Afro-Catholic Festivals in the Americas

Performances, Representation, and the Making of the Black Atlantic

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Editor(s): 
Cécile Fromont
Africana Religions
  • University Park, PA: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , April
     2019.
     224 pages.
     $89.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780271083292.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This volume, Afro-Catholic Festivals in the Americas, edited by Cécile Fromont, offers a much-needed contribution to the study of African, Afro-Latino/a and African-American Catholics. While the field of Black Atlantic religions has exploded in the past decade, the study of Black Atlantic Catholicism has been one of the most understudied areas in the field of religion. This is quite shocking, for demographically the populations that were in the Catholic colonies throughout the Americas and Caribbean were majority African and Indigenous, not European.

Through an interdisciplinary collection of essays by scholars of religion, literature, and music, this volume examines specific religious practices, populations, and geographic settings. The authors in this edited volume consider the connections between Afro-Catholic festivals and their origins in the early modern kingdom of Kongo. At its core the book debunks several myths and generalizations regarding Afro-Catholicism in the Americas: (1) the assumption that there were not Christianized African peoples that were enslaved and then brought to the Americas; (2) the belief that slave populations uncritically accepted Catholicism and did not impact its expression in the Americas; and (3) the reduction of the study of Black Atlantic religion to non-Christian religious expressions. In a similar vein the book offers a corrective to the Yoruba-centric study of Black Atlantic religions in the contemporary academy.

The purpose of the book is straightforward; it argues that the Christian festival traditions have played a significant role in the creation of Black Atlantic cultures. Key to the overall book is the claim that Africans throughout the Americas used Christian festivals as a means of autonomous religious expressions and cultural and political empowerment. Even when these festivals have been studied in the past, too much emphasis has been on their impact to non-Christian religious expressions versus their role as an expression of Catholicism itself in the region. Similarly, the authors argue, too much emphasis has been placed on the study of Black Atlantic religions in the 19th and 20th centuries, ignoring the impact of early-modern Central African Christianity, particularly emerging from the Kongo kingdom. This Kongolese Catholicism, the chapters argue, will become fundamental in understanding the religious worldview of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas.

The first part of the book focuses on festivals that center on mock battles. Jeroen Dewulf’s chapter examines the history of Kongolese Catholic rituals in New Orleans through a study of the influence of Congo dances on Mardi Gras Indians. Kevin Smart studies the Kongolese impacts on a Brazilian ritualized mock naval battle. The third chapter by Miguel A. Valerio examines the 1539 festival on the truce of Aigues-Mortes in Mexico-Tenochtitlan.

Part 2 focuses on the representation of black kings in performance. Lisa Voigt’s chapter emphasizes the richness of narrative and performative representation of kings in Brazilian baroque festivals. Júnia Ferreira Furtado’s chapter explores the role of two priests in in interpreting the ceremonial life in the kingdom of Dahomey. Part 3 turns to primary documents. Cécile Fromont presents a careful study of an early-19th-century lithograph in Brazil and its implication for performance and ritual studies. Dianne M. Stewart’s chapter utilizes archival research to consider the relationship between Afro-Catholicism and Obeah, demonstrating the limitations of syncretism for studying Afro-American religion. The final chapter in Part 4 by Michael Iyanaga examines the African influences on Catholic music and dance in the Americas.

Afro-Catholic Festivals in the Americas emerged from a 2015 conference at Yale’s Institute for Sacred Music. This starting point is significant, for this multidisciplinary book is not grounded in one field but instead contains multiple approaches to performance studies. While the book covers Afro-Catholicism in the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America, the omission of festivals in former Spanish colonies is noticeable. A key intention of the text is to emphasize Kongolese and not Yoruban practices; however, these practices nonetheless can be found in island nations such as Cuba. This begs the need for a second volume that addresses Afro-Catholic religious performance in other geographic settings in the Americas. This demonstrates not only the void this book begins to fill, but also the need for much more scholarship on this subject.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michelle A. Gonzalez (Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado) is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Scranton.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cécile Fromont is Associate Professor of History of Art at Yale University.

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