The following pages present an important scholarly exchange on a central sociocultural issue in Latin American history. First, we present J. Lorand Matory’s review of Luis Nicolau Parés’s 2013 book The Formation of Candomblé: Vodun History and Ritual in Brazil. Second, we present Parés’s response to the review.
When the editors of The Americas invited me to serve as moderator for an exchange between J. Lorand Matory and Luís Nicolau Parés, I was not very enthusiastic. I knew that Matory and Parés disagreed on key points of emphasis in their approach to the study of Candomblé and that these debates had been going on for more than ten years. Surely, there could not be anything new in a simple book review.
Then, I opened the e-mail attachment that contained Matory’s 9000-word review of Parés’s The Formation of Candomblé.1 Though my hunch that there would not be much “new” in Matory’s review was correct, I saw immediately that it laid bare several tensions at the heart of African diaspora studies, the most prominent of which are continuing disagreements over methodology. The question animating these debates is a familiar one: in our approach to the histories and cultures of Africans in the Americas should we emphasize those elements that Africans preserved intact in their new settings—the cultural survivals—or should we emphasize the cultural creativity and cosmopolitan exchange that “creolization” inspired? Many scholars consider these to be tired, stale debates and assume they were put to rest long ago. Yet, if one digs a bit deeper into Matory’s critique, one can see that the old questions provoke other crucial ones that are much alive today, such as those related to the African “nations,” the politics of authenticity, and the nature of authorial/ethnographic self-reflection. [End Page 607]
To better understand the issues Matory raises in his review, and Parés’s response, I will briefly introduce the two scholars. Matory grew up in a middle-class African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard, he went on to earn a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Chicago, in 1991. His first book, Sex and the Empire That Is No More: Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoruba Religion (1994), focused on the role of female and transvested male possession priests in Yoruba religion. Building on field research in Nigeria and Benin, Matory next focused on Brazil’s Yoruba-inspired religion, Candomblé´. As the book’s title implies, Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé examines transatlantic dialogues between Candomblé and other discourses of collective identity, including feminist and same-sex identities, as well as those of various “nations” (Brazil, Nagô, Jeje, and Black). Since publishing these two award-winning books, Matory has conducted research among other Black Atlantic peoples, including Afro-Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and the Gullah/Geechee of Low Country South Carolina and Georgia. After teaching anthropology and African-American studies at Harvard for almost 20 years, Matory went on to become director of the Center for African and African-American Research at Duke University, in 2009.
Parés grew up in Barcelona, Spain, where he graduated in 1985 from the Universitat Central de Barcelona with a degree in English Philology. He subsequently moved to New York City, where he earned a master’s degree in Communication Arts from the New York Institute of Technology. In 1994, he began his PhD studies in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. For his dissertation, Parés conducted extensive field work in Benin and the northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhão. His dissertation “The Phenomenology of Spirit Possession in the Tambor de Mina: An Ethnographic and Audio-Visual Study,” completed in 1997, led to a PhD in the Anthropology of Religion. Since 1998, Parés has taught at the Universidade Federal da Bahia in Salvador, Bahia. His research there has focused on the history of Candomblé, particularly the variant practiced by the Jeje nation. In 2006, just...