Queering Black Atlantic Religions

Transcorporeality in Candomblé, Santería, and Vodou

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Robert Strongman
Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , March
     2019.
     296 pages.
     $25.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781478001973.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Roberto Strongman’s Queering Black Atlantic Religions: Transcorporeality in Candomblé, Santería, and Vodou provides a productive exploration of the phenomenon of trance possession in African diasporic religions. He centers religious rituals to understand how participants and observers of these various religious traditions understand themselves in relation to and as part of the divine. Furthering the fields of Africana studies, religious studies, literary studies, gender studies, and performative studies, Strongman illuminates the complex gender dynamics during possession by highlighting the African and African diasporic underpinnings of the “human psyche as multiple, removable and external to [the] body as its receptacle” (2). This concept of the psyche or the soul as multiple differs from Western philosophical scholarship of the soul as singular and internal to the body.

The book’s chapters are divided into three sections—Vodou, Lucumí, and Santería—and oscillate between novels, paintings, films, interviews, and ethnographies to discuss how the spirit and the human interact with one another (4). Strongman’s literature overlay, which expands from Enlightenment and 19th- through 21th-century scholarship of African, African diasporic, and Christian philosophy of the body, is perhaps his greatest contribution to the religious studies as he challenges Cartesian models of the “bodily entrapped soul” and how that “culturally conditioned image is not shared by all phenomenological traditions across the world and historical periods” (10). The significance of this argument extends to how African diasporic religions understand the relationship to the divine as fluid and not static.

Also, in Strongman’s exploration of how the body—as well as other ritual vessels—can be used to connect to the divine, he confronts broader histories of Black Atlantic slavery and imperialism and the damaging spiritual and physical effects of “trapping the black body.” Strongman argues, “the real act of imperialism was not so much to label Africans soulless as to close off their philosophical corporeal openness while at the same time legislate prohibiting precisely those religious rituals of trance possession that render the black bodies inhabited and soulful”(4). Slavery and imperialism attempted to disconnect Black people from their religious practices, which disconnected them from their bodies and souls. Attending to these ruptures in the connection to the divine and how one believes is yet another demarcating act of violence that Strongman interrogates.

Strongman expands African diasporic scholarship twofold: He moves away from the Melville Herskovits/ E. Franklin Frazier debate about the continuation of African cultural traditions in the African diaspora by asserting that the religious practices of Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, and Brazilian Candomblé showcase the African religious continuation in the diaspora. Additionally, Strongman pushes away from the J. Lorand Matory/ Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí debate about how gender is categorized in Yoruba contexts by centering ethnographies of spiritual embodiment and in particular how they shape queer subjects (23). Questions about how African diasporic religions are used in the everyday context and how gender is expressed or conflated in trance possessions provide a more rigorous understanding of African diasporic religions and can help us unpack religious ceremonies and how practitioners believe.

This is why Strongman’s expansion of transcorporeality is pivotal. He challenges Christianity’s dominance over incarnational theology while considering how trance possession is an avenue to think about the porous nature of the human and the divine and how this nature “produces subjectivities that are not dictated by biological sex” (3). The contribution of this term is compelling as he draws correlations between African diasporic religions and Christianity to discuss their relation to one another, to the body, gender, sexuality, and the divine. Strongman’s analysis would benefit from a focus on what makes African diasporic religions unique, drawing terminologies or collective actions from these religious practices rather than from ontologically opposing religious traditions.

In African diasporic religions, the everyday lives and experiences of practitioners and observers influence how possession functions: the beliefs of the practitioners and the observers affect religious rituals, and religious communities cannot exist outside of these societal and cultural perceptions. During his discussion of transcorporeality in Haitian Vodou, Strongman argues that “Haitian Vodou functions as a queer space in an otherwise intolerant society. The patriarchal nature of the Haitian nation-state contrast sharply with the plethora of gendered options visible in Haitian Vodou ceremonies” (73).

Significantly, Strongman’s work focuses on queer people and women, populations that are often understudied in African diasporic religions. However, the author underemphasizes the extent to which biological essentialist ideas of the body are still very much present in Vodou. In Vodou, the gender and sexual fluidity that Strongman describes through transcorporeality is confronted by the social mores of Haitian culture which limit trance possession experiences with the divine when applied to cisgender heterosexual men, though gay men and women are able to traverse these gender lines with more fluidly.  Many cisgender heterosexual male practitioners are prevented from being possessed by hyper-feminine female spirits by the cultural expectations of gendered behavior and the potential social consequences for being too feminine within their communities. 

Strongman’s section on Vodou is compelling because he discusses the role of female ethnographers studying Haitian Vodou and their involvement in trance possession and initiatory practices, noting that most of the scholars had to become initiates to get closer to participants and observers (38). His exploration of female anthropologists’ gender fluidity, possible same gender loving experiences with the divine, and homosocial relations with practitioners and scholars, speaks to the gendered organization that often happen in Vodou ceremonies with dressing, setting up altars, cleaning, and ritual preparations. Strongman expands the anthropological discussion of participant observers by emphasizing the connections between the scholar and the divine and the religious community.

This book is a necessary read that contributes to the growing body of scholarship on gender and sexuality in African diasporic religions, such as the work of Aisha Beliso De Jesus, Elizabeth Perez, and Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eziaku Nwokocha is Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Religion and a Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.

Date of Review: 
September 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Roberto Strongman is Associate Professor of Comparative Caribbean Cultural Studies at University of California.

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