I’ve entitled the talk In light of Africa because my ethnographic research, although focused on Brazil in my doctoral dissertation, has its ‘roots’—both figuratively and literally in Africa. My work is about the dialogue between Afro-America and the African continent, about the place of Africa and the history of slavery in the construction of Black identities in the Americas and is also, and quite crucially, about the “idea” of Africa- philosophically, ontologically and epistemologically.
I’d like to start with this poem by Harlem Renaissance poet, Countee Cullen. This piece, in many ways, captures much of what my ongoing ethnographic research—in both Brazil and West Africa—is about. My work in the north-eastern Brazilian state of Bahia and in cities along the West African coast such as Accra, Ouidah and Lagos is about how the discourse of Africa and—more importantly—the idea of Africa is used in the configuration and mobilization of Black identity.For many Afro-Brazilian communities in Bahia, Africa and the history of slavery is and continues to be an important symbolic reservoir for how they articulate a Black identity in broader Brazilian society. These communities draw upon resources such as the Afro-Brazilian religious forms that are found throughout the country—but that are most associated with Bahia. But also upon the images and symbols that have grown up around the Black communities in the northeast, including carnival, the history of the plantation and the ongoing connections that Bahia has maintained with the West African coast.
I started conducting fieldwork in Africa in 1999, This was in the West African nation of Ghana where I sought to understand how smaller ethnic groups who find themselves within the interstices between the larger chiefdoms of Northern Ghana manage to maintain autonomy from their powerful neighbour—chefidoms like Gonja, Dagomba— and define themselves as distinct ethnic communities.The group I worked with during this research are called the Konkomba—they are what was once referred to an one of the so-called ‘acephalous’ peoples of West Africa. Not because they lack a head or chief, but rather because chiefship is embedded within these communities within the idiom of kinship. For the Konkomba however, this is double so as they have developed a powerful disdain for regimented or hierarchical form of chieftaincy.This work in Ghana, was more than anything, about ethnic identity, about ethnic processes and about how communities and groups of people understand ethnic solidarity, unity and membership within the same collective.This is the common thread that runs through all of my work. My work in my Brazil—which I’m going to go into greater detail in presently—and my work in Ghana.Mention shrines.Why? Personal to me. I’m a person of many different background---from in-between ethnic spaces. I have English, Scottish, West Africa (Mauritanian), Portuguese and Indian heritage—membership in ethnic categories is never as clear cut as we’d like to think and in all my work I seek to pull apart and understand how such groups are made and maintained.
Among the Voltaic peoples of West Africa, earth shrines.Shrines, in the African context are cultural signposts that help us understand and read the ethnic, territorial and social lay of the land. Just as the church steeple in Europe once marked the centre of a community whose boundaries lay at the point where the rising spire came into view or the tolling of the bells could be heard, shrines on the African landscape help shape and define village, community and ethnic boundaries. Shrines are physical manifestations of a group’s claim to a particular piece of land and are thus markers of identity—they represent, both figuratively and literally a community’s ‘roots’ in the land they work and live upon. The shrine is representative of a connection with the land at the cosmological and supernatural level and, in terms of a community’s or ethnic group’s claim to cultivable territory, serves as a reminder to outsiders that this is—in very real terms—‘our land’.
Field School.While working in Ghana I have become became increasingly interested in the “idea of Africa”. What Africa means—not just as a geographic place or ethnographic locale but as a historically constructed idea and symbol that has:helped to bring about the modern age—through the use of forced African labour in the 18th centuryDefined an entire race of people--- What is it to be Black other than to be a descendant of people borne of Africa?How is the idea of Blackness connected with the idea of Africa?Roots tourism.Black Identity and how ideas of Africa help inform that Identity.
Cheek by jowlthrong
Brazil obtained 35.4% of all African slaves traded in the Atlantic slave trade, more than 3 million slaves were sent to Brazil to work mainly on sugar cane plantations from the 16th to the 19th century.In 1848, the Brazilian slave trade continued on considerable level growing rapidly during the 19th century, and during this time the numbers reached as much as 60,000 slaves per year. Portugal and its territories in Africa had already stepped down from slave trade activities, but in other African coast's ports the slave trade continued. In Brazil, the foreign slave trade was finally abolished by 1850, and there were new laws on slave traffickers and speculators. Then, by 1871, the sons of the slaves were freed. In 1885, the slaves aged over 60 years were freed
The state of Bahia takes its name from the large Bay of All Saints or Bahia de Todos os Santos that has long been a natural harbour for ocean-going vessels making trans-Atlantic voyages during the era of sail and wind power. Historically, many European powers, including the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese would use the bay as an important anchorage as they headed southward through the tropics in order to round either the Horn or the Cape of Good Hope.Salvador is the third most populous Brazilian city, after São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and the most populous city in northeastern Brazil. Most Brazilians see Salvador, indeed the entire state of Bahia, as the Blackest and most ‘African’ part of the country and the Northeast as the poorest and most backward region.Salvador was colonial Brazil’s capital until 1763 and served, until the decline of the sugar cane industry, as the principal point of sale and export for the vast plantations of the region known as the Recôncavo, the area of fertile agricultural land which surrounds the Bay of All Saints from which Bahia takes its name. Salvador in the 19th century was a city that displayed all of the splendour and opulence of an urban centre in its prime—sugar was king and Salvador reaped its profits on the backs of the slaves who laboured in the fields and mills of the Recôncavo. In addition to sugar cane, other crops such as tobacco—which was used to trade for slaves on the coast of West Africa—coffee, cotton and cocoa were also cultivated in slave based plantation estates throughout the Recôncavo. Beyond this region, in the thinly populated and arid sertão or semi-desert, extensive cattle ranches developed along the back of the São Francisco river in order to provide meat to the urban metropolis of Salvador.Until abolition
Salvador is the third most populous Brazilian city, after São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and the most populous city in northeastern Brazil. Most Brazilians see Salvador, indeed the entire state of Bahia, as the Blackest and most ‘African’ part of the country and the Northeast as the poorest and most backward region.Salvador was colonial Brazil’s capital until 1763 and served, until the decline of the sugar cane industry, as the principal point of sale and export for the vast plantations of the region known as the Recôncavo, the area of fertile agricultural land which surrounds the Bay of All Saints from which Bahia takes its name. Salvador in the 19th century was a city that displayed all of the splendour and opulence of an urban centre in its prime—sugar was king and Salvador reaped its profits on the backs of the slaves who laboured in the fields and mills of the Recôncavo. In addition to sugar cane, other crops such as tobacco—which was used to trade for slaves on the coast of West Africa—coffee, cotton and cocoa were also cultivated in slave based plantation estates throughout the Recôncavo.
BarackThe issue of Browness
A recent development in the study of Afro-Brazilian culture and Black identity has looked at the impact European, North American and white Brazilian intellectual elites had on the invention of ‘Black’ tradition in Brazil. Central to this model is the assertion that so-called Africanisms in Brazil owe more to the influence of white Cultural elites and their efforts to replicate a pure form of Yoruba practice in the terreiroswith which they had become associated, than to the agency of Black Brazilians and their enslaved ancestors. These so-called white ‘negotiators’ of Brazilian Blackness include Brazilian individuals such as Arthur Ramos and Edison Carneiro and American anthropologists such as Melville Herskovits and Ruth Landes.Dialogic
Given the fervour with which the Brazilian state, NGOs, community development organisations, state-funded agencies like Fundação Cultural Palmares and Bahia’s hugely important tourism industry focus on celebrating Brazil’s African heritage, this position has clear merit. Indeed, whilst walking through almost any neighbourhood in Salvador, reading the Bahian newspapers or watching television, one is inundated with images and discussions of the importance of Brazil’s African past. This narrative generally follows the same ‘Yoruba-centric’ one found in the terreiro, in which African/Yoruba ‘culture’ best defines Black identity.
Another form of dialogue
In Light of Africa
Allan C. DawsonIN LIGHT OF AFRICA
The Idea of AfricaWhat is Africa to me:Copper sun or scarlet sea,Jungle star or jungle track,Strong bronzed men, or regal blackWomen from whose loins I sprangWhen the birds of Eden sang?One three centuries removedFrom the scenes his fathers loved,Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,What is Africa to me — CounteeCullen, excerpt from Heritage
The African Frontier Konkomba territory, East MamprusiDistrict, Northern Region, Ghana, July 1999.
IdentityHow do I understand collective group identities—ethnic or otherwise?Anthropologists have largely come to understandthe manifestation and making of identity as asocial process; as something that is eminentlyconstructed, contingent and instrumental.However, we must always be mindful that thelanguage of identity—the way in which ethnic andnational identities are deployed at the emiclevel—is invariably rife with essentialism.
Creolization versus African SurvivalsTwo perspectives have dominated themajority of scholarship on Afro-Americansociety.1. Africa-centric or African „survivals‟ An approach which privileges the persistence of discrete and distinct African ethnic groups and culture despite the brutality of slavery.2. Rapid creolization Sydney Mintz and Richard Price first suggested that Afro- American societies were borne of the heterogeneous melange of cultures found in the plantation.
Black Identity and AfricaWhether one adheres to an Africa-centricperspective or one which emphasisescreolization, Africa looms large in themanifestation of many forms of Black identityinBrazil.Some approaches to understanding Afro-American identity have become mired inhistorical debates about the precise ethniccomposition of the slave plantation—how manyYoruba were there? How many Ewe?Akan?, etc.
Afro-American Anthropology• Boas, racial uplift and nation-building in the Americas.• Anthropology and Africans in the Americas• Herskovits and Frazier• Du Bois• Jean Price-Mars, Fernando Ortíz• Gilberto Freyre, Arthur Ramos
Brazil and Hypo-DescentAcastanhada (cashew-like tint; caramel water")coloured) Café (coffee)Bugrezinha-escura (Indian Loura (blond)characteristics) Pálida (pale)Laranja (orange) Alvarinta (tinted or bleached white)Mulata (mixture of white and Negro) Café-com-leite (coffee with milk)Agalegada Lourinha (flaxen)Burro-quando-foge ("burro running Paraíba (like the colour of marupaaway," implying racial mixture of wood)unknown origin)Lilás (lily) Alva-rosada (or jambote, roseate, white with pink highlights)Mulatinha (lighter-skinned white-Negro) Canela (cinnamon)Alva (pure white) Malaia (from Malabar)Cabocla (mixture of white, Negro and Parda (dark brown)Indian)Loira (blond hair and white skin) Alvinha (bleached; white-washed)Negra (negro) Canelada (tawny)Alva-escura (dark or off-white) Marinheira (dark greyish)Cabo-Verde (black; Cape Verdean) Parda-clara (lighter-skinned person of mixed „race‟)Loira-clara (pale blond) Amarela (yellow)Negrota (Negro with a corpulent body) Castão (thistle coloured)
A Discourse of Purity“Os Africanostêmquevir a nossacidade, Salvador!A bebernafontedaÁfricaVerdade!Aqui, no Brasil, existe a cultura Africana pura!”“Africans have to come to our city, Salvador!To drink at the font of True AfricaHere, in Brazil, exists the pure African culture!”—ValdinaPinto (Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, 2007)Salvador is widely regarded as the “most African” city inBrazil and is also considered to be home to the most purelyYoruba houses or terreirosof Afro-Brazilian worship. Twoimportant houses are Casa Brancaand IlêAxéOpóAfonjá.
Cosmologies in the MakingThe notion of „purity‟ or dogma is anathema tomany of the religious traditions of West Africa. Interior of the Tonna‟ab or Tong shrine illustrating sacrifice area, earth priest, and ritual paraphernalia. The Tong shrine of the Tallensi people.
Blackness and the Idea of AfricaWhat role does the idea of „Africa‟ play in theformulation of Black identity in northeastern Brazil?How is contemporary Black Brazil engaged with thesocieties, cultures and peoples of the African continentand how does this engagement impact notions ofBlackness—both in Afro-America and on the Africancontinent?Beyond an African-oriented or Africa-centric form ofidentity, what other manifestations of Blackness are tobe found in the Black communities of northeasternBrazil and how do these different forms of collectivemobilization operate?
Other idioms of BlacknessMaria, an acarajé (street food) seller in Pelourinho. She tells me that the African-oriented discourse of Candomblé does not speak to her. BUT, she alsorecognises that she must employ the symbols of this tradition to sell her wares.
Christianity and Black Identity A statue of Anastácia in a Salvador church.
The Idea of AfricaI question the utility and usefulness of attemptingto authenticate the past—from an ethnicperspective.In my work, I seek move away from trying touncover the „truth‟ of the past in the plantationand focus instead on how concepts and ideassuch as „slave‟, „maroon‟, „roots‟and, importantly, „AFRICA‟ are used as signifiersof identity—not only by Afro-Brazilians, but withinwider Brazilian society and throughout theAtlantic world.Modern forms of Globalizing Blackness operate
Globalizing Blackness as Ongoing CreolizationA new baseline vocabulary or what Mintz andPrice called “grammatical principles” isemerging.Different from the work of the pan-Africanistsor the négritude of Césaire or even thecréolité of the French Caribbean.This form of Blackness employs the symbolsof Black society in the United States alongwith ideas about what Africa is supposed to be
Cultural Rediscovery Tour of Elmina Castle, GhanaPoint of No Return, SlaveWalk,Ouidah, Benin
Brazilian Religious Tourism“OpôAfonjá and Casa Branca are attracting somany members in Salvador,‟ one of the groupmembers told me near the „Point of No-Return‟ monument in Ouidah, they‟ve got somany rich patrons that our small terreiroisbeing left out. We can‟t do our work on anti-racism and empowering our communitybecause OpôAfonjá takes the spotlight away.Plus, we are losing members to these largerterreirosthat talk about Black power. That‟swhy we are here. To understand more aboutAfrica and take it back home to our religion.”
Coastal SocietiesThe coastal societies of West Africa continueto be active participants in the ongoingdialogue between Africa and the Americas.Issues: • Tourism dollars • The Joseph Project • DNA Testing • Northern peoples like the Konkomba
HighlightsExploration of Blackness as an identity and as anethnic category.Understanding the importance of the “Idea ofAfrica”Globalizing Blackness as a form of creolization.An emphasis on the richness and diversity of theAfrican ethnographic record and to work towardsreducing generalized and homogenized notionsof Africanity.