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Anthropological Quarterly 76.4 (2003) 761-774

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Isms and Schisms:
Interpreting Religion in the Americas

Aisha Khan
New York University

Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santeria to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York and London: New York University Press, August 2003. pp. 272

Cultural Conundrums

In the "New World" that comprises the post-contact Americas, an abiding emphasis on newness—the novel, the innovative—has long shaped construction of the character, and therefore the meaning and significance, of this region. It is conventionally approached as the echt site of rebirth (e.g., Fernandez Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert 1997:1), where various cultural encounters among European colonizers and indigenous Amerindian, African, and Asian colonized (notably, and perhaps most recognizably, in the form of religious and racial epistemologies), fuse or repel, and, in so doing, create afresh. Some scholars have argued that the mixing of practices and beliefs—whether termed "creolization," "syncretism," "mixing," or the currently fashionable "hybridity"—is the organizing principle of the Americas; its "grand idee" (De Grandis and Bernd 2000:x), even its "supreme metaphor" (Fitz 2002:269). Understanding cultural histories and social relations in this part of the world, then, assumes cultural contact, transformation, and recreation as the triptych of any inquiry, scholarly or otherwise (for a range of discussions, see, for example, Khan 2001, 2004; Brathwaite 1971; Shepherd 2002; Glissant 1995; Walcott 1993; Trouillot 1998; Gruzinski 1993). [End Page 761]

This contemporary problematic of reinvention is located within older discourses; in the Caribbean, academic debates have centered on two broad questions: the quantity and quality of culture and history among the region's non-European peoples, especially Africans, and the consequences of cultural, linguistic, and social fragmentation among dispersed populations. Among the most important engagements with the culture question was that of North American anthropologist Melville Herskovits (e.g., 1941) and his interlocutor, North American sociologist E. Franklin Frazier (e.g., 1939), who spent the decades between the 1920s and the 1960s considering the effects of New World plantation slavery on African traditional beliefs and practices. The Herskovits-Frazer debate, as it is known, has Frazier, on the one hand, raising objection to the existence of African cultural continuities across the Atlantic, arguing that enslavement had stripped Afro-Americans of their African cultural heritage, rendering African Americans a kind of tabula rasa in their new environment, a cultural creation of emulated (as Whitten and Szwed [1970:28] put it) American social institutions. Herskovits, on the other hand, spent his career advocating the legitimacy of an Afro-American "culture area" through the "survival" or "retention" of African cultural traditions in the Americas. In so doing he posited that there are retrievable histories among Afro-Americans, and documented what he deemed empirical evidence for these (from the U.S., to Surinam, to Haiti, to Trinidad, to Brazil). Not surprisingly, perhaps—given the presumed obviousness, in the view of most observers, of religious recombinations in the New World—Frazier assented to Herskovits's position that African religious survivals exist among Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin American peoples (Frazier 1939:5-6; in Yelvington 2001:232).

Moving away from Herskovits's emphasis on observable traits, which were implicitly static, and, as David Buisseret (2000:3) notes, away from his notion of acculturation that entailed "a one-way transfer" from dominant to subaltern cultures, Sidney Mintz and Richard Price (1976) inquired into New World creolization processes, offering what would be a turning point intervention in approaches to the Afro-American past. They argued for an emphasis on cultural histories, in part through thinking about African and European cultures as mutually permeable, occurring with the earliest interactions among them (e.g., in Africa and during the Middle Passage), and in part though emphasizing values, aesthetics, change, and systems of relationships—"unconscious principles," as well as empirical features.

Outside of North America but also working among New World African populations, other early contributors to these discussions, such as Fernando Ortiz [End Page 762] (1947) and Roger Bastide (1972), were asking related questions, still resonant...


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