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A Refuge in Thunder: Candomble and Alternative Spaces of Blackness (review)

Butler, Kim D., 1960-

Research in African Literatures, Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2006, pp. 160-162 (Article) Published by Indiana University Press DOI: 10.1353/ral.2006.0023

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takes up one of the ways Africas relationship with Europe and the Americas has been articulated, they are not tightly tied together. Moreover, various assertions in some of the essays should have been qualied or weighed against reservations expressed by other scholars. The essay on Mongo Betis Poor Christ of Bomba, for instance, does indeed allow us to think about new possibilities of transcending the self. This position is similar to the books broad strategic displacement of an insular identity. But like most textual explications that rely too heavily on theoretical constructs to make their point, this one leaves Levinass vexed relationship with literature unexamined. At the very least, Levinass strategy of obscuring the literary dimension of a text or of showing the incommensurability between aesthetic signication and ethics should have been underscored. These are, however, pedantic quibbles, and should not detract from the overall interest of the study. One awaits similar works like Africa and Its Signicant Others that position themselves between postcolonialism and globalization. If anything, such studies are likely to widen the intellectual discussion for African scholars of all disciplines and challenge the commonplaces that have hitherto inhibited a wider conversation.


A Refuge in Thunder: Candombl and Alternative Spaces of Blackness

BY RACHEL E. HARDING Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000.
Scholars of the African diaspora have long focused on religious ideology, institutions, and social manifestations as a particularly rich venue for analyzing the complexities of cultural interactions and reformulations that created New World societies. From the start, early scholarship by such writers as Manuel Querino, Raymundo Nina Rodrigues, and Roger Bastide helped establish Brazil as central to that analytical project. Despite the voluminous literature in the century since, Rachel Harding succeeds in bringing a fresh take on the Afro-Brazilian religion broadly known as candombl in A Refuge in Thunder. In this work, Harding goes beyond merely tracing the processes by which r neo-African cultures took shape in the diaspora. She takes it a step further by focusing on the social, cultural, and political mandates that guided those transformations and constitute dening characteristics of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora. Harding writes as a social historian with the sensibilities of an anthropologist. This is particularly helpful for the books central project of mining scant source material for sophisticated interpretations. One of the challenges of research on the African diaspora, particularly prior to the nineteenth century, is the lack of recovered literature by Africans and their descendants. Harding argues that if we imagine the sacred worlds created in the diaspora in both their psychic and material senses, those spaces can then be read as primary texts in the African diaspora voice.



In one of the most imaginative chapters of the book, Harding uses this approach to analyze the specic ways in which the Calund and Bolsa de Mandinga traditions of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries inuenced the far more widely studied Candombl from the mid-nineteenth century onward. Traditional historical approaches tend to preclude such an in-depth inquiry because of the paucity of sources historians like to use. Hardings inquiry privileges meaning over form, and draws from her deep understanding of twentieth century candombl to re-read the existing documentation on these earlier eighteenth century cultural practices. Harding identies certain paradigms that came to be widely shared throughout the Afro-Brazilian community. In this regard, her work reaffirms Monica Schulers observation of the same phenomenon in Afro-Jamaican culture, and an argument advanced subsequently by Michael Gomez and others, that the process of pan-African cultural adaptations was a critical factor that redened the contours of the black cultures of the Americas as the African-born population gave way to American-born creoles. Later, she examines how the history and, indeed, much of the physical experience of slave life, were inscribed into the routines of day-to-day life within the world of contemporary candombl. In other words, there exist many historical texts beyond those captured on the printed page. The bulk of the text focuses on candombl as it developed in the northeastern city of Salvador, Bahia. Hardings primary sources are drawn mostly from nineteenthcentury police records, during a time when Bahias elites were trying to purge Africa from Bahian culture. The documents could be read as a reection of elite fears, agendas, and their view of African-based religious practice as subversive and criminal. Harding revisits the stories of the encounters between candombl adherents and authorities recorded in those documents not only to glean information on the constitutive elements of what was becoming known as candombl but, perhaps more germane to her central argument that it provided a true space of empowerment, she details the ways in which candombl gave Afro-Brazilians actual power to be claimed in the larger society. Thus, when a candombl ceremony is raided by Brazilian authorities on grounds that it was an offense against the national religion of Catholicism, its organizer claims his own role as an authority and a citizen. Such examples support Hardings argument that the power of the sacred physical, spiritual, and mental spaces claimed by Afro-Brazilians devolved upon the persons to whom the state denied power. In making her point, Hardings focus tends to blur some of the interactions that shaped Afro-Brazilian sacred spaces and their ultimate inuence, such as the political context, the diverse permutations across Brazil, or interactions with successive waves of European spirituality. These, however, are neither the books focus nor its most signicant areas of contribution. A Refuge in Thunder stands out for two r reasons. First, it is a profound exploration of the creation of alternative spaces as a major form of resistance and survival, positing the experience of Bahian candombl as an illustration pertinent throughout the Afro-Atlantic diaspora. Second, it offers new tools for historical inquiry that open previously inaccessible texts; Harding is suggesting a broader denition of what constitutes text in the tradition of scholars working with oral and material traditions as archives of African thought and history. Her approach necessitates extra interpretive mortar to hold the empirical bricks together, a bit outside the historians comfort zone. Nonetheless, such work is essential for strengthening disciplines like history by honing new tools for illuminating stories and individuals its traditional approaches had rendered invisible.



The issue of alternative identities, and empowering spaces such as candombl, holds great potential for further exploration in African diaspora studies. The eld has made rich use of techniques and resources for giving voice to diasporic protagonists, and work such as this can contribute to a dialogue that will help shape a more nuanced understanding of the Afro-Atlantic world. A Refuge in Thunder is a r ne example of African diaspora scholarship, and an engaging read full of rare and illuminating glimpses into Afro-Brazilian lives thankfully preserved through the imaginative techniques of a new-generation griot.


New World Modernisms: T. S. Eliot, Derek Walcott, and Kamau Brathwaite

BY CHARLES W. POLLARD Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2004. x + 231 pp. 0-8139-2278-X paper.
Charles Pollard argues that to appreciate Caribbean poetryand, for that matter, language and culture in the West Indiesit is necessary to juxtapose Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott. To regard Walcott and Brathwaite as the two poles of Caribbean poetry is, of course, a critical commonplace; critics, however, have tended to favor one poet over the other or to regard them as entirely opposed to each other, and have relied too much on the poets self-descriptions and manifestos, ignoring the poetry. Pollard avoids such simplications. His analysis of how the two poets developed as poets in response to each other is the most careful and sound of any I know. Brathwaites project was to recover an essential African identity for the Caribbean and to fashion a nation language that would restore a whole where there were only fragments. Walcott, feeling the lack of a cultural essence in the Caribbean, believed it was the task of the writer to create an identity from nothing but the ironic imitation and repetition of fragments. In spite of their large differences, Walcott and Brathwaite have in common the strategy of juxtaposing parts in order to discern a whole, however provisional, that contains them. Pollard calls this strategy modernist, and he attributes the West Indians shared modernism to the selective listening that they did to T. S. Eliot when they started as poets (they did not just read Eliotthey listened to him on recordings). Brathwaite and Walcott responded to different things in Eliot, but they both heard things that were there. For that reason, it makes sense for Pollard to introduce Eliot as a third term illuminating the other two. Pollard does not say that the West Indian poets write like Eliot: Walcott and Brathwaite transformed Eliots ideas and his poetic example beyond all recognition. For instance, Eliot renewed poetic language through his experiments with jazz rhythms and with working-class and dialect voices, but he himself deeply mistrusted what he regarded as the fragmentation of culture. Ironically, Brathwaite responded to the very thing that Eliot feared: the potential for social revolution in poetic fragmentation. Like Eliot, Walcott