Afro-Cuban Religiosity, Revolution, and National Identity

By Otero, Solimar | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, September 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Afro-Cuban Religiosity, Revolution, and National Identity


Otero, Solimar, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Afro-Cuban Religiosity, Revolution, and National Identity. By Christine Ayorinde. The History of African-American Religions Series, ed. Stephen W. Angell and Anthony B. Finn. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004. Pp. xv, 275; 2 maps, 18 photographs. $59.95.

Afro-Cuban Religiosity, Revolution, and National Identity is a volume that again brings up the difficult task of understanding the category of race in Afro-Cuban religion in Cuba. Ayorinde's study is a much-needed investigation of the problematic relationship between practitioners of Afro-Cuban religion and the State. She does an interesting and thorough job of re-situating religious policy within the Cuban "State" in pre- and postrevolutionary Cuba. Her analysis of Afro-Cuban religions covers all the general basics for those unfamiliar with the complexity and range of different African traditions and folk Catholicism present in Cuban contexts. One must applaud her efforts in addressing a wide range of themes: religious practice, social history, and critical analysis of race on the island. Ayorinde is able to offer a glimpse of how these qualities are mutable, like Cuban history and people, and that even the "party's position" is often subject to change. Ayorinde also does a nice job of locating the contributions, with justified critiques, of Cuban intellectual "vanguards" like José Marti, Morua Delgado, Fernando Ortiz, Lydia Cabrera, and Romulo Lechantanere. However, one is left somewhere in between official discourses and quotidian practices, perhaps deliberately. What works best for the book is the detailed exploration of government policy towards Afro-Cuban religion after 1959, and this is an important contribution to the study of contemporary politics and religion worldwide.

The author's initial, rightful understanding of competing cubanidades, Cuban-ness, becomes limited by her own efforts to distill out an unidentified "blackness" (pp. 5-6). Ayorinde carries out an ambitious project in trying to do with one text what many have not been able to do with the multiple volumes written on race in Cuba. Yet she never defines what she means by "black" identity, religion, or persons. For the volume to succeed on this level, Ayorinde needs to locate that "blackness" she is looking for. Others like Robin Moore, Ada Ferrer, and most successfully, Lisa Brock and Bijan Bayne, have tried to "see" the "blackness" in Cuban revolutionary and political culture, but with a more precise agenda in mind.1 Ayorinde correctly looks for a continuum of "blackness" as a construction; however, she never really puts this agenda, which guides the book, out on the table. Perhaps, Ayorinde is looking for that elusive "portable blackness," a sort of pan-Africanism that has been explored by scholars like J. Lorand Matory and Paul Gilroy.2

At one point in the text, Ayorinde states that, "What was now African is now Cuban" (p. 191). It would seem that with the "folklorization" of Afro-Cuban religion, rather, what was once in a quotidian-sense "Cuban" is now "African. …

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