Sterling, Cheryl. African Roots, Brazilian Rites: Cultural and National Identity in Brazil.
In this rich monograph Cheryl Sterling asks what is Africa and what is blackness to modern Afro-Brazilians and how have some Afro-Brazilian groups come to reject ethnic hybridity while claiming instead a closed, counterhegemonic African and black identity. Drawing on post-colonial and diaspora theories to explore subjectivity in the formation of personal and national identity, she argues that the practices of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomble have been fundamental to Afro-Brazilian engagement with historical agency and navigation of modern power structures. She further posits that with these resources Afro-Brazilians have worked toward closure of identity on their own terms and to negotiate their place in national identity at the same time. Sterling demonstrates her argument via analysis of bodily, aesthetic, and cultural forms in public ritual and expression including religious ritual, carnival, drama, poetry, and music.
Sterling's work begins with the understanding that Brazilian nationalists appropriated, deracialized and co-opted versions of African culture such as Candomble, capoeira and feijoada into a hybrid national identity over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but that Afro-Brazilian response to that co-optation has been varied and extended. The project of erasing blackness from Brazil's modern trajectory was most evident with variations of embranquecimento (white migration projects) and Freyre's 1930s celebrated but patently false "democracia racial." Sterling's point, however, is that connections to Africa and claims of blackness have been growing in the modern world. Afro-Brazilians have since at least the early nineteenth century been deliberately constructing their own sense of African heritage and blackness and negotiating their belonging in Brazil's narrative of itself as well as the nations sense of becoming. Sterling rightfully insists that the sense of African heritage and blackness, while particular to the Brazilian context, is also not the empty commodity that some scholars including Paul Gilroy and Livio Sansone find mythical, created and imagined in the African diaspora. The difference, Sterling points out, is in Candomble. Afro-Brazilian expression layers Africanness and blackness with cultural referents to enslavement and racism as well as reinforce the concepts with real and continued connections, especially through Candomble, with specific, not abstract, parts of West Africa.
Throughout her work, Sterling argues that participants in cultural and embodied forms--from Candomble to carnival, poetry, drama and hip hop--have build Africanness and blackness as modern and as required ingredients in their visions of a future Brazil of equal social and political citizenship. In their conscious sense of separation and difference, they create radical aesthetic interruptions against the dominant visions of Brazil's racial democracy and racial hybridity that seeks to create a homogenous non-African modern society that encourages citizens to forget their own African ancestry and to whiten through miscegenation in their quest for social mobility. The African-centric forms have a counterhegemonic, transgressive and transformational nature as political exercises engaging with dominant political and social paradigms and discourse, usually working to "negate their negation" in the state's racial projects and originating from their own autonomy and authority (p. 207).
Central to Sterling's work is her conversation with and challenge to Eduoard Glissant's theory of "rhizome" identity. While she appreciates this theory of poly-rooted cultural identity that works against the privilege of singular roots and thus legitimatizing domination of one over other aspects of identity--she shifts the argument because Afro-Brazilians have not had the choice over hybridity that is assumed in his model, but instead identity has been imposed on them from above. She sees Afro-Brazilian engagement with and privileging of their African roots and rites as a direct challenge to the state's privileging of white roots. Indeed, she suggests, something else is happening with Glissant's "rhizome" identity among Afro-Brazilians--their performance and rites such as Candomble rituals, carnival, drama, poetry, and hip hop are neither meant to construct nor perpetuate domination nor devoid identity of rhizomatic, coexisting roots. Rhizomic identity among Afro-Brazilians is deliberately deployed, she argues, to auto-represent while fortifying a vital root against predatory forces, i.e., it exists, protected and in contrast to the state's sense of Afro-Brazilian identity.
Reflected in the structure of her work, Sterling locates the three most powerful modern "vectors" of Afro-Brazilian engagement with an African heritage and blackness in Candombte, Quilombo agency, and Black Power ideals as manifest in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil's self-proclaimed heartland of Afro-Brazilian culture. Sterling's first three chapters address the roots of Candomble in Afro-Brazilian identity and cultural forms.
Candomble--particularly the largest sub form, Candomble-nago--is, for Sterling, in its embodiment and space, a transformative worldview that is an attestation of Afro-Brazilian agency and autonomy as well as celebration of African-descent and blackness and therefore a rejection of hybridity. She suggests that Candomble-nago demonstrates a deliberately remembered and enshrined sense of African identity in Brazil through its story of forced and voluntary transatlantic travel to Brazil from the nago region and personal and religious transatlantic relationships between Salvador and Yorubaland that carried on through remigrations and returns of free and enslaved leaders in Bahia the early 1830s. The sacred ground, the terreiro, remained a gathering place of the Candomble community, especially after Salvador's 1835 Male revolt of free and enslaved Afro-Brazilians, the various repressions of Afro-Brazilians following abolition in 1888 and later embranquecimento projects. Candomble terrerios then not only remained private; they remained black private space where religious devotion could be safely practiced despite bans of Afro-Brazilian religiosity in white public space. In these terms, she continues, Candomble must be considered a radical transformative challenge to the internal and external processes of the nation's racial projects.
In her second and third chapters, Sterling demonstrates how Candomble rituals and street performances act as a continued dialog with the racialized hegemonic order. The festa de Santa Barbara, the festa de Iemanja, and the Lavagem do Bonfim offer transcendence over state-sanctioned authority such that Afro-Brazilian rituals and blackness is acknowledged as powerful. In what she calls rituvals (public rituals), private practice and public ritual come together not for a counterhegemonic political project of demonstrating the power of African hierarchies and worldviews and efforts toward social transformation. Instead of this liminality, she stresses Victor Turner's ideas of the communitas developed in the project and the transitional modes that can bring change. The public rituals articulate social issues through bodily expression and provide room for transformation, such that the objectified other becomes a critic and the vehicle for cultural recovery. Sterling finds that the Lavagem do Bonfim a symbolic victory over state-sponsored discourse on racial democracy, since it originated in 1976 when the governor granted freedom of religious expression to the Candomble community. Though the Lavagem has since become a part of the state's narrative of its own identity such that the usually shunned black world is temporarily given public space, Sterling prefers to see the state involvement as an acknowledgement or "outing" of the transcendental power of terreiros, priests, and priestesses of Candomble.
Sterling looks at the two blocos afros (Afro-Brazilian samba schools) in Salvador to argue that carnival there since 1975 for Afro-Brazilians has meant opting out of a hybrid national identity and instead agitating for a national identity that does not marginalize or denigrate African culture and heritage. Ild Aiye, founded in 1974, was the first to assert a black aesthetic and a refusal of the hybridic identity. Olodum, formed in 1979, celebrated the integration of blackness in the national identity, but it remained the more hybridic bloco afro. In assessing the political charge of the blocos' carnival participation (their "angaje"), Sterling rejects Roberto DaMatta's theoretical grounding in carnival providing temporary reversals of social order and enactment of national ritual, turning instead to Gage Averill's understanding of samba schools as having the potential to defy authority. She suggests that lie Aiye's work has consistently been transformative in its insistence on dark-skinned performers, grounding in Cadomble percussion rhythms, singing songs such as "E o mundo negro" (It's a black world), extolling African hair texture and wooly braids, countering ideas of Africa as primitive, and presenting researched representations of the African diaspora in their annual themes.
Having established Candomble as foundational to most other performative matrices of Afro-Brazilian anti-hybrid identity, Sterling gives brief attention to quilombo agency before moving to an assessment of recent forms of black power in Brazilian literature and music. In the Quilombhoje writers' collective and literary movement that began in 1980, Sterling stresses the rejection of Enlightenment ideas of blackness and white aesthetics that had informed earlier Brazilian ideas of embrancquecimento. Like the Black Arts Movement (BAM) in the U.S. that began in 1965 as a poetic and expressive form of black power, Quilombhoje poses a radical challenge to conventional Brazilian literary models, symbols, and ideals that marginalize Afro-Brazilians and African heritage in favor of a transformative, immediatist (hoje) decolonizing strategy meant to shift the paradigm and the decenter the gaze of whiteness that had long been assumed and celebrated in works such as Gilberto Freyre's. Favoring an auto-hegemonic standard, the group's name refers to the movement of maroon communities of ex-slaves existing independently in Brazil between 1597 and 1694. With an assessment of several representative voices including some that stress Candomble roots and struggles against oppression, Sterling demonstrates how the Quilombhoje writers revision the hegemonic history through interrogation and education with the "lost" history of African heritage and inform such narratives with a "pluricentric" (but still not hybrid) ideology.
Transformation remains a focus in Sterlings two final chapters: one on the Afro-Brazilian performing groups Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN) and Bando de Teatro Olodum and on Afro-Brazilian hip hop. In comparing TEN to Bando de Teatro Olodum, she concludes that while Candomble informs both groups' aesthetics and dramaturgy and both groups work to subvert pejorative images of Afro-Brazilians, Bando de Teatro Olodum's use of memisis and the lived-experience of Afro-Brazilians provides the most transformative medium for those seeking a challenge to the hegemonic ideations of hybrid Brazilian identity. Afro-Brazilian hip hop, however, with its greater currency, acts as her last and final analysis. This form of hip hop with its own aesthetics of black power and resistance gives cultural and political testimony to Brazil's own form of racialized dispossession and disenfranchisement. Originating from the soul and funk dance movement of the 1970s, the bailes black, Brazil's hip hop provided not just a reactive opposition to social and political subordination, but an active shaping of subjectivity and agency among the Afro-Brazilian population. Drawing upon the context of racialized criminalization and state-sponsored violence against favelados and street children in Rio and Sao Paulo in the democratic opening early 1990s (especially the 1992 Carandiru prison massacre), Sterling also shows how artists and audiences created localized hip hop as means of protesting the actions of their new government, demanding space for themselves in the nation, transform marginal status, and establishing Paul Gilroy's sense of an "alternative public sphere."
It is no surprise that Sterling's work is award-winning (i.e., the recipient of the New York African Studies Association 2013 Book Prize). She delivers the quality of an established scholar (Sterling is a Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at NYU). Her arguments are tight and all of the chapters of the work remain congruent with each other in terms of the theme of auto-hegemonic efforts at defining a closed (versus hybrid) sense of Afro-Brazilian identity. The work is rich in theoretical application and therefore perfect for an advanced ethnic studies or sociology class. It is a must read for anybody interested in cultural questions of decolonization and African diaspora studies as applied to Salvador's Candomble and carnival as well as modern Afro-Brazilian literature, drama, and hip hop.
There are only a few minor concerns with the work. If your interest is in expressions of auto-hegemony and black power in Afro-Brazilian culture, you will need to go elsewhere for such application to samba (though she does give brief mention to samba de roda), capoeira (especially the very African-centric Angola style) and other popular forms of Afro-Brazilian folklore. Sterling never claims to cover all possible forms of Afro-Brazilian culture, but nonetheless, these absences are notable by the end of the monograph. Readers might also be a little disappointed in the lack of space given to explore multiple senses of and responses to what these cultural producers called Afro-Brazilian and Brazilian blackness. Finally, I would have liked the editors to give a little more attention to original publication dates for key theoretical works (e.g., Gramsci) and Brazilian citations as otherwise the references suggest a much shorter history of these larger questions. This is especially evident with Gilberto Freyre's Casa Grande e Senzala listed variously as 1964 and 1974 suggest a much shorter history of so-called "racial democracy" in Brazil than reality would have (p. 41 and 238). With the many references to Freyre's concept of democracia racial and its connection to this work, a lack of context for the original publication is unfortunate and even misleading. For the advanced reader, of course, this is hardly a problem.
Jennifer L. Cullison
University of Colorado, Boulder
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|Author:||Cullison, Jennifer L.|
|Publication:||Journal of Third World Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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