Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The African Roots of Carnival

Roundup: Talking About History

[Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a literary critic, educator, scholar, writer, editor and public intellectual. He was the first African American to receive the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship. In 2002, Gates was selected to give the Jefferson Lecture, in recognition of his"distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities." The lecture resulted in his 2003 book, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley.]

When the 10.8 million African slaves disembarked from the hell-hole of the slave ships of the Middle Passage, they discovered that they had not sailed alone. In spite of the horrendous conditions onboard ship (15 percent of their countrymen died en route), many aspects of their various African heritages and cultures managed to survive with them: their music, the foods they could recreate out of the plants and animals in the New World, their aesthetic sense; but most of all, their belief systems, their religions, and their gods. And of all the religions that they carried with them, one would prove to be most resilient and useful to them, most universalizing and cosmopolitan. And that would be the Ifa-based religions of the Yoruba and Fon peoples, from western Nigeria and Dahomey. Their orishas or deities would retain their African names, characteristics, and functions, but assumed new forms in the alien and hostile world of slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. These manifestations of Ifa would come to be called Candomblé in Brazil, Santeria in Cuba, Vodun in Haiti, and Hoodoo in New Orleans, modified from their original forms with influences from other ethnic groups and traditions, especially those of the Bakongo from Kongo-Angola, in the same way that regional variations arose as the Roman Catholic Church spread itself through Europe and the Middle East.

I am making my first visit to Bahia, Brazil, for the start of Carnaval in the heartland of Candomblé. What is Carnaval? Think Mardi Gras on steroids, hedonistic, carnivalesque ceremonies, rituals, and parades, with thousands of male and female members of “blocos Afro” (“African Blocs,” something like New Orleans krewes) and samba schools, singing and dancing and drumming their way from their headquarters to the Campo Grande, or “big field,” where they converge hours later, long into the night. The blocos afros are Afro-Brazilian cultural groups, Bahian Carnival associations that celebrate and preserve Brazil’s African heritage through music, dance, art, theater, and religious ceremony. Some of these groups flamboyantly define themselves through cross-dressing, a standard feature of carnivalesque ceremonies around the world; others don costumes directly informed by the elegant ceremonial dress of the Yoruba back on the continent. The female members of the blocos afros are often bedecked in gowns and head dresses that look as if they were tailored in Abeokuta, Nigeria rather than Rio.

Bahia is the blackest state in the blackest country outside of Nigeria. And here, the Yoruba-based gods are alive and well. The names of the gods are exactly the same, their names transformed only slightly because of language differences: Esu, the messenger of the Yoruba gods, for example, is Exu in Brazil, Echu in Cuba, and (Papa) La-Bas or Legba (a French version of Esu’s second name, Elegbara) in Haiti. Last night, Saturday, was the start of Carnaval....

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