Closing Thoughts
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Closing Thoughts

As someone who assigns both Matory and Parés in my graduate courses, I find myself asking what is at stake in this debate. If we take Matory at face value, Parés is an unreformed “Herskovitsian” who searches for linear connections between vodun religion in West Africa and the Jeje Candomblé in Bahia. According to Matory, Parés’s emphasis on primordial Africa is based on a quest “to avenge the honor of the Jeje nation.” But avenge it from what? Against whom? As both authors make clear, Nagô Candomblé houses transcended Jeje houses in power and prestige, starting in the late nineteenth century. Matory acknowledges the continuing influence of Jeje, especially through the dialogic exchanges of Jeje elites who traveled back and forth between Africa and Brazil in the 1890s. However, he firmly rejects Parés’ claim that memory of earlier Jeje structures shaped Candomblé as it evolved in the twentieth century.

The fissures between Matory and Parés cannot be reduced to a simple debate over nationalist versus essentialist approaches. Indeed, if there were an antonym for the adjective “Herskovitisian,” one might use it to label Matory’s own variant of Nagô “nationalism.” To reduce the many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century historical strands that helped shape Candomblé to the late nineteenth-century emergence of “Yoruba” seems in itself to be more than a bit teleological and essentialist. My point here is not to cast aspersions on Matory. Rather, I would like to move the discussion beyond 40-year-old models that have often served to obscure more than they reveal. The fundamental difference between Matory and Parés is not so much about Herskovits or Mintz and Price. Rather, it is the relative weight that each anthropologist gives to deep history versus ethnography, structure versus praxis, memory versus dialogue.

Whereas Parés’ book is a longitudinal study that crosses 300 years of history, Matory’s is focused on the past 120 years. Parés is interested in demonstrating how everyday folk shaped the deep history of Candomblé. In contrast, Matory shows how elite discourses and exchanges profoundly reshaped Candomblé around the turn of the twentieth century. Parés demonstrates that a Jeje “ecclesial structure”—congregations with complex hierarchies, stability of ritual space, liturgical calendar, and a plurality of [End Page 641] divinities—developed in Brazil beginning in the late eighteenth century and continued through the 1860s. He goes on to argue that these structures remained relatively stable through the early part of the twentieth century. Matory, meanwhile, argues that Jeje travelers and traders between Brazil and West Africa sparked a “renaissance” in Jeje ritual practices between the 1890s and 1930s. Like their better-known Nagô compatriots, this small cadre of Afro-Atlantic elites transmitted new ideas, energy, and practices into Jeje Candomblé. Matory views these “living dialogues” as transformative of Candomblé praxis, but Parés views these elite influences as limited and “tangential” to the foundations of the Jeje ecclesial structures that persisted over time.

To the neutral observer, these disagreements may seem rather subtle, less oppositional than complementary. It may seem to many that Matory’s claims for the importance of Nagô and Jeje influence on Candomblé practice should be able to coexist with Parés’s claims of continuity in Jeje ecclesiastical structures. For researchers concerned with the peoples of the African Diaspora prior to the nineteenth century, particularly those working in regions where first-generation Africans were predominant, it is difficult to avoid the ways that Wolofs, Angolas, Kongos, Jejes, and others shaped American structures of language, healing, religion, and politics. Indeed, there was nothing static or primordialist about the ways these structures arrived in the Americas. As Wyatt MacGaffey so accurately observed many years ago, “Change must be change in something that itself continues.”1 Certain practices did change in accordance with new social contexts, but the structural form and function of traditions often remained constant. By charting the simultaneity of continuity and change, we confirm that “a tradition is a process: it lives only while it changes.”2

Agency, change, and dialogue were as much at the center of African histories as they were in the histories...