J. Lorand Matory
J. Lorand Matory, professor of anthropology and of African and African American studies, has won the African Studies Association’s Melville J. Herskovits Prize. (Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

The cultures and religions of Africa and their influence on people in the New World, both black and white, has fascinated J. Lorand Matory since his undergraduate years at Harvard. His 1982 senior honors thesis, “A Broken Calabash,” explored connections between the religious worship of the Yoruba people of Nigeria and similar beliefs and practices that form a major component of the spiritual life of Brazil.

Today, several books and many articles later, Matory, a professor of anthropology and of African and African American studies, continues to investigate these connections. His most recent book, “Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé” (2005) incorporates years of field research in Nigeria, Brazil, and Cuba and sheds new light on the nature of religious influence between the Old and New World. The African Studies Association (ASA), hosted by Rutgers University, judged it the best book of the year and awarded it the Melville J. Herskovits Prize, named for the scholar who first brought the notion of cultural relativism to bear on African and African American culture and argued that it was the survival of African influences that made African American culture distinctive.

Matory’s study builds on Herskovits’ work but argues that the process of religious influence is more complex and less linear that was previously assumed. Not only did kidnapped Africans carry religious ideas with them to the New World, but those enslaved peoples and their descendants also elaborated on those ideas and practices in ways that eventually traveled back across the Atlantic to influence Africa itself.

“Africa is not to the Americas as the past is to the present. They are both each other’s present,” Matory said.

The main focus of the book is the Candomblé religion of Brazil, which Matory describes as intricately polytheistic, encompassing an extensive hierarchy of gods and goddesses whose exploits constitute an elaborate mythology. Followers of the religion also believe in a high god whose power transcends that of the lesser deities, but it is the polytheistic gods to whom practitioners turn to help them with the issues they face in life.

These gods may be ancestors, culture heroes, or spirits associated with particular places or occupations. Each is also linked with special colors, numbers, and animals, as well as drum rhythms and dances performed in their honor. It is during such rituals that worshippers, inspired by the hypnotic rhythm of the drums, may be possessed, or “ridden,” by the god and speak in the god’s voice, conveying messages or blessings from the spirit world.

According to Matory, Candomblé is practiced by millions of people in Brazil, with the city of Salvador da Bahia serving as the religion’s spiritual center. A similar religion called Santería is practiced by hundreds of thousands in Cuba, while yet another variation known as voodoo, vodou, or vodun is popular in Haiti. In the southern United States, many African Americans adhere to methods of healing and divination that share their West African heritage with Candomblé. In Nigeria, where the religion originated, however, its practice is on the decline as it yields to Islam and Christianity, which are considered more prestigious and respectable. In times of stress or trouble, however, Nigerians often fall back on the worship or their traditional gods, Matory said.

Although Matory’s study is not the first to explore Candomblé or its relationship to its African roots, it does stand out as one of the most in-depth approaches to the subject, a distinction recognized by the ASA. Matory attributes the book’s success, at least in part, to his linguistic achievements. His fluency in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Yoruba allowed him to conduct field research in all the areas relevant to his study and to catch the subtle nuances of the rituals and discussions in which he took part.

The degree of insight he achieved into these practices has deepened the appreciation and respect in which he held these religions, too often dismissed by Eurocentric commentators as primitive and superstitious.

“I’m not an initiate, but I love these religions,” he said.

His years of field research also strengthened his regard for the discipline of anthropology and its commitment to examining different cultures from a nonjudgmental perspective.

“Human beings have immense amounts to learn from each other,” he said. “And we’re the only discipline on campus consistently committed to the idea of moral equality among cultures.”

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