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Callaloo 25.3 (2002) 996-998
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Black Expressive Cultures in the Diaspora
Harding, Rachel E. A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000.
Stolzoff, Norman C. Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000.
A Jamaican dancehall star's current collaboration with a white American rock band disseminates a trademark local vocal style worldwide through the infectious medium of MTV. A recent film vehicle for a Spanish movie star features Brazilian practices of Candomblé as mediated through the fetching figure of a black drag queen. That black cultural practices considered marginal just decades ago can show up in songs and films with mainstream exposure owes much both to an unprecedented synergy of artistic and entertainment media as well as significant shifts in the types of audiences that are avid to consume black history and black style. In light of the increasing [End Page 996] accessibility of representations of black diasporic experience, however, it becomes ever more critical to have scholarly studies that will ground and contextualize such examples of pop ephemera. Two recent texts illuminate understudied aspects of the African diaspora with considerable clarity and complexity. Rachel E. Harding's A Refuge in Thunder: Candombléand Alternative Spaces of Blackness and Norman C. Stolzoff's Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica, although hailing from different disciplinary locations, contribute in a complementary fashion to a much-needed mapping of black expressive cultures in the diaspora.
Both texts deploy innovative research methods that seek to address the ignorance that plagues many representations of the black presence in the Americas. That this lack of awareness is often justified by the absence of written records by and about people of African descent is the starting point for A Refuge in Thunder, astudy of the spiritual practice of Candomblé in 19th-century Brazil. Rachel E. Harding addresses the dilemma by mining historical archives in a new way—looking for traces of African behavior and actions, rather than the more familiar search for "voices." Harding writes, "In spite of the fact that we have precious few of their own words, we do have many accounts of what slaves did . . . those actions can suggest their meanings to us" (21). This unique method is deployed in the interpretation of over 150 police documents—a selection of which is reproduced as an appendix in the text—"relating to Candomblé and other Afro-Brazilian religio-cultural manifestations" (xviii) in the city of Salvador (Bahia) between 1800 and 1888. The politics of her methodology are powerful—Harding succeeds in transforming African absence into presence.
Harding argues that the practice of Candomblé among Afro-Brazilians, both enslaved and free, represented the elaboration of alternative subjectivities and the creation of spaces of refuge from both the horrors of the Middle Passage and the everyday constraints of living as black in 19th-century Brazil. Refuting the tenacious stereotype that characterizes these religious practices as superstitious or ignorant, Harding's text re-centers them as an enabling and sustaining cultural practice for Africans of the diaspora. As compelling as Harding's argument is, the reader is left curious as to how she would reflect on Candomblé's increasingly mainstream status as it is being refigured in the late 20th century, as a tourist attraction with enormous appeal in an international, "multicultural" market. What Harding notes as the elite Brazilian tendency to "whiten" African cultural influences can be traced in the 20th century also, where the commodification of exotic difference takes place in a manner that similarly effaces blackness, but without abjecting it in the 19th-century fashion.
The notion of alternative subjectivities and spaces of refuge figures differently but no less powerfully in Wake the Town and Tell the People, Norman C. Stolzoff's study of Jamaican dancehall. Stolzoff challenges the nostalgic perspective that judges contemporary Jamaican popular culture as stagnant and somehow past its prime through his groundbreaking research on this expressive form that is dominated by lower-class Jamaicans and has origins...