This is a solid book, with much to be emulated for its objectives, methodology, passion, and sound conclusions. The central focus is on the Oyotunji African Village in the United States, located sixty-five miles southwest of Charleston in North Carolina. For ten years, Maxine Clarke observed the members of this community in various locations, both in their primary base in the United States and as part of their pilgrimage to the Yorubaland in Nigeria, which they claim as site of origins.
This is at once a study of religion and of nationalism, both presented in delicious detail and against the background of theories on cultural production and religious change. With an eye for details, Clarke tells us how Oyotunji was formed, constructing a religious nationalism based on the Yoruba religion. It was not an act of copying, but of creative refashioning.
The Oyotunji turned to the elements of stability in the Yoruba religion to create a new world order located in the context of American racism. Religion and identity become the signifiers of liberation, first from slavery, and second from an hegemonic order. The Oyotunji regarded what they had created as a sort of empire, a new "imperialism" to market Yoruba orisa voodoo practices not just to meet the needs of individuals seeking spirituality but to attain a collective identity. Either as individuals or as a group, those who identify themselves with the Oyotunji African Village share many things in common: religious beliefs, the emphasis on their Yoruba roots, communal connections, and occasional pilgrimages to Nigeria. To create a living, they have also established a communal economy, taking advantage of tourism to sell religious literature, art work, carvings, and food.
Connections across the Atlantic have become the powerful tools for constructing broader transnational cultural and racial politics. Here, Clarke is at her best, analyzing how ideas of the past become the ideology of the present; and how roots heritage becomes the tool to engineer the creation of new attitudes and symbols. She even makes a bold claim, that the Oyotunji represent the true claimants to the history of the Oyo empire. Here she sets her comparison between contemporary Yoruba nationalism and its American variant that should have been better analyzed to account for their differing political agendas. Claimants to any past, any tradition can be multiple, but none can be described as more true than others since the motives may not be the same.
For many readers of this journal with a focus on literary issues, there is a lot to take from this book. First, it demonstrates how people can create spatial geographies through an intellectual process of imagination. The historical narratives of the Yoruba become the political ideology to engineer a new identity in far away America. In this connection, a second crucial element emerges: the complicated intersections of time, [End Page 149] stories and space. A literary dimension of "invention" emerges, as people interpret historical and religious stories to create political charters.
I have reached the limit of the space imposed on me, but I want to close with one conclusion: this book will endure as a major work of scholarship, to be read as part of the emerging field of comparative cultural studies and the creation of new identities in the modern world.