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.
I flew to Bahia’s capital from Sao Paulo, on a late night flight packed with Brazilian tourists, young professionals whose faces reflect Brazil’s peculiarly mulatto populace, as determined to observe these traditional pre-Lent festivities and rituals in the heart of Brazil’s most explicitly black African region as were the pilgrims in Chaucer’s tales hell bent on observing the high holy days in Jerusalem. Everyone, it seems, has a patron orisha, a deity they have adopted (or who has adopted them), even if they also are steadfastly Christian or devoutly Roman Catholic. In terms of its religious beliefs, Brazil, it would seem, is bi-continental, devotees of both religions praying to Rome, at some times in the day, and to Nigeria, at other times, or perhaps to both, at once.
We filmed the procession of one major bloco afro, “Ilê Aiyê,” founded in 1974, by its regal President, Antonio Carol Vovo. Ilê Aiyê has 3,000 members, and, by the look of it, all of them showed up for the parade. I interviewed Vovo (whose name means “grandfather,” a seventy-something self-possessed, regal, tall and elegant pioneer, born to lead, just before walking with him down the street of his headquarters (located in the Curuzu section of Salvador, somewhat akin to Harlem in New York) to the group’s “terreiros,” or Candomblé temple, to witness the crowning of this year’s queen. The streets were packed with thousands and thousands of tourists, followers in costume, camera crews, and journalists. Vovo is something of a legend in Brazil, since he was one of the founders of the Afro bloco movement. “I wanted to name our comparsas (krewe) ‘Black Power,’” he told me, “but the authorities wouldn’t let me.”
Inspired, he told me, by the Black Power movement in the United States, and by James Brown, Vovo’s Ilê Aiyê is the blackest samba school of all, celebrating African cultural forms through re-appropriation and reinterpretation. Not only does Ilê Aiyê, like the other Afro blocos, employ African religion, names, music, fashion, and themes, in its ceremonies and rituals, but, unlike most other Afro blocos, it maintains a strict “black only” police. (Vovo’s skin is elegantly ebony.) I asked him how, in the multi-colored mestizo world of Brazil, he could define who was “black” and how “black” an applicant had to be? Would I, for example, be black enough? “Anyone can apply,” he responded, with a wry smile. “We look into their heart, and then we decide.”
This is no idle or simple matter: judging who, and what, is black is one of Brazil’s most pressing social concerns, as affirmative action programs and quotas, designed to redress centuries of anti-black racism, are emerging to a storm of controversy. Brazil, at least at one point, had more than sixty (!) official categories of “blackness,” making our tired usage of “octoroons” and “quadroons” look like an ethnic version of “See Dick, See Jane.” And now the census is getting into the act, allowing people to designate themselves by race.
One is tempted to wonder, satirically, if anyone will demand the administration of DNA admixture tests, in this nation that has defined itself, by denial, as officially “white” or “raceless” by day, as it is black or mixed by night. (On the plane here, in restaurants, in hotels, the only “black” people visible to me, other than African Americans, have been staff persons. And to thumb through Brazil’s national magazines is to wonder if the plane disembarked in Vienna or Rome.)
As we progressed to the temple, Vovo’s musicians began singing this year’s theme song, with its haunting refrain known by virtually everyone who had gathered in Curuzu last night, judging by the number of people who seemed to know these lyrics by heart: “Raça negra é linda por natureza” (“The black race is beautiful by nature.”)
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is editor-in-chief of The Root.