Queering Black Atlantic Religions: Transcorporeality in Candomblé, Santería, and Vodou

Queering Black Atlantic Religions: Transcorporeality in Candomblé, Santería, and Vodou

by Roberto Strongman

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In Queering Black Atlantic Religions Roberto Strongman examines Haitian Vodou, Cuban Lucumí/Santería, and Brazilian Candomblé to demonstrate how religious rituals of trance possession allow humans to understand themselves as embodiments of the divine. In these rituals, the commingling of humans and the divine produces gender identities that are independent of biological sex. As opposed to the Cartesian view of the spirit as locked within the body, the body in Afro-diasporic religions is an open receptacle. Showing how trance possession is a primary aspect of almost all Afro-diasporic cultural production, Strongman articulates transcorporeality as a black, trans-Atlantic understanding of the human psyche, soul, and gender as multiple, removable, and external to the body.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478003458
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 03/14/2019
Series: Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 42 MB
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About the Author

Roberto Strongman is Associate Professor of Comparative Caribbean Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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Vodou Women Queering the Body

The matrix of Haitian Vodou scholarship contains an as-yet-uncharted anthropological narrative thread that is distinctly female authored. Making up a veritable genre of Vodou écriture féminine, the corpus of this work coheres around the themes of embodiment, desire, and homosociality. All of these texts share the common narrative of a female anthropologist integrating herself into a Vodou community, originally for the sole purpose of writing a scholarly memoir and gradually becoming a practitioner and initiate. The narratives share a preference for dreaming as leitmotif and metaphor for mediumship. They nearly always begin with an explanation of the horse and rider metaphor and end climactically with a trance possession experience, ideally the author's own but also those experienced by close acquaintances. In so doing, the narratives can be understood as constituting oneiric, abstracted, condensed, and abruptly ended Vodou ceremonies. In this first chapter, the ethnography as ceremony refracts the initiatory chamber metaphor developed in the introduction and foreshadows the notion of transcripturality revealed in the conclusion.

In order to understand the construction, evolution, and impact of this genre, this chapter examines the initiatory-critical works of five female anthropologists to study how women's perspectives on Haitian Vodou corporeality problematize the Cartesian mind/body problem. These five texts were published at an average interval of eighteen years from the early twentieth century to the early twenty-first century. These are, in chronological order, Zora Neale Hurston's Tell My Horse (1938), Maya Deren's Divine Horsemen (1953), Katherine Dunham's Island Possessed (1969), Karen McCarthy Brown's Mama Lola (1991), and Mimerose Beaubrun's Nan Dòmi (2010). Through the notion of transcorporeality, I propose that there is a feminist and queer convergence in the common deployment of Vodou potentialities to develop more enabling models of embodiment.

The very title of the most recent book of this collection, Nan Dòmi, highlights the important role that dreams play in the process of becoming a Vodouisant. This latest book in the tradition outlined here stands as the culmination of an intertextual conversation that deploys dreaming as a metaphor for entering the metaphysical dimension of trance possession, initiation, communion with the divine, and mystical knowledge. Throughout the text, Beaubrun provides the reader with extended descriptions of dreams that function as commentaries, warnings, and exhortations about the waking world. Dreams become such an important part of the narrative that we begin to question whether dreams are in fact derivative from the so-called real. Perhaps dreaming is primary and the source of our waking actions, Beaubrun makes us ponder: "Le rêve, pour moi, c'était un monde imaginaire de souvenirs cachés. ... Mais, pour tante Tansia, le rêve était un état du monde inconnu qui n'avait aucun rapport avec l'imagination. 'Il est réel,' m'appritelle" (2010, 41). "Dreaming, in my view, consisted of an imaginary world of hidden memories. ... But for Aunt Tansia, dreaming was a state of the unknown world that had no connection to the imagination. 'It is real,' she taught me" (2013, 41). Paradoxically, the sleeper's eyes are open: "Rêver c'est voir. ... Un rêveur est un médium voyant, un témoin de l'Inconnu" (2010, 73). "To dream is to see. ... A dreamer is a medium, a witness to the unknown" (2013, 71).

Under the tutelage of her mentor, Aunt Tansia, Beaubrun begins to understand the importance of dreaming: "Rêver ... c'est non seulement avoir la capacité de regarder le monde connu mais aussi d'être témoin de l'Inconnu" (2010, 68). "The purpose of dreaming was to develop the ability to see the known world, but also to be a witness to the Unknown" (2013, 67). This unknown world is populated by ancestral and divine spirits from Africa, a continent that is known mystically in Vodou as Ginen: Nan Dòmi is a state to master, "les manifestations de l'Esprit et le sèvis Ginen" (Beaubrun 2010, 45); "the manifestations of the spirit and the service of Ginen" (2013, 45). Regarding the referent for Ginen, Bien-Aimé, another spiritual mentor, deflects Beaubrun away from clear physical geographies: "'Qu'est-ce que le Ginen?' Il me répondit: 'Se sa w pa wè a' (C'est l'Invisible)" (2010, 34). "'What is Ginen?' He answered, 'Se sa w pa we'a' (It is the Invisible)" (2013, 34). Dreaming is more than traveling or returning to an ancestral land; it is accessing an existing parallel dimension of knowledge and being. And for that it becomes necessary to expand one's sight. Much of Beabrun's apprenticeship with Aunt Tansia involves learning how to access and manage spiritual technologies of dreaming: "Pour entrer enétat de rêve, me disait encore tante Tansia, il faut savoir faire silence en soi; il faut faire taire toutes les pensées" (2010, 68). "'To enter into the dream state,' Aunt Tansia repeated to me, 'it is necessary to silence oneself. One must silence all thoughts'" (2013, 67). The stilling of the mind renders the Vodouisant clairvoyant: "Le moun Ginen le peut, parce qu'il a le Je (pouvoir surnaturel de voyance, don de clairvoyance ...)" (2010, 34). "Moun ginen can do it because he has Je (literally 'eye,' or 'opening,' can refer to supernatural power of seeing, clairvoyance ...)" (Beaubrun 2013, 34). Katherine Dunham also records mystical eyes as referents for clairvoyance: "Prix des yeux: 'Prize of eyes,' or 'price of the eyes'; clairvoyance. Highest degree of vaudun initiates" (1969, 279).

Through the aperture provided by Nan Dòmi, we are able to appreciate the importance of dreaming in the worldview of Vodou and just how female ethnographers have been able to comment on the development of this mystical vision. Maya Deren, whose birth name is Eleanora Derenkowskaia, deploys the Sanskrit name for dreams and illusion — Maya — to craft a mystical authorial identity for herself. Her seminal book and film, both called Divine Horsemen, utilize stream-of-consciousness techniques to achieve a surrealistic, dreamlike quality of great psychological depth. She describes her trance possession at the end of her book as a dream (Deren 1970, 259). In contrast to this tail-end figuration of dreaming, Zora Neale Hurston, in Tell My Horse, presents how the spiritual journey starts with dreams: "How does a man know that he has been called? It usually begins in troubled dreams" (1990, 122). Dreams bookend the initiation narration of these female anthropologists, and this narrative frame encapsulates various other dreams, forcing us to consider how, if the book is a microcosm and mirror of life, perhaps we are dreaming that/what we are reading. In Mama Lola, Karen McCarthy Brown (1991, 206, 207, 213, 255) records how her informant's mother, Philo, communicates with the lwas in dreams. When Philo wants to end her pregnancy, a white woman comes into her dreams to warn her against aborting (209). This old white woman tells her not to come to her house, the hospital, to have the baby (211). The hospital bears the name Our Lady of Lourdes, syncretized with Ezili Dantò. As a result of this warning, the baby is born into the chamber pot, at home, escapes an epidemic at the hospital, and receives a name that is a creolized form of the Catholic saint, Aloud or Alourdes (212). Years later, Dantò appears to Aloud in a dream — as she did to her own mother — to counsel her to keep her child (240). Here, McCarthy Brown reiterates Hurston's idea that the calling begins with a dream by narrating how these dreams do in fact launch the spiritual journeys of female mambos.

Constituents of the Self

Just as dreaming functions as a descriptor for the phenomenon of trance possession, we can see how the self itself is dreamed — that is, imagined, projected, symbolically represented — as constructed of many material and immaterial constitutive parts in the worldview of Vodou.

The constituents of the self in Vodou are multiple. There are three components that are understood as bodies. First is the kòkadav, or the physical body. Second is the nannan, an astral body that serves as a double, normally enveloped by the kòkadav. However, in the dream state, the physical body that represents the gwobonanj is contained by the nannan "pour pouvoir protéger le rêveur en lui donnant un sentiment de solidité" (Beaubrun 2010, 89); "to protect the dreamer by giving him a sense of solidity" (2013, 86). Third, there is the nannan-rèv, which is the dream body (Beaubrun 2010, 89; 2013, 86).

Among the immaterial aspects of the self, three are of central importance in the construction of the body in Vodou. There is some debate in the literature as to which one is the repository of the personality or character of the individual and which is more akin to the Western notion of the soul, but the important point to apprehend is that like the various bodies, the psyche in Vodou is multiple.

The first one is esprit, which can be translated as "intelligence," "energy and action of the mind," "source and the act of judgement, decision, desire and all of the motivation and the will projected in a man's visible action" (Deren 1970, 25). The esprit is a "person's 'life principle,' his nature or character rather than in an exclusive or mystical sense. In this sense it approximates English 'spirit' as in the 'spirit of the times'" (18).

The remaining parts of the psyche are given considerably more attention in the literature, as these are more active and engaged in the processes of living, dying, and trance. These two parts are the tibonanj or little guardian angel, and the gwobonanj or big guardian angel.

The tibonanj, also called lanvè or selidò, is the spiritual body, a portion of God, which controls the dream state: "The universal commitment towards good, the notion of truth as desirable, all that conscience which, in our culture is understood as a function of the soul is, for the Haitian, the function of a third element, the ti-bon-ange" (Deren 1970, 26), which is automatically liberated at the moment of death, is objective conscience, and, consequently, cannot lie (44).

On the other hand, the gwobonanj, known also As ladwat or sèmèdò, functions as the mental world or intellect (Beaubrun 2013, 42), personality, or consciousness (McCarthy Brown 1991, 384), the invisible nonmaterial character of an individual, as distinguished from the physical body — which is more like psyche than soul (Deren 1970, 18). The gwobonanj is the "metaphysical double of the physical being ... the immortal twin of mortal man ... similar to what we understand by a man's soul, if we think of the soul as duplicating the man and not as a moral force of a 'higher' nature ... the repository of a man's history" (Deren 1970, 26–27).

It is the elucidation and the functioning of the gwobonanj to which most of the literature of body corporeality is devoted because this is precisely the part of the psyche that is movable during trance: "Those who serve the Vodou spirits believe that, in possession, the gwobonanj leaves the body and floats loose in the world" (McCarthy Brown 1991, 352). Deren explains that the lwa is itself a gwobonanj and it is this very nature that allows it to replace temporarily the gwobonanj of the devotee during trance:

Man has a material body, animated by an esprit or gros-bonange — the soul, spirit, psyche or self — which, being non-material, does not share the death of the body. This soul may achieve ... the status of a loa, a divinity and become the archetypal representative of some natural or moral principle. As such, it has the power to displace temporarily the gros-bon-ange of a living person and become the animating force of his physical body. This psychic phenomenon is known as "possession." (1970, 16)

As the most recent book among this collection of female-authored initiatory ethnographies, Beaubrun's Nan Dòmi is the most profoundly personal and the narrative that most clearly states the need to transcend the egoic selfhood that is the gwobonanj. Her book begins as an anthropology thesis and then becomes a personal journey (Beaubrun 2013, 32). Her movement from detached, idealized objectivity to a participatory subjectivity forces her to confront her strong sense of individuality. Aunt Tansia keeps telling her that she is limited in her growth by clinging to her personality, her "Moi/I" (Beaubrun 2010, 67; 2013, 66): "Tu n'es en sécurité que lorsque tu trouves des explications" (2010, 81); "You only feel safe when you have explanations" (2013, 78). "[Il faut] te défaire de ta raison" (2010, 74); "Free yourself of your reason" (2013, 72), Aunt Tansia tells her. "Danse, ma fille, danse. ... Tout danse, l'univers et tout ce qu'il contient, les énergies dansent" (2010, 75). "Dance my child, dance. ... Everything dances. The entire universe and everything it contains, the energies dance" (2013, 72–73). Throughout the narrative, Aunt Tansia urges Beaubrun to lose her personality. Her teaching insists that one's personality is not one's being: "Ta personalité a été fabriquée par ce monde-ci et pour le fonctionnement de ce monde. On t'a donné un nom, une classe et une éducation" (Beaubrun 2010, 105). "Your personality has been constructed by this world for the functioning of this world. You have been given a name, a class, and an education" (2013, 101). According to Aunt Tansia, societal norms and prohibitions play a large role in the construction of the personality. She urges Beaubrun (2013, 101) to look deep inside for that being who is a mystery. Many of Beaubrun's challenges in the transcending of her egoic self lie in her attachment to language. Aunt Tansia kindly chides her: "Tu aimes trop les mots. Tu deviens dépendante. C'est ce qui cause le blocage des poètes. Prisonniers des mots, ils restent d'éternels nostalgiques d'un monde qu'ils ont perçu sans pouvoir vraiment le décrire" (2010, 96). "You love words too much. You become dependent on them. That is what causes blockages in poets. Prisoners of words, they remain eternally nostalgic for a world that they have perceived, but never truly been able to describe" (2013, 93). Finally, in the epilogue, Beaubrun succeeds in her attempt to shed the egoic self. When her husband, Lòlò, tells her, "Tu vas laisser ta trace à travers ce livre" (You are going to leave your mark through this book), she firmly replies, "Non, au contraire, je vais plutôt l'effacer" (No, on the contrary, instead I am going to erase it) (Beaubrun 2010, 279; 2013, 267).

The modular nature of these different parts of the self becomes evident in various Vodou life-cycle rituals. Kanzo is a fire ritual of initiation that creates a composite life made up of the lwa, the initiate, and the sacrificed animal in the pòtet (Deren 1970, 220–22). The ritual of desounnen separates all three parts of the initiate upon death: the body, the gwobonanj (the personal soul or self), and the lwamètèt (the spirit who is the master of the head; Deren 1970, 44). The gwobonanj, now liberated from the bond with the lwa and the material body of the deceased, is now free to become a lwa or a tutelary family spirit (45). The ritual of retirer d'en bas de l'eau is a ceremony that takes place one year and a day after the death of the initiate. It is the feast in which the spirit is freed and then reclaimed from the waters of the abyss to embody a govi (27, 220–22, 336). This govi becomes a replacement for the deceased body: "The clay jar, or govi, in which it is placed at this ceremony is a substitute for the vessel of flesh which once contained it. Out of the mouth of the jar issue the counsels and wisdoms by which the deceased continues to aid and advance his descendants" (28). The fact that the jar can substitute for the body underscores the image of the body as receptacular in nature.

Zombification is a process of desubjectification that further evidences the multiplicity of the immaterial self, the removal and substitution of these various parts, the role of the body as container, and the modularity of the dreamed, constructed self. Katherine Dunham provides a most apt definition of the zombie:

The first definition of the creature is that of a truly dead person who by the intervention of black magic has been brought back to life, but by such a process that memory and will are gone and the resultant being is entirely subject to the will of the sorcerer who resuscitated him, in the service of good or evil. (1969, 184)

Perhaps the dread of zombification curtailed the need for specificity, for in the explanation of this matter Deren relapses into using the word "soul," which she finds so inadequate in the context of Vodou: "The dread zombie, the major figure of terror, is precisely this: the body without a soul, matter without morality" (1970, 42). Zora Neale Hurston also uses the terminology of "soul," this time evoking the image of it as "the breath of life," which can be sucked out, inhaled, and possibly smelled:

After the proper ceremony, the Bocor in his most powerful and dreaded aspect mounts a horse with his face toward the horse's tail and rides after dark to the house of the victim. There he places his lips to the crack of the door and sucks out the soul of the victim and rides off in all speed. Soon the victim falls ill, usually beginning with a headache, and in a few hours is dead. (1990, 181–82)


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction: Enter the Igbodu  1
Part I. Vodou
1. Of Dreams and Night Mares: Vodou Women Queering the Body  27
2. Hector Hyppolite èl Même: Between Queer Fetishization and Vodou Self-Portraiture  49
Part II. Lucumí/Santería
3. A Chronology of Queer Lucumí Scholarship: Degeneracy, Ambivalence, Transcorporeality  103
4. Lucumí Diasporic Ethnography: Fran, Cabrera, Lam  133
Part III. Candomblé
5. Queer Candomblé Scholarship and Dona Flor's S/Exua/lity  181
6. Transatlantic Waters of Oxalá: Pierre Verger, Mário de Andrade, and Candomblé in Europe  212
Conclusion: Transcripturality  251
Notes  255
References  261
Index  273

What People are Saying About This

Carlos Decena

“An intellectual and linguistic tour de force, Roberto Strongman's study on trance possession channels a love letter from the orishas to the futures of Afro-Atlantic religious studies, queer of color critique, Latinx and Latin American studies and comparative literature. Queering Black Atlantic Religions is more than a book: it is a major, formidable achievement that will touch many and illustrate how scholarship can be an expressive and radical transformational practice.”

Carol Boyce Davies

Queering Black Atlantic Religions provides a new theoretical language for the fields of African diasporic religions and gender and sexuality studies, all the while setting a new standard in comparative literary and cultural studies in the twenty-first century. Using an eclectic and unique cultural studies methodology, displaying proficiency in half a dozen languages and field work experience in a similarly impressive number of research sites, Roberto Strongman provides an advanced exploration of the creolized religions of the greater Caribbean cultural zone.”

J. Lorand Matory

Queering Black Atlantic Religions closely reads an astonishingly circum-Atlantic and polyglot array of canonical films, paintings, photographs, novels, and ethnographies through the lens of the Afro-Atlantic religions of spirit possession. Roberto Strongman revisits the theme that these religions disrupt the conventional binaries of Western gender identity and apprehend the self through metaphors of horsemanship and vessels occupied by spirits as multiple as they are mobile. He also shows that, while many Latin American and European artists, authors, and critics have exploited the image of the black to liberate themselves from their native cultural constraints, they often come to internalize Afro-Atlantic spirits and configurations of the self.”

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