[URBANTH-L]REV: Meznar on Landes, The City of Women

Angela Jancius jancius at ohio.edu
Sun Mar 25 18:51:30 EDT 2007

Cross-posted from H-Women at h-net.msu.edu (January, 2007)

Ruth Landes. _The City of Women_. Introduction by Sally Cole. Second
edition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994. Illustrations,
notes, glossary. . $17.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8263-1556-4.

Reviewed for H-Women by Joan Meznar, Department of History, Eastern
Connecticut State University.

Bahian Seduction

In 1938, having recently completed a Ph.D. in anthropology at Columbia
University, Ruth Landes arrived in Brazil. In the same decade that
Gilberto Freyre published _The Masters and the Slaves_ (1933), promoting
Brazil's "racial democracy," Landes set out for Bahia "to learn how people
behave when the Negroes among them are not oppressed" (p. 248). In Rio de
Janeiro, her port of entry, she experienced both the political repression
of Getulio Vargas's dictatorship and the social constraints of a
patriarchal system where she found "women were as handicapped in their
movements as political opponents" (p. 9). It was, in almost every way, an
inauspicious beginning: "the climate and the people, the sounds and the
smells, were strange, alien, difficult" (p. 6). Landes's life in Brazil
changed radically for the better when she arrived in Bahia and teamed up
with Edison Carneiro, a young mulatto journalist who was well acquainted
with the black communities of Salvador. They became collaborators and
lovers as he opened the way for her to discover a world unlike any she had
experienced before. Landes found that although black Bahians were
shockingly poor and politically oppressed, they possessed a phenomenal
"joy of life" (p. 15). She attributed this to a religion that gave to
women (the _maes de santo_ or "mothers of saints") the highest priestly
offices and provided direct communication with the gods through vibrant
song and dance. These women, she was delighted to find, "like men, feel
secure and at ease with them, and do not fear them" (p. 248). Poor black
women in Bahia, she believed, had transcended the constraints of
dictatorship and patriarchy.

_The City of Women_, first published in 1947, eight years after Landes
returned to the United States, chronicles her experiences conducting
ethnographic research in Brazil. Engagingly written, it provides a
fascinating entry into the community she studied; it also illuminates the
process of research undertaken by a remarkable woman. In both cases, she
portrays competent women, professionally active in a world usually
dominated by men. While the book is invaluable as an introduction to
_candomble_ (West African religion as practiced in Brazil), it is equally
important for providing a look at how one ethnographer went about her
work. Her delight in the people of Bahia, who opened their world to her,
is contagious; few will put down this book without feeling a special
attraction to the Bahia that, under the leadership of strong women, joined
African and Catholic traditions in a unique celebration of life.

Sally Cole's excellent introduction situates Landes and her work in the
academic culture of the 1930s, making the case that Landes was well ahead
of her time in her research methods. While in the late 1940s some
dismissed _The City of Women_ as little more than a travel account,
Landes's technique will be quite familiar to anthropologists of the late
twentieth century: she focused on race and gender, was committed to living
among the subjects of her study and not simply interviewing informants,
and willingly inserted herself into her text as she pondered how her own
cultural background (in particular the fact that she was an American Jew
working in Brazil on the eve of World War II) affected her work. According
to Cole, the challenge to scientific ethnography in the 1980s,
particularly "in the context of postcolonial and feminist critiques of
anthropology" (p. vii), warranted renewed attention to Landes's work. The
publication of this new edition also provided more ready access to an
important contribution to the burgeoning fields of women's studies,
Atlantic history, and history of the African diaspora.

_The City of Women_ provides a fine introduction to _candomble_: the gods,
the ceremonies, the connections to Catholicism, the competition among
_terreiros_ (the temples where _candomble_ rites were practiced), and the
role of women (and men) in the affairs of the temples. Landes was an acute
and sympathetic observer, and she tells her fascinating story well. At
times, however, she glosses over fundamental problems in Bahian society.
Landes's experiences during a year of teaching at Fisk University, a black
college in Tennessee, had shown her first-hand the overt racism in the
U.S. South (on the part of both whites and blacks). What she found in
Bahia was so different from what she witnessed in the United States that
she concluded there was no racism in Brazil. Her foreword alerts readers
that her book "does not discuss race problems [in Brazil] because there
were none" (p. xxxvi). There is, then, an odd dissonance in her writing:
she describes racism in Bahia while also denying it. She quotes blacks
proudly asserting the "quality" of their mixed blood (p. 154), describing
the beauty of lighter-skinned mulattos and the desire of many black women
to straighten their hair (p. 196). Martiniano, a key contact who was the
son of slaves and had spent time in West Africa as a teenager learning the
art of sorcery, told Landes that, following his death, "'if I am born
again in Brazil, I want to be white and rich, and I want a white woman
instead of the black one I've got'" (p. 210).

Landes focused her attention on three specific _terreiros_ of _candomble_:
Engenho Velho, purported to be the oldest in Bahia, whose leadership was
shared by four women since the one who inherited the top position was not
suited for the job; Gantois, led by Mae Menininha, a Yoruba temple in the
old style, struggling to keep modernity from creeping in; and Bom Jesus da
Lapa, a temple in the newer _caboclo_ tradition (incorporating indigenous
Brazilian traditions alongside the African) led by Sabina, a distinctly
modern woman. Landes vividly describes the ceremonies in each temple,
along with the special feasts they sponsored: the _festa_ of
Iemanja/Janaina, the water goddess; the ritual washing of the church of
Bonfim; the rites to cleanse Gantois after the death of a priest.
Throughout, women figure prominently in the affairs of the temples; only
in the _caboclo terreiro_ did men regularly dance for and become possessed
by the gods. This was also the temple whose priests and priestesses may
have faked spirit possession, and whose high priestess was depicted as
exploiting "clients" for financial gain.

Concerns with the future of _candomble_ surface repeatedly. Landes had
much respect for Mae Menininha, who was devoted to preserving Yoruba
traditions in the Gantois terreiro. But Menininha worried about burdening
her daughters with "our hard discipline and responsibilities" (p. 155).
After all, Menininha told Landes, "'I have no time for myself! I am the
slave of my people, two hundred of them who depend upon me absolutely'"
(p. 82)! Her daughters' father wanted them to take advantage of the
opportunities open to educated Bahian women in the twentieth century: one
should train to become a dentist and the other a teacher. As the blood
daughters of the _maes de santo_ became more modern, would they keep the
commitment to uphold the traditions of _candomble_? Martiniano lamented
that so many of the "pure" African traditions were being lost. Landes
tells us he died shortly after she left Brazil, and readers will feel that
a new era must be dawning on Bahian _candomble_.

Recent scholarship has called into question the "timeless" African roots
of the Yoruba _candombles_ studied by Ruth Landes. In particular, the work
of J. Lorand Matory demonstrates that the Yoruba culture so prized in
Bahia had emerged from a combination of historical circumstances in the
late nineteenth century that brought significant interaction between
Brazil (and the Caribbean) and West Africa. Rather than embracing the
customs of their ancestors, Bahians were in fact (through the
transatlantic connections of their merchants) helping to reshape the
African culture from which they drew their religious practices.[1] As we
become more aware of the complexity of the African diaspora, the vitality
and resilience of the Bahian _candombles_ will also become more apparent.

Long after Martiniano's death, the women have kept the traditions strong.
Mae Menininha did much in the years following Landes's visits to her
_terreiro_ to make _candomble_ more acceptable to the broader population.
Police persecution ended by the 1970s; more and more politicians and
celebrities (including musicians of note such as Gilberto Gil, Caetano
Veloso and Maria Bethania) frequented her _candomble_. At her death in
1986, she was one of the most influential religious leaders in all of
Brazil. Ruth Landes, reaching the end of her own life, must have been
pleased that Menininha's oldest daughter, following the traditions of the
earlier part of the century, succeeded her mother in the leadership of the
temple. When she died, her younger sister accepted the mantle. Landes had
recognized in 1939 that "even at Gantois modern times were knocking" (p.
192). Modernity, however, did not destroy the _terreiros_; _candomble_ has
continued to adapt to new generations.


[1]. J. Lorand Matory, "The English Professors of Brazil: On the Diasporic
Roots of the Yoruba Nation," _Comparative Studies in Society and History_
41, no. 1 (January 1999): 72-103.

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