western inventions of African while taking them into account.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226506555
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/30/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Andrew Apter is professor of history and anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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Herskovits's Heritage

It is customary, if not mandatory, in contemporary African diaspora studies to invoke the pioneering spirit of Melville J. Herskovits (1895–1963), whose lifework was dedicated to the repossession of Africa's heritage in the New World. Not that Herskovits was the first to engage in such research. Others before him included W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, as well as Jean Price-Mars of Haiti, Fernando Ortiz of Cuba, and — more his contemporaries than predecessors — Zora Neale Hurston and the Brazilian ethnologists René Ribeiro, Arthur Ramos, and Gilberto Freyre. But Herskovits more than any other scholar posed the African American connection as a theoretical problem that, in the service of a progressive if intellectually circumscribed political agenda, demanded systematic research into an unprecedented range of West African and New World cultures. It is not my aim to praise a great ancestor, whose flaws and limitations are as legendary as his virtues, but to assess the relevance of his theoretical program to contemporary African American research. In particular, I will focus on his syncretic paradigm, which continues — even among those who disavow it as crudely essentialist or unwittingly racist — to inform the current renaissance in studies of the African diaspora.

There is much that seems wrong, misconceived, and simply outdated in Herskovits's syncretic paradigm when it is evaluated against the current standards of a more critical anthropology. It is not difficult to see how Herskovits essentialized tribal origins in Africa, perpetuated myths of cultural purity in the New World, overlooked class formation, and developed passive notions of acculturation and cultural resistance, all of which distorted the ethnographic record under the guise of an imputed scientific objectivity. But there also is something elusively tenacious about the concept of syncretism. Even when critically deconstructed, it somehow creeps back into any meaningful discussion of Africanity in the New World. And even as we recognize that "Africa" has been ideologically constructed to create imagined communities in the black Americas — as Guinée in Haitian Vodou, Lucumí in Cuban Santería, or the Nagô nation of Brazilian Candomblé — such invented identities cannot be totally severed from their cultural analogues (dare we say origins?) in West and West Central Africa. The goal of this chapter is to rethink syncretism in a way that does justice to both sides of this methodological divide: equally to the inventedness (and inventiveness) of New World African identities and to their cultural and historical associations with African peoples. This resolution requires greater clarity about just what it is we are comparing, contextualizing, and historicizing on both sides of the Atlantic, an exercise that gives a new twist to Herskovits's ethnohistorical method and owes its revisionary strategy to some critical lessons that I learned from the Yoruba in Nigeria.

It is perhaps noteworthy that recent studies of "Africanisms" in the Americas, focusing on particular deities like Ogun, on religions like Santería and Vodou, or even on transatlantic aesthetic and philosophical complexes, have effectively erased syncretism from their lexicons. These excellent studies indeed reveal that there is much more to such New World cultural forms than a blending of two distinct traditions into a hybrid form. Scholarly emphasis has shifted to disclose the nuanced complexities of the historical conditions in which African identities are remembered and forgotten, fractured and fused, invoked, possessed, repossessed, transposed, and reconfigured within rural peasantries, urban centers, immigrant communities, national arenas, and even at transnational conferences on, for example, the Yoruba-based Orisha tradition. Consistent with this move is a shift away from cultural form toward cultural performance and practice, to traditions in the making rather than those already made, preserved, or retained. These developments are welcome as part of the positive trend in cultural studies, but it is equally clear that nothing as powerful as the syncretic paradigm has arisen from its ashes, resulting in a compelling crisis of representation. In brief, what is Africa's place in the New World? Indeed, what is "Africa"?

Rather than address this rapidly growing literature, I will return to the essentials of Herskovits's syncretic paradigm in order to extract the interpretive kernel from its scientistic shell. This involves a pilgrimage to the classic shrines of New World syncretism, where, in Brazilian Candomblé, Cuban Santería, and Haitian Vodou, African gods embrace Catholic saints to promote new religious empires. I privilege these sites not only because, for Herskovits, they represented the clearest cases of syncretism as such, but because for us, they provide the clearest examples of how African critical practices in the Americas can inform our own research.

The Syncretic Paradigm

Herskovits ([1941] 1958, xxii) credited Arthur Ramos as one of the first to employ the concept of syncretism to account for the identification of African deities with Catholic saints in Brazilian Candomblé. Syncretism suggested, for Herskovits, "a pattern of first importance" in the study of Afro-American culture contact and change, the dynamics of which he continued to document and theorize while refining his method over the years. If the scientificity of this method appears contrived today, we should appreciate that Herskovits posed a radical challenge to the sociological interpretations of American and New World "Negro" institutions and practices which, according to E. Franklin Frazier and Robert E. Park (among others), represented functional adaptations to socioeconomic conditions rather than African cultural holdovers or survivals (see Frazier 1939; Park 1919, and Smith 1957). Herskovits called for greater sensitivity to history and culture in the acculturative process, arguing effectively that synchronic sociological reductionism not only violated the ethnographic record, but worse, supported the racist myth that the Negro had no meaningful African history or heritage. It is with this spirit and strategy in mind that his syncretic paradigm must be understood.

Under the rubric of "ethnohistorical method," Herskovits meant simply that ethnology and history should be combined "to recover the predominant regional and tribal origins of the New World Negroes" and "to establish the cultural baselines from which the processes of change began" (1966, 49). This baseline, he argued, was restricted to the West African coastal and rainforest belts, running from Senegal to Angola, because the smaller and later shipments of slaves from East Africa, Mozambique, and Madagascar had minimal cultural impact on previously established West African patterns in the New World. This claim is debatable, although probably true, but it is not my aim to evaluate its empirical plausibility in light of new evidence (e.g., Curtin 1969), but to clarify its underlying logic. In this view, West African cultures are figured as discrete, coherent wholes, which, with various degrees of purity and in different spheres of social life, left their impress on the black Americas. To assess the relative purity of African retentions and to specify their social domains, Herskovits developed a number of related concepts that together can be glossed as the syncretic paradigm. In addition to the ethnohistorical method, these concepts are (1) scale of intensity, (2) cultural focus, (3) syncretism proper, (4) reinterpretation, and (5) cultural imponderables. I will review these concepts not only to point out their profound limitations, but also to draw out their theoretical relevance to contemporary diaspora studies.

If Herskovits regarded his scale of intensities as one of his greatest methodological achievements, with hindsight it seems to parody the epistemology of liberal social science. In an effort to quantify New World Africanisms, albeit for heuristic rather than statistical purposes, Herskovits developed a logical continuum from most to least African, segmented into (a) very African, (b) quite African, (c) somewhat African, (d) a little African, (e) trace of African customs or absent, and (?) no report. These relative values were placed in a two-dimensional array, with New World regions and communities like Guiana (bush and Paramaribo), Haiti (peasant and urban), and the United States (Gullah Islands, rural South, urban North) along a vertical axis, and with specific sociocultural domains (technology, economics, social organization, religion, art, music, etc.) segmented along a horizontal axis to represent variable degrees of African intensity within each region or community. Despite internal variations, the resulting table (table 1.1) reveals that "the progression of Guiana, Haiti, Brazil, Jamaica, Trinidad, Cuba, Virgin Islands, the Gullah Islands, and southern and northern United States comprise a series wherein a decreasing intensity of Africanisms is manifest" (Herskovits 1966, 54). Today, the empirical conclusions can be revised. For example, we know from the Prices' work in Surinam that Guiana is much more creolized than Herskovits ever imagined (see R. Price 1983; S. Price 1984; Price and Price 1980). But the conceptual problems of the schema are more serious. Clearly the intensities themselves (such as "very," "quite," and "somewhat African") are highly relative and subjective. Also, the sociocultural domains (social organization, religion, art) are in no way discrete and ignore class divisions, and the regional and community designations are inconsistent with each other. For example, only Haiti is divided into "urban" and "peasant," even though this is a distinction that Bastide ([1960] 1978) has shown to be highly salient in Brazil.

As a form of knowledge, the scale of intensities resembles the anthropometric measures of physical anthropology, which Herskovits deployed in his postdoctoral research on the phenotypical effects of miscegenation in North America (see Herskovits 1928). Although he was always explicit — following his mentor, Franz Boas — about separating race from culture and language, his scale of intensities echoes a blood-based logic by transposing notions of purity and dilution from racial stocks to cultural genealogies. Thus he could claim that "the Bush Negroes of the Guiana forests manifest Africanculture in purer form than is to be encountered anywhere else outside Africa" (Herskovits [1941] 1958, 124) and that "rural and urban Negro cultures took on somewhat different shadings" (135) with the darker peasants more African than their lighter, more acculturated urban brothers and sisters. I do not mean to suggest that Herskovits was a closet racist — which would be a rather cheap shot against a scholar whose progressive views were so ahead of his time. But it should remain clear how easily the language of race entered into the discourse of syncretism in the New World, particularly when the rhetoric of science was wedded to essentialized concepts of African culture in comparative studies funded by the Carnegie Corporation.

If the scale of intensities represented variable degrees and domains of African retention — high for religion, low for economics and art — it offered no explanations. To understand why some practices thrived when and where they did while others went underground or disappeared, Herskovits developed his general theory of syncretism, supplemented by concepts of reinterpretation, cultural focus, and what he called (no doubt echoing Malinowski [(1922) 1961, 20–21]) "cultural imponderables." Narrowly defined, syncretism is produced in situations of contact between cultures from "the tendency to identify those elements in the new culture with similar elements in the old one, enabling the persons experiencing the contact to move from one to the other, and back again, with psychological ease" (Herskovits 1966, 57). Thus, he notes, in the Catholic New World, African gods are identified with saints of the Catholic Church, whereas in Protestant areas the religious associations are subtler, and African cultural retentions (e.g., mourning and shouting) less intense. We can perceive in this notion a strong psychological emphasis on the individual as syncretic agent, on identification as the syncretic process, and on adaptation and integration ("psychological ease") as syncretic functions, which extend secondarily to groups in their new cultural contexts. The same process occurs, according to Herskovits, "in substance rather than form, in psychological value rather than in name" (1966, 57) when the resemblance between cultural elements is too weak to afford a fully syncretic relationship but is strong enough to allow a reinterpretation of the new by the old. Herskovits's favorite example of reinterpretation is his claim that African polygyny was retained under monogamous constraints, with his arguing that polygyny was reinterpreted in diachronic terms by the practice of serial unions. This example reveals Herskovits's sociological naïveté in downplaying contemporaneous social conditions in favor of imputed cultural continuities, but the principle itself, I will argue, is extremely salient when recast as a revisionary strategy.

If syncretism and reinterpretation are mainly psychological concepts that explain how the new culture is adopted within the framework of the old, the concept of cultural focus shifts the analysis to culture as sui generis. To explain why African religious beliefs and practices in the New World are retained with greater clarity and vigor than, for example, kinship, economic, and political institutions, Herskovits argues that religion itself constitutes the cultural focus of African peoples — their "particular emphasis," "distinguishing flavor," and "essential orientation" (1966, 59). That which is given highest cultural priority by a people will offer the greatest "resistance" to change, he argues, and will thus rank high on the scale of New World Africanisms. Therefore culture, by way of its distinguishing focus, plays a determinative role in the selective process of what is and is not retained, in what form, with what degree of intensity, and in what sphere of social life. Thus, for Herskovits,

[M]ore elements which lie in the area of focus of a receiving culture will be retained than those appertaining to other aspects of the culture, acceptance being greater in those phases of culture further removed from the focal area. When a culture is under pressure by a dominant group who seek to induce acceptance of its traditions, elements lying in the focal area will be retained longer than those outside it. (1966, 59)

We have no clearer commitment to (a relativized) cultural determinism than in this passage, which provides a rather strange take on the initial socioeconomic context of African culture contact — that of slavery in the New World. Elsewhere Herskovits ([1941] 1958, 86–109) was clearly aware of the different forms of plantation slavery and the modes of passive and active resistance that the slaves deployed, including foot-dragging, suicide, escape, marronage, and organized revolt. But here we are led to believe that religion — more than kinship, politics, or economics — persisted in a world that turned Africans into laboring chattel and destroyed their families because it served as the dominant cultural focus. Such a position seems to defy rational argument if not common political sense, displaying what Jackson identifies, in another context, as Herskovits's "curious naïveté about the relationship between culture and power" (Jackson 1986b, 114). But even here, I will argue, lies the germ of an idea that helps to explain the power of syncretic practices in real and effective terms. I will argue that the hermeneutical principles of West African religions — particularly Yoruba religion, which has thrived in various New World guises — have provided salient forms of popular resistance in a variety of oppressive conditions.

The final concept in Herskovits's syncretic paradigm — that of cultural imponderables — introduces the variable dimension of consciousness in African diaspora research and prefigures the study of practical and embodied knowledge in current anthropology. For in addition to consciously retained Africanisms emanating from the cultural core, Herskovits discerned a range of "retentions" that "are carried below the level of consciousness" (1966, 59) and persist in everyday practices. These include the linguistic patterns of accents, dialects, and creoles; the musical styles of, for instance, son, rumba, mambo, and the blues; the "motor habits" of expressive gestures and dance; and the "codes of etiquette" that inform greetings and politeness formulae. At a time when such phenomena were often explained in racist terms, astransmitted through blood, Herskovits took great pains to emphasize their cultural character, as acquired by successive generations. More interesting for us, however, was his understanding that such culturally embodied imponderables persisted as retentions because they resisted change. Clearly, this notion of resistance is passive, attributed elsewhere to "the force of cultural conservatism" (Herskovits 1966, 57), and is conceived negatively, as the absence of assimilation. But as we shall see, when "updated," this notion foreshadows theories of active resistance that identify bodily practices as contested sites of symbolic and ideological struggle (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991, 1:24–25).


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Table of Contents


ONE / Herskovits’s Heritage
TWO / Creolization and Connaissance
THREE / Notes from Ekitiland
FOUR / The Blood of Mothers
FIVE / Ethnogenesis from Within

Afterword: Beyond the Mirror of Narcissus

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