Black gods matter, because Black lives matter.
“Few Black and Latinx students have ever been exposed to knowledge about their ancestors’ religious practices prior to the transatlantic slave trade and colonization.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Elizabeth Pérez.Pérez isAssistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her book is Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Elizabeth Pérez: Statistically, the United States is getting less religious, with a steep rise in those with no declared religious affiliation. But there is also a significant percentage of the population drawn to “maximalist” traditions that—in the words of historian Bruce Lincoln—“desire for religious devotion to fill all time, space, and action” (pg. 12, Holy Terrors, Second Edition: Thinking About Religion After September 11). This description may bring to mind some forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, yet maximalist traditions are not always politically reactionary or socially conservative. Afro-Cuban Lucumí—popularly called Santería—is a fascinating case in point.
Religion in the Kitchen centers on a predominantly Black Lucumí house of worship based on Chicago’s South Side. When I began to spend time with community members in the early 2000s, the question that arose most often for me, was Why? Since the early twentieth century, Lucumí has been burdened with the same anti-Black stereotypes as Haitian Vodou and conjured the same caricatures. Why did this religion—so stigmatized, reviled, and “foreign,” in terms of imagery and language of origin—become so attractive to African Americans that they would commit to initiation?
In the course of my research, I became even more fascinated by the question of how Lucumí has endured over generations, bearing in mind its “maximalist” tendencies. The deities, or orishas, demand complete obedience from their priests, whose power depends on their willingness to acquire the expertise necessary to carry on the religion.
If this sounds like hard work, it definitely is! And a surprising amount of it is devoted to preparing food for the orishas. My book explains both why this “maximalist” transnational tradition has established itself so firmly in the United States and to what extent its continued growth depends on catering to the gods’ tastes.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
In every generation, traditions of orisha worship have said that Black gods matter, because Black lives matter. In a political climate rife with racism and xenophobia, Religion in the Kitchen traces the way that African Americans and Latinx immigrants have created enduring forms of spiritual community.
The path to this solidarity was paved by their religious ancestors. Members of the West African ethnic group later to be called Yorùbá were enslaved and brought to the Americas in staggering numbers during the nineteenth century. When they arrived at their destinations—chiefly Cuba, Brazil, and Trinidad—they faced a series of excruciating decisions as they proceeded to reimagine the veneration of their gods. Among them was whether to restrict their rites of passage to people of Yorùbá descent, or offer others access to the priesthood—and if so, who?
Everywhere orisha worship took root, its Yorùbá progenitors opted to open up its rituals to people of any racial or ethnic group. They refused to build a wall around the gods. Instead of erecting a higher fence—to keep out ethnic/racial “Others”—they made a longer table, so that everyone could have a seat.
This act of hospitality continues to reverberate. Preceding the modern civil rights struggle, Latinx and African-Americans’ ongoing partnership in sustaining orisha worship in the United States is their longest collaboration to date. It changed the course of American music, as the rhythms of the orishas found their way into jazz and other genres. The presence of Afro-Caribbean people alongside Black Americans in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago helped give rise to their unique cultures.
On the rare occasions in which this is acknowledged, people will point to complementary foodways, aesthetics, and legacies of political radicalism. Orisha worship should also be recognized as a dynamic unifying force for Latinx and African-Americans.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
The ideology I am most concerned with dismantling is embedded in what has come to be called the “world religions paradigm”: the notion that some religions are more advanced civilizationally, more universal in their appeal, and thus more worthy of study. The classification of religions by scholars has always been political. To further certain social and cultural agendas, judgments have been made about what gets to be called a religion, and what winds up being dismissed as fetishism, superstition, or “voodoo.”
These decisions have had real-world consequences. They have determined whether Africa and the Americas would be represented anywhere in Religious Studies courses at the high school and college level, which has had a “trickle down effect” for younger students. Few Black and Latinx students have ever been exposed to knowledge about their ancestors’ religious practices prior to the transatlantic slave trade and colonization, thanks in part to the world religions paradigm.
Religious studies only emerged as a discipline separate from theology in the nineteenth century, and a ranking system emerged that put monotheism above polytheism; religions led by men above those led by women; and traditions with written texts above those with orally transmitted mythologies and ethical systems. According to those racist and sexist standards, Afro-Diasporic traditions like Lucumí, Haitian Vodou, and Brazilian Candomblé were always going to wind up at the bottom of the heap.
The world religions paradigm has also shaped what activities have been defined as “religious.” Religion in the Kitchen shows that cooking and casual conversation—despite their invisibility in most accounts of ritual practice—have been vital to the formation of Black Atlantic traditions. In fact, it’sthe first book to treat cooking as a ceremonial process with transformative effects and to focus on what happens after sacrifice in Afro-Caribbean houses of worship.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
It’s hard to choose just a few. Religion in the Kitchen builds on the concept of intersectionality to examine how race/ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality are interwoven in ritual practice. Intersectionality has become a buzzword—especially in social media spaces—and mainstream authors seldom credit it to legal scholar and critical race studies pioneer Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. Even when correctly attributed, intersectionality is often divorced from its original application to Black women’s lived realities. Dr. Crenshaw was crucial for me in understanding a religious pedagogy developed in the sacred kitchens of Afro-Diasporic religions by—and largely for—Black women. For both her scholarship and advocacy, she remains a truly heroic inspiration.
Other intellectual heroines include M. Jacqui Alexander and Saidiya Hartman. In a 2014 feministwire.com article called “Why Is Academic Writing So Beautiful? Notes on Black Feminist Scholarship,” EmilyLordi reflected on Black feminist writers’ illustrious historyof providing trailblazing analyses while giving readers greatpleasure—in stark contrast to the stereotype of scholarly prose as dry, humorless,and impenetrable. So much in Hartman’s and Alexander’s evocative, vastly erudite writing isworthy of aspiration.
It’s not widely known that women with complicated relationships to academia—and to each other—have been among the most influential ethnographers of Black Atlantic religions: Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Dunham, Ruth Landes, Lydia Cabrera, and Karen McCarthy Brown. They all dealt with institutional biases against their subjects and against themselves as researchers. Their classic studies of Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, and the United States saw me through the most difficult phases of the writing process.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Marginalized religions like Lucumí are sometimes dismissed as “fringe,” but their practitioners are wrestling with some of the central questions of our time. Given overwhelming injustice and suffering, what does it mean to live an ethical life? How can we find family across racial and ethnic lines? Is it possible to preserve centuries-old traditions while embracing innovation?
The hunger for a connection to the divine is so intense that feeding the orishas is not a metaphor, but a way of life. Practitioners nourish the deities ritually in order to be nurtured by them emotionally, physically, and otherwise. There is a profound racialized and gendered dimension to this reciprocity, because those historically tasked with preparing food for the gods have been women and gay men.
Religion in the Kitchen is the first book to approach the sacred kitchen as a queer space where women and gay men have been busy (re)producing Black Atlantic religions. Gay men have served alongside lesbians, bisexuals, and genderqueer people as mentors; sixteen-cowries diviners; initiatory masters of ceremonies; altar-builders; praise-singers; alashés (head cooks and kitchen managers during major rituals); and more.* They have played roles carrying the highest prestige, and done the unglamorous work—like butchering—that has kept these religions alive.
Their culinary labors and positions of authority have gone unnoticed because previous studies have tended to emphasize undertakings that exclude women and gay men, like batá drumming and Ifá divination.I hope that my book helps readers to envision a world whereLGBTQ people can be valued as indispensable religious leaders—and Afro-Diasporic traditions can be appreciated on their own terms.
*Religious participation among transgender people in the United States is the subject of an ongoing research project; suffice it to say here that Black Atlantic traditions have historically been less trans-inclusive than gay-friendly.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for thePolitical Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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