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Fragments of Bone: Neo-African Religions in a New World
Edited by Patrick Bellegarde-Smith. University of Illinois Press, 2005. 262 pages. $20.00.

Reviewed in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, July 18, 2006 
74(3):784-787

This collection of writings on African religions in the "New World" is an avant-garde anthology that takes seriously the contemporary substance of African religions in the Americas and the Caribbean. The collection of twelve essays ranges from analytical descriptions of beliefs and practices to sociological themes concerning African religions and postcolonial contexts. The editor himself contributes two essays to this work, one introductory and the other examining "Religious Thought and Social/Historical Memory." Bellegarde-Smith explains his selection of the volume's title based on the iconic significance of bones as scattered pieces of armor, structural remains that can be used to reconstruct histories and that can be reassembled to make meaning in the present. He proceeds to identify the major methodological concerns of this project, which include the overwhelming practice of labeling African religions as products of syncretism. He notes that this taxonomic maneuver is never applied to Western world religions.

Bellegarde-Smith also takes issue with the sentiment that academics in religious studies who are also practitioners of African religions are unfit to produce scholarly work on these religions.

Another important point persuasively demonstrated by these essays is that Africans in the New World maintained ethnically specific rituals and worldviews. To counter common portrayals of enslaved Africans as hopelessly mixed with rival ethnic peoples and thus unable to maintain their individual national stories, rituals, and coherent worldviews, Osei-Mensah Aborampah (124-142) and Kean Gibson (208-223) examine Jamaican histories of the Akan and Guyanese Comfa religion, respectively, explaining that enslaved Africans taken to these regions were typically from specific nations of West Africa. Aborampah produces a fascinating comparative study of Akan religion in West Africa and religion among the predominantly Akan in Jamaica, showing the genealogical continuities in worldviews and ritual. These writers do not romanticize Africa, nor do they sacrifice the complexity of identity and international interaction among African national groups. They demonstrate, rather, that continuities, innovation, and New World responses produced distinctly African religious forms in the Americas and Caribbean.

This is by no means a far-fetched argument. Southern Baptists, for example, are never presented as an example of how un-Christian American religion is. Rather, American Protestantism (and Catholicism, for that matter) is widely recognized as demonstrative of Christian formations in America-this despite the fact of immense changes and important differences between American contexts and those of European Christianity. And herein lies one of the major points that Bellegarde-Smith has intentioned through assembling such a collection of essays. That the old bromides of African survivals-or-not represented in the classic studies by Melville Herskovits and E. Franklin Frazier are inadequate and poorly cast is a thesis ably borne out in this anthology.

T. J. Desch-Obi (70-89) examines martial arts traditions in the instance of capoeira in Brazil, ladya in Martinique, and knocking and kicking in North America (particularly the ring shout attested in South Carolina). Desch-Obi makes intelligible the relationship between military training and spirituality that inheres in these traditions, explaining the historical contexts that shaped these religious forms of dance-West African warriors learned complex moves to avoid enemy attacks in close-contact fighting and employed dancing as a means of perfecting their execution of this fighting art.

Another major theme that runs consistent throughout the various essays is the role that African religions have played in formations of resistance against colonization, alienation, disease, and political powerlessness. Bellegarde-Smith's essay on social/historical memory, for instance, critically assesses the popular embrace of Vodou in Haiti and the religion's historical role in advancing anti-colonial freedom struggles that culminated in Haiti's independence. This lies in juxtaposition to Vodou's disparagement by cultural and national elites in Haiti (52-69). African religion in that nation has been invigorating and life affirming. The postcolonial task of establishing a commensurate, humanizing visage of Vodou remains to be fulfilled. Readers will find especially informative Randy P. Conner's (143-166) analysis of gender and sexual diversity in Vodou, Candomble, and other African religions. Conner discerns flexible notions of gender and sexual identity latent in African assumptions of spirit possession and explicit strategies of inclusion of sexual "difference" evident from the fact that gay or lesbian priests abound in Vodou and are routinely respected as cultic leaders. He notes that Ezili Freda, for instance, one of the loas ("spirits") recognized in Vodou, is commonly associated with queer or gay identity (146). Conner also identifies patterns of ambivalence or open hostility toward queer practitioners.

Ina Johanna Fandrich (187-207) assesses the increased suppression and harassment of Vodou queens in New Orleans shortly before the Civil War. Fandrich's assessment of primary source material from the era sheds new light on the perceptions of Vodou by different racial groups in New Orleans. It is evident, for instance, that colored women who were priests of Vodou described their religion as an African one, were politically and legally astute, benefited from classism and colorism, and generated broad support from multiple demographics (193, 195). This essay provides fascinating insights into multiracial dynamics that characterized the city and politico-legal strategies of defining legitimate religion during the era.

Roberto Nodal and Miguel "Willie" Ramos (167-186) employ phenomenological approaches to the study of sacrifice (eb█) in Lukum╠ Orisha worship (a.k.a. Santer╠a). They explain the concept of ritual sacrifice and ash╚ (energy or power) insofar as both are integral to achieving healing. Nodal and Ramos also discuss the view that spirits both protect and punish devotees based on behavior and veneration.

Nodal and Ramos also note that Lukum╠ worship has experienced vigorous growth since the 1960s to have numerous adherents not only in the Caribbean and the United States but also globally. They are right to identify it as a "universal faith" (171) that functions independently of ethnicity or nationalism. These authors consciously avoid equating Lukum╠ with the African religion of Yoruba (thus their use of the term Lukum╠). Lukum╠ is far more widely known as "Yoruba," however, throughout the United States and abroad. The taxonomic preference of Nodal and Ramos sharpens the conundrum that is raised in Bellegarde-Smith's introduction. One might ask, for instance, whether these authors would classify putative Catholicism in Cuba as veritably Catholic, given the influences of African and indigenous forces over the centuries on Cuban Christianity.

It is striking that few of the essays included in this volume provide even a mild critique of problems that inhere to African religions (e.g., the ageist distribution of cultic power or the characteristic equation of illness or calamity with guilt). African religions, clearly, have survived genocidal policies of coercive conversions, legal censure, and elaborate schema of vilification (African religions are routinely equated with the monotheistic mythological character Satan or with the demonic) that continue today to determine popular attitudes toward religions of Africa. Insofar as scholarship on such religions becomes a means of recovery, it is to be expected that sympathetic approaches inform the project of study. But the sociology of African religions also demands asking difficult questions of these worldviews and paradigms embedded in ritual frameworks. With Fragments of Bone, the editor and contributors have succeeded brilliantly in producing a text that advances keen scholarship on African religions. Readers will appreciate the prudent selection of articles that are international in scope and interdisciplinary in method. The revisionist analytics and methodological shifts embedded in the essays of Fragments of Bone merit serious attention from scholars of religion.

I would strongly recommend this volume for use as a classroom text for both undergraduate and graduate courses. The individual essays are well researched and provide analytically sophisticated approaches to describing and theorizing the frameworks and sociality of African religions in the Americas and Caribbean. I would also recommend this text as an invaluable reader in a methods course, particularly where the category of religion and the problem of classification are of key interest.

Sylvester A. Johnson Indiana University Bloomington

 

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