The Americas 60.4 (2004) 650-651
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With Slavery and Identity, Mieko Nishida joins a burgeoning and diverse company of scholars who seek to recover African cultural identity on both sides of the Atlantic in the time of New World slavery. Her particular setting is the Brazilian port city of Salvador, and her reach is bold. Working from the assumption that as captives Africans had been "forced to give up their original identities" (an assumption that begs examination), she wants to trace the shift over the course of the nineteenth century as African and Creole slaves, former slaves, and free-born persons of color created and recreated themselves, relying first on African ethnicities and later on race or color. Not content with ascribed labels, she intends "a new interpretation of urban slavery" based on slaves' "self-perceptions and self-identities" (p. xi) as they invented themselves post-Africa. And she searches for these interior workings of individual and collective identity in religious associations, in the ways work was organized, in naming and baptismal practices, in the choice of marriage partners, and in forms of resistance.
Her reach, however, exceeds her grasp. Take, for example, African and Afro-Brazilian membership in irmandades, the lay sodalities attached to local churches for devotion to a chosen saint and for charitable works for their members. Typically, membership was fixed by race or social rank. The lofty Santa Casa de Misericórdia admitted only literate whites who could demonstrate purity of blood, while the irmandade devoted to Santo Antônio de Catagerona, first proposed in 1699 and one of the three sodalities Nishida enlists as evidence, welcomed all who could pay the admission fee and waived even that for the poorest comers, not only Angolans as Nishida seems to imply. And although neither birthplace, color, nor status as slave or free prevented membership, the elected officers were to be first male Creoles, then male Angolans; a separate slate of women (whom she incorrectly says could not serve as officers) similarly placed Creoles first, then Angolans. Ignoring the stated preference for Creoles over Africans, Nishida sees here an unqualified example of collective Angolan identity, which in part it was, just as other irmandades favored Yorubas or Gêges. [End Page 650]
But only in part. What did it mean to be Angolan in devotion to this black saint? We know feast day celebrations as exuberantly, passionately Catholic, with lavish offerings of food, flowers, and candles. The essential charity promised all members—a dignified and elaborate burial—called for masses, candles, a procession. These Angolans buried their dead in a resoundingly Catholic manner. Perhaps we should not be surprised by this Christian content given that missionary activity on the African coast had long meant that some slaves left Africa as Catholic converts. In work strangely not cited by Nishida, John Thornton and Linda Heywood further reveal that devotion to Saint Anthony, although not this Anthony of Catagerona, flourished in Africa and arrived along with the slaves. What this adds up to is that slave identities in Brazil were not necessarily first African then, in a neat linear trajectory, gradually re-cast according to race or color as the population became increasingly Creole. Arguably, this was as much a process of Africans becoming Creole in a Catholic, Brazilian context as a re-claiming of themselves as Angolans. Did African and Creole overlap long before the nineteenth century? Had Creolization, in fact, begun in Africa? The sixteenth-century Anthony of Catagerona, born in Africa, sold in Italy as a slave, and later freed and ordained a Franciscan, an early African-Creole, was a thoroughly appropriate saint for African-Creoles in Brazil.
Nishida argues that through their work—and she considers principally vendors and domestics whose work took them onto the street—women "created their own gender identity, which oftentimes transcended divergent ethnic identity" (p. 47), while...