Nagô Grandma and White Papa: Candomblé and the Creation of Afro-Brazilian Identity

By Beatriz Góis Dantas. Translated by Stephen Berg. 2009. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 208 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8078-3177-9 (hard cover), 978-0-8078-5975-9 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Heather M. Shirey, University of Saint Thomas

[Review length: 879 words • Review posted on May 18, 2010]


In a recent article posted on The Root, Henry Louis Gates Jr. reflected on the persistent presence of Africa in northeastern Brazil. Regarding Bahian Candomblé and its African origins specifically, Gates wrote that “of all the religions that they [African slaves] carried with them, one would prove to be the 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.”[1] Collective identification with these Ifa-based religions, known broadly as Nagô in Brazil, is the topic of Beatriz Góis Dantas’ Nagô Grandma and White Papa: Candomblé and the Creation of Afro-Brazilian Identity.

While acknowledging that Nagô identity is indeed highly visible in African Brazilian religious traditions in Bahia and Sergipe, Dantas argues that the path from West Africa to northeastern Brazil was neither inevitable nor as straightforward as it may seem on the surface. In this historical-ethnographic study, Dantas explores the significance of the concept of Nagô purity in Candomblé (Bahia) and Xangô (Sergipe). More specifically, Dantas studies divergent notions of purity in these two locations and its connection to ideas about prestige over time. While many African Brazilian religious communities have come to identify themselves in relation to Nagô purity, placing high value on relative proximity to African traditions, Dantas argues that Nagô traditions and thus identity did not simply survive intact. Instead, insiders and outsiders to the religion, including scholars and religious leaders, played and continue to play a role in the shifting notion of identity.

The book opens with an analysis of Xangô terreiros in Laranjeiras, a city with a strong African Brazilian identity in Sergipe’s sugar-producing region. In this initial chapter, Dantas introduces the reader to concepts that are key to a larger understanding of Nagô. This chapter also provides an overview of the religious scene in Laranjeiras and explores the ways in which communities identify themselves and other terreiros in relation to Nagô traditions. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on how Nagô leaders define “purity” and its inverse, that which is “mixed,” known in Laranjeiras as Toré. A reader familiar with Bahian Candomblé will quickly recognize that notions of “purity” in fact differ quite radically in Sergipe when compared to contemporary Salvador. The fourth chapter is focused on Candomblé in Salvador da Bahia. Dantas investigates the construction of Nagô purity in this context and explores in depth the role of intellectuals in transforming what was perceived as a “cult” into a “religion,” particularly in the early part of the twentieth century. This chapter also includes an interesting comparison of this material to notions of purity in Umbanda in southeastern Brazil. In the final chapter Dantas returns to questions about the construction of purity and prestige on the local level, focusing again on Laranjeiras.

This rich study was originally published in 1988 in Portuguese and made available through a new English-language translation in 2009. A return to this older study reveals an assumption that is widely accepted in the literature today, but that was not yet taken as evident in the 1980s: identity is not fixed, but instead it is negotiated and defined in a variety of contexts in response to sometimes divergent needs. Dantas’ penetrating examination of the roles played by insiders and outsiders in this process continues to be enlightening, however, and Gates’ reflections on Bahian Candomblé illustrate that the topic of African roots in contemporary Brazilian culture remains of interest not only to scholars but also to more general readers.

Compared to the neighboring state of Bahia, relatively few studies on Candomblé in Sergipe exist, either in Portuguese or English. For that reason alone this text makes a valuable contribution to a field of research that has historically focused much greater attention on the Bahian case. At the time of her study, Dantas was responding to formative texts in the field by authors such as Nina Rodrigues, Gilberto Freyre, Roger Bastide, Edison Carneiro, Ruth Landes, and Artur Ramos, among others. In the context of this body of scholarship, Dantas sought an alternative mode of analysis to explain the prominent position of self-identified Nagô terreiros. Dantas achieved this by focusing on the process of identity construction rather than on innate cultural survivals or on the manifestation of Nagô identity as a form of resistance. Although a response to these older classic studies might not seem relevant more than twenty years after the original publication of the book, one can still situate Nagô Grandma and White Papa in a dialogue with a new generation of scholars who continue to study the creation and recreation of cultural, religious, and ethnic identity in the Brazilian Northeast. Dantas’ text would certainly be accessible to undergraduate and graduate students, particularly in the fields of cultural anthropology, folklore, and history, and it would serve as an excellent complement to a number of studies in the fields of anthropology, history, and art history produced over the last decade.

Nagô Grandma and White Papa is part of the Latin America in Translation Series from the University of North Carolina Press, and this English-language text is most welcome. Stephen Berg’s translation merits high praise for its readability and accuracy.

[1] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Celebrating Candomblé in Bahia,” The Root, (February 16, 2010).

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.