[URBANTH-L]REV: Brown on Matory, Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy ...

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Tue May 16 04:13:24 EDT 2006

American Ethnologist, Volume 33 Number 2 May 2006

Book Reviews Online


Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the 
Afro-Brazilian Candomblé. J. Lorand Matory. Princeton: Princeton University 
Press, 2005. viii + 383pp. , illustrations, appendixes, bibliography, notes, 

Reviewed by Diana Brown, Bard College

Candomblé, centered in Brazil's most African city, Salvador da Bahia, is 
famous for its spectacular performances at which divinities of West African 
origin assume human form. It also poses a central enigma of Brazilian 
society. In a nation with long aspirations to European modernity, this most 
African of Brazilian spirit-possession religions, espousing African identity 
and ritual purity, is popular in all sectors of society and has become a 
central symbol of Brazilian national identity. Generations of interpreters 
have sought answers to this enigma within the racial, political, religious, 
and cultural transformations of Brazil. Now, in Black Atlantic Religion, J. 
Lorand Matory repositions the study of Candomblé within the Afro-Atlantic 
diaspora and transnational processes of Black Atlantic cultural creation.

Such a reframing is overdue. Candomblé is now part of a self-consciously 
transnational Yoruba religious world. By focusing on transformations in 
Candomblé ritual practice and identity, Matory makes a compelling case for 
analyzing them historically as part of ongoing dialogues among peoples of 
the Atlantic fringe, fed in the postslavery period by transatlantic commerce 
and travel among Africans and their Brazilian descendants. In Brazil, 
African identities and practices have often been interpreted as expressions 
of resistance to white hegemony, but Matory argues that by relocating 
Candomblé within the framework of the Afro-Atlantic world, these identities 
and the rituals they engender emerge as broader strategies for survival and 

With extensive fieldwork and archival research in Brazil on Candomblé and in 
Nigeria on its Yoruba counterparts, a command of both Yoruba and Portuguese, 
and a nose for historical sleuthing, Matory is well positioned for this 
enterprise. His personal and intellectual locations are also critical. 
Arguing as a black scholar against the Eurocentrism of the majority of 
researchers, he provides thought-provoking, sometimes controversial, new 
perspectives on their contributions, reexamining Candomblé within an 
analytic framework of work by African and African American scholars. He 
exposes the fallacy that Candomblé evolved from any single moment or that it 
is a frozen form of some West African original and argues for "the impure 
roots of purity" (p. 121), a commitment to transnational ideas of purity 
within what has been a continuous and mutually influential creative 
reworking of ritual practice on both sides of the Atlantic. Candomblé's 
forebears in Nigeria and Benin have exhibited dynamism similar to that in 
Brazil, with contests over ethnic and religious "purity" often embedded in 
British and French imperialist struggles. In Lagos during the 1890s, which 
Matory identifies as marking a cultural renaissance, defense of the "purity" 
of Yoruba culture, religion, and language became a weapon against British 
racism. This quest for purity, exported to Brazil, became popular in the 
1920s and 1930s and has remained so, buttressed by the activities of 
international merchants of African products, by internal competition among 
variants of Candomblé, and by recent pressure from international Yoruba 
religious sources. Ironically, even though purity and fidelity to African 
practice have remained central to the most prestigious of Candomblé forms, 
Nagô, Matory found it to be of little concern in the Yoruba town of his 
1980s fieldwork, an area of major influence on the Nagô tradition in Brazil.

His chapter on the Jéjé variant of Candomblé, whose adherents trace the 
"purity" of its traditions to Dahomey (now Benin), makes even more radical 
claims: Matory speculates that Jéjé identity and practices, attributed to 
West African origins, actually originated in Bahia, were carried to Benin, 
where they influenced Beninese ethnicity, and then, further modified, were 
reintroduced into Brazil.

Black Atlantic Religion is convincing in broad outline and in particular 
arguments but is sometimes flawed by claims and assertions that exceed the 
data. One chapter in particular, on Ruth Landes, verges on stridency. 
Elsewhere, Matory aptly emphasizes African agency against interpretations of 
Afro-Brazilians' passive submission to white elites. In this chapter, 
however, he reverses himself to argue that Landes, a U.S. ethnographer of 
Candomblé in the 1930s, guided by her Western feminist perspective, 
single-handedly and decisively influenced the future of this religion. 
Matory claims that by incorrectly identifying the religion as matriarchal 
and characterizing male participants possessed by divinities as homosexuals, 
Landes actually brought this situation about, an implausible assertion 
argued on the thinnest of evidence. He also falls prey to the very African 
"purist" bias whose history he deconstructs, privileging in his analysis the 
few "purist" Candomblé centers over the many more eclectic ones and 
referring to Umbanda, an eclectic religion that draws at least as much on 
European spiritism as on African sources, as simply "a watered-down version 
of Candomblé" (p. 165).

There is a great deal to praise here. Matory offers new historical data and 
original perspectives as well as a passionate critique of the neglect of the 
Afro-Atlantic world in recent transnationalist theory. The historical detail 
and immersion in ongoing controversies will delight scholars but will make 
this book difficult for introductory undergraduate courses. 

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