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Scholars Review Beliefs, Lore, and Anthropology in Caribbean
Haitian drummers in 1937 performing "matinik," a style that came from the Caribbean island of Martinique. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Scholars Review Beliefs, Lore, and Anthropology in Caribbean

A conference last month on Folklore and the Politics of Belief in the Caribbean invited scholars to explore the transmission of African culture in the region and the way this hybrid culture was viewed by observers and researchers from abroad. The event was sponsored by the UCLA Latin American Institute and the Mellon Seminar on Caribbean Cultural History.

Kathleen Micham Email KathleenMicham

Herskovits was the first to claim that the new cultures of the Caribbean, formed from European immigration and slavery rather than Amerindian groups, were actually worthy of study.

With a talk on "revenants," also known as zombies, and analysis of apocryphal stories about the sacrifice of white children to cure "ailing black bodies," a conference last month on "Folklore and the Politics of Belief in the Caribbean" was never dull. Witchcraft, voodoo and the supernatural--not to mention rumor, folklore and their intersection with race relations--fascinate all audiences.

Of course, the UCLA audience was interested not only in stories but also in the cultural landscapes of the modern Caribbean. Speakers used tools from anthropology, history and historiography to understand the transmission of African culture in the Caribbean and the way this hybrid culture was viewed by observers and researchers from abroad.

Robin Derby, an associate professor of history, organized the May 14, 2009, conference under the auspices of the Mellon Seminar on Caribbean Cultural History and the UCLA Latin American Institute (LAI). She leads both the Seminar and the LAI's working group on Cuba and the Caribbean, an interdisciplinary association of scholars from various Californian institutions. The UCLA International Institute has supported Derby's research about relationships between rumor and authority in the Caribbean.

One of the invited speakers, Professor Lara Putnam of the University of Pittsburgh, looked at the practice of obeah, a Caribbean folk religion that was particularly popular in Jamaica, between 1890 and 1940. Putnam explained how some white observers seized on obeah, voodoo and brujería as evidence of black peoples' "barbarism" and inability to govern themselves. In her own view, obeah was an organic phenomenon that changed as it came into contact with different peoples and traditions throughout the region.

"Obeah could be practiced across the region not because of its shared Africanness but because of its open heterogeneity and its human universality. Obeah served as a lingua franca…," she said.

UCLA lecturer Patrick Polk (the expert on revenants) and other speakers focused on Haiti, an impoverished nation with tremendous cultural wealth.  Twice occupied by U.S. forces, this laboratory for folklorists and ethnographers has been North America's "little Africa" from the beginning of the 20th-century, according to Derby. In addition, anthropologists have looked to Haiti to understand how African traditions were imported to the New World and to what extent they were influenced by local behaviors and customs, a notion known as acculturation. Writers on acculturation generally viewed local and contemporary influence as contaminations of African heritage.

Gage Averill of the University of Toronto discussed the fascinating intellectual formation of Alan Lomax, one of the greatest proponents of world folk music. Lomax was influenced by the American folklorist Melville Herskovits and the novelist Zora Neale Hurston, an important contributor to the Harlem Renaissance.  Both encouraged him to travel to Haiti in 1936 and 1937 to record the music there.

"So much more than just a method of collection, the recording process was for Alan a means of cultural redress, activism, and a means of promoting equity and egalitarianism," said Averill, who screened short films by Lomax of Haitian parties and ceremonies from the 1930s near the end of the daylong conference.

Kevin Yelvington, an anthropologist from the University of Florida, chose the rich contribution of Herskovits for his study.  He looked particularly at Herskovits' reactions to the work of his teacher Franz Boas. Yelvington made a strong case for the importance of Herskovits' work to the discipline of anthropology and, significantly, to nationalist movements in places like Haiti and Cuba.

"Herskovits was the first to claim that the new cultures of the Caribbean, formed from European immigration and slavery rather than Amerindian groups, were actually worthy of study," added Derby.

The conference speakers and the attentive public spent a discussion period at the end of the day stitching together a history of Caribbean anthropology.

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