In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African American Religions

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Comparative Studies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Looking “From Within”

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Atlantic History African American Religions
Stefania Capone
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0080


Since its beginnings, the study of African American religions has combined anthropological and historical approaches, predating the idea of Atlantic history. African American religions were the result of the colonial encounter between African, Amerindian, and European cultures; and their formation has been deeply influenced by the specificities of each colonial setting. Generally called African-derived or more recently Afro-Atlantic religions, the religious practices transplanted to the Americas through the enslavement of Africans are differently defined according to their regional background: African American religion for the “black Church” in the United States; Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian for religions such as the Haitian Vodou, the Cuban Santería or the Brazilian Candomblé. This terminology is still predominant in the literature, even if, in recent studies, it has been questioned what is exactly “Afro” in forms of religious practices that are deeply rooted in the Americas, being shared, since the second half of the 19th century, by descendants of African slaves as well as by socially white practitioners. In the last decades, from secret and persecuted religions, they have become public and respectable, reaching people from different social backgrounds, as well as foreigners, who are importing these religions to their own countries. The first works on Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban religions, and African American religious life in the United States date back to the beginning of the 20th century. This long tradition of studies has produced an enormous literature in several languages (notably English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French). A bibliography on African American religions is thus necessarily selective and partial. Only the main religious practices in the Americas are included in this entry.

General Overviews

The modern study of African American religions developed around the debate on the origins of New World black cultures, from the anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits to the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier in the 1940s. Herskovits 1943 and Herskovits 1990 defend the existence of West African cultural survivals, called “Africanisms,” in the formation of African American cultures. Conversely, Frazier 1942 endorses the generally prevailing view of the period, arguing that enslaved Africans had been totally deprived of their own culture by the experience of slavery. This debate informed the whole Afro-Americanist field, confronting everything from the tenets of African cultural continuity to those who defend the primacy of cultural creativity and change. The interpretations of African American cultures and religions have thus been oriented by two major trends: on one side, the “Africanist school,” positing the continuity with a specific African cultural heritage, generally identified as West African, brought by African slaves to a given colony; and, on the other side, the “Creolist school,” stressing social constructionist approaches to identity through a revisionist historiography. This is a highly selective list of works of scholarship representative of these two major lines of interpretation. Verger 1957 is a classic example of the “Africanist” approach. Holloway 2005 updates the work of Herskovits. Bastide 1978 elaborates a “sociology of the interpenetration of civilizations” to understand the process behind the making of Afro-Brazilian religions. Scott 1991 questions the inclination in Afro-Americanist anthropology to “verify” (and authorize) such “Africanisms.” Mintz and Price 1992 develops the “creolization model,” and Palmié 2007 offers a contemporary stance to this approach.

  • Bastide, Roger. The African Religions of Brazil: Toward a Sociology of the Interpenetration of Civilizations. Translated by Helen Sebba. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1978.

    A sometimes inaccurate translation of the Les religions africaines au Brésil (Paris: P.U.F, 1960). An influential work on culture formation that challenges acculturative theories through the interactions between infrastructure (economic and social conditions) and superstructure (religions and ideologies). Also available in a Portuguese edition from 1985.

  • Frazier, E. Franklin. “The Negro Family in Bahia, Brazil.” American Sociological Review 7.4 (1942): 465–478.

    DOI: 10.2307/2085040

    This article started the Herskovits-Frazier debate about the importance of African polygyny in explaining the predominance of matrifocal family among Afro-Brazilians.

  • Herskovits, Melville J. The Myth of the Negro Past. Boston: Beacon, 1990.

    In this seminal work, Herskovits outlines an “acculturative continuum” from pure African carryovers (the “Africanisms”) to the reproduction of the dominant culture of European derivation. The concepts of retention and reinterpretation help to explain how cultural accommodation and integration had been achieved in the Americas. First published in 1941 (New York and London: Harper & Brothers).

  • Herskovits, Melville J. “The Negro in Bahia, Brazil: A Problem in Method.” American Sociological Review 8.4 (1943): 394–404.

    DOI: 10.2307/2085800

    The response of Herskovits to Franklin Frazier, who already downplayed the influence of African culture in his work on the Negro family in the United States, published in 1939.

  • Holloway, Joseph, ed. Africanisms in American Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

    This second edition, revised and enlarged, is an attempt to update the work of Melville Herskovits, focusing on “African cultural survivals” in North America and their impact on white culture.

  • Mintz, Sidney W., and Richard Price. The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective. Boston: Beacon, 1992.

    First published in 1976, this work is considered the main example of the Creolist school. Mintz and Price questioned Herskovits’s idea of the unity of West (and Central) Africa as a broad cultural area, replacing it with the existence of “grammatical principles” or “cognitive orientations,” shared by the slaves in the making of African American cultures.

  • Palmié, Stephan, ed. Africas of the Americas: Beyond the Search for Origins in the Study of Afro-Atlantic Religions. Leiden and Boston: E. J. Brill, 2007.

    A provocative work undermining the link between the “African Americanist” knowledge production and the search for an African past. Articles on different areas of the Americas, stressing historical and ethnographic approaches.

  • Scott, David. “That Event, This Memory: Notes on the Anthropology of African Diasporas in the New World.” Diaspora 1.3 (1991): 261–284.

    This influential article is a sharp criticism of the key orientation in Afro-Americanist anthropology to corroborate “authentic Afro-American pasts,” deeply recasting the question of a collective consciousness of the past in the African diaspora.

  • Verger, Pierre. Notes sur le culte des Orisa et Vodun: à Bahia, la Baie de tous les Saints, au Brésil et à l’ancienne côte des Esclaves en Afrique. Dakar, Senegal: Mémoires de l’Institut français d’Afrique noire (IFAN) 51, 1957.

    One of the first comparative works stressing the continuity between African and Afro-Brazilian religious practices. Portuguese translation: Notas sobre o culto aos orixás e vodun na Bahia de Todos os Santos, no Brasil, e na antiga Costa dos Escravos, na Africa (São Paulo: EDUSP, 1999).

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