Nagô Grandma and White Papa: Candomblé and the Creation of Afro-Brazilian Identity

Nagô Grandma and White Papa: Candomblé and the Creation of Afro-Brazilian Identity

Nagô Grandma and White Papa: Candomblé and the Creation of Afro-Brazilian Identity

Nagô Grandma and White Papa: Candomblé and the Creation of Afro-Brazilian Identity


Nago Grandma and White Papa is a signal work in Brazilian anthropology and African diaspora studies originally published in Brazil in 1988. This edition makes Beatriz Gois Dantas's historioethnographic study available to an English-speaking audience for the first time.

Dantas compares the formation of Yoruba (Nago) religious traditions and ethnic identities in the Brazilian states of Sergipe and Bahia, revealing how they diverged from each other due to their different social and political contexts and needs. By tracking how markers of supposedly "pure" ethnic identity and religious practice differed radically from one place to another, Dantas shows the social construction of identity within a network of class-related demands and alliances. She demonstrates how the shape and meaning of "purity" have been affected by prolonged and complex social and cultural mixing, compromise, and struggle over time. Ethnic identity, as well as social identity in general, is formed in the crucible of political relations between social groups that purposefully mobilize and manipulate cultural markers to define their respective boundaries--a process, Dantas argues, that must be applied to understanding the experience of African-descended people in Brazil.


As an analytical field, the study of so-called AfroBrazilian religions — and of Candomblé in particular — has traditionally privileged cultural contents and their specificities in addition to the search for their origins. Continuous allusion to Africa and the unceasing search for Africanisms (begun at the start of the nineteenth century with Nina Rodrigues) have taken on various forms, from the simple, mechanical comparison of cultural traits whose resemblance to African counterparts is presented as proof of “survivals” (Rodrigues, 1935, 1977; Ramos, 1951, 1961) all the way to studies that attempt to present the persistence of cultural traits as part of a functional, alternative African religious system (Herskovits, 1967; Ribeiro, 1952) or even as the expression of truly African thought (Bastide, 1971, 1978; Santos, 1976).

It is from this search for Africa that appreciation for the purity of Candomblé emerges. Simultaneously, Nagô tradition is elevated to the height of Africanness and presented as a model cult of resistance in which the upholding of African tradition and values enables an alternative form of being, if not at the level of economic and political relations then at least at the ideological level. This is what Roger Bastide’s “principle of scission” proposes — to explain how blacks who became part of capitalist society’s labor force possessed an ideological autonomy guaranteed by religious participation in groups of African origin, guardians of a cultural repertory and thought that allude to Africa (Bastide, 1971).

In characterizing Candomblé terreiros — above all the purest ones — as havens of Africanness and resistance, authors who adopt this methodological stance implicitly accept that the presence in Brazil of cultural traits that originated in Africa necessarily indicates black resistance. The authentic transformation of Africanisms into proofs of resistance signals acceptance of the given that the meaning of cultural traits is determined through origin, without considering the fact that, whether real or supposedly of African origin, cultural traits may have different meanings in Brazilian society. Not taking this into due consideration leads to a search for Africa within Brazil, and the Nagô model emerges from this inces-

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