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The English Professors of Brazil: On the Diasporic Roots of the Yorùbá Nation

    • Published online: 01 January 1999

Melville J. Herskovits (e.g., 1966, 1941) argued that African Americans in virtually every American nation “retained” some greater or lesser cultural “memory” of the African past. Assuming that the cultures of the West African Fon, Yorùbá, and Ashanti (as reconstructed in the “ethnographic present”) represented the extant “base line,” or starting point, of African-American cultural history, Herskovits' “ethnohistorical” method posited that less-acculturated African-American groups instantiated the earlier historical stages of the more acculturated African-American groups. Thus, for example, spirit possession in the Brazilian Candomblé, could be taken to demonstrate the African derivation of “shouting,” or the behavior of those “filled with the Holy Spirit,” in black North American churches (Herskovits 1958[1941]:220–1). No less, the Candomblé, could be taken to represent an earlier stage of black North Americans' gradual syncretic adaptation, accommodation, and acculturation (Herskovits 1958[1941]:218). Herskovits' descriptions tend to represent the distinctive qualities of African-American cultures, in terms of enduring “deep-seated drives,” “bents,” and “underlying patterns.” On the other hand, Herskovits gives little attention to proximate historical and sociological mechanisms of their transmission. Dozens of scholars have usefully employed similar methods in the study of African cultural “memory” and adaptations. E.g., Arthur Ramos, Edison Carneiro, Ruth Landes, and Roger Bastide on Afro-Brazilians; Lydia Cabrera on Afro-Cubans; Herskovits himself on Haitians and Surinam Maroons; Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán on Afro-Mexicans; W. E. B. Du Bois, Joseph Holloway, Sterling Stuckey, Albert Raboteau, Robert Farris Thompson and Margaret Creel on blacks in the United States; and so forth. This study revises Herskovits' cultural history of the African diaspora and proposes, at the Afro-Latin American locus classicus of Herskovitsian studies, some non-linear alternatives to Herskovits' and others' visions of diasporas generally.

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
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