Spiritist Mediumship as Historical Mediation: African-American Pasts, Black Ancestral Presence, and Afro-Cuban Religions

in Journal of Religion in Africa
No Access
Get Access to Full Text
Rent on DeepDyve

Have an Access Token?

Enter your access token to activate and access content online.

Please login and go to your personal user account to enter your access token.


Have Institutional Access?

Access content through your institution. Any other coaching guidance?



The scholarship on Afro-Atlantic religions has tended to downplay the importance of Kardecist Espiritismo. In this article I explore the performance of Spiritist rituals among Black North American practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions, and examine its vital role in the development of their religious subjectivity. Drawing on several years of ethnographic research in a Chicago-based Lucumí community, I argue that through Spiritist ceremonies, African-American participants engaged in memory work and other transformative modes of collective historiographical praxis. I contend that by inserting gospel songs, church hymns, and spirituals into the musical repertoire of misas espirituales, my interlocutors introduced a new group of beings into an existing category of ethnically differentiated ‘spirit guides’. Whether embodied in ritual contexts or cultivated privately through household altars, these spirits not only personify the ancestral dead; I demonstrate that they also mediate between African-American historical experience and the contemporary practice of Yorùbá- and Kongo-inspired religions.

Spiritist Mediumship as Historical Mediation: African-American Pasts, Black Ancestral Presence, and Afro-Cuban Religions

in Journal of Religion in Africa



ApterAndrew ‘Herskovits’s Heritage: Rethinking Syncretism in the African Diaspora’ Diaspora 1991 1 3 235 260

AsadTalal Formations of the Secular: Christianity Islam Modernity 2003 Palo Alto, CA Stanford University Press

BallardEoghan C. ‘Ndoki Bueno Ndoki Malo: Historic and Contemporary Kongo Religion in the African Diaspora’ 2005 Ph.D. thesis University of Pennsylvania

BellCatherine Ritual Theory Ritual Practice 1992 Oxford Oxford University Press

BermúdezArmando Andrés ‘Notas para la historia del espiritismo en Cuba’ Revista de Etnología y Folklore 1967 4 5 22

BoddyJanice ‘Spirit Possession Revisited: Beyond Instrumentality’ Annual Review of Anthropology 1994 23 407 434

BraudeAnn Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America 1989 Boston, MA Beacon Press

BrownDavid H. Santería Enthroned: Art Ritual and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion 2003 Chicago, IL University of Chicago Press

BuckleyAnthony D. Yoruba Medicine 1997 New York Athelia Henrietta Press

CabreraLydia El Monte: Igbo finda ewe orisha vititinfinda 1983 [1954] Miami Colección del Chichereku

CalvinoItalo Invisible Cities 1978 New York Harvest Books

CanizaresRaul Walking with the Night: The Afro Cuban World of Santería 1993 Rochester, VT Destiny Books

CaponeStefania Searching for Africa in Brazil: Power and Tradition in Candomblé 2010 Durham, NC Duke University Press

CarrollBret E. Spiritualism in Antebellum America 1997 Bloomington Indiana University Press

CastellanosJorgeCastellanosIsabel ‘The Geographic, Ethnologic, and Linguistic Roots of Cuban Blacks’ Cuban Studies 1987 17 95 110

CastelliElizabeth A. Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making 2004 New York Columbia University Press

ClarkeKamari Maxine Mapping Yorùbá Networks: Power and Agency in the Making of Transnational Communities 2004 Durham, NC Duke University Press

ComaroffJean Body of Power Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People 1985 Chicago, IL University of Chicago Press

CoxRobert S. Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism 2003 Charlottesville University of Virginia Press

DanforthLoring M. Firewalking and Religious Healing: The Anastenaria of Greece and the American Firewalking Movement 1989 Princeton, NJ Princeton University Press

DantoArthur Analytic Philosophy of History 1965 Cambridge Cambridge University Press

DevischRenaat Weaving the Threads of Life: The Khita Gyn-Eco-Logical Healing Cult among the Yaka 1993 Chicago, IL University of Chicago Press

DianteillErwan ‘Deterritorialization and Reterritorialization of the Orisha Religion in Africa and the New World (Nigeria, Cuba and the United States)’ International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 2002 26 1 121 137

DodsonJualynne E. Sacred Spaces and Religious Traditions in Oriente Cuba 2008 Albuquerque University of New Mexico Press

de CerteauMichel RendallSteven The Practice of Everyday Life 1984 Berkeley University of California Press

EmmonsCharles F. BryantClifton D. ‘The Spiritualist Movement: Bringing the Dead Back’ Handbook of Death and Dying 2003 Thousand Oaks, CA Sage 57 64

ErdogduAyshe HightEleanor M.SampsonGary David ‘Picturing Alterity: Representational Strategies in Victorian Type Photographs of Ottoman Men’ Colonialist Photography: Imag(in)ing Race and Place 2002 London Routledge 107 125

EuellKim ‘Signifyin(g) Ritual: Subverting Stereotypes, Salvaging Icons’ African American Review 1997 31 4 667 675

FabianJohannes Memory Against Culture: Arguments and Reminders 2007 Durham, NC Duke University Press

Fernández OlmosMargariteParavisini-GebertLizabeth Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santeria to Obeah and Espiritismo 2003 New York and London New York University Press

Flores-PeñaYsamur PolkPatrick Arthur ‘“Candles, Flowers and Perfume”: Puerto Rican Spiritism on the Move’ Botánica Los Angeles: Latino Popular Religious Art in the City of Angels 2004 Los Angeles UCLA Fowler Museum

FoucaultMichel SheridanAlan The Archaeology of Knowledge 1972 London Tavistock

GatesHenry Louis The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism 1988 New York Oxford University Press

GreenblattSteven Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England 1988 Berkeley University of California Press

HesseAxel ‘La génesis de las transmisiones espiritistas cubanas y la dialéctica transculturativa en el semiproletariado poliétnico urbano’ Revista Venezolana de Folklore (Caracas) 1975 6 67 91

JohnsonPaul Christopher ‘An Atlantic Genealogy of “Spirit Possession”’ Comparative Studies in Society and History 2011 53 2 393 425

JorgeAngela HarrisJoseph E. ‘La madama francesita: A New World Black Spirit’ Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora 1993 2nd ed. Washington, DC Howard University Press

KardecAllan Collection of Selected Prayers 1975 New York Studium Corp

KardecAllan BlackwellAnna The Spirits’ Book 1989 [1898] Albuquerque, NM Brotherhood of Life Publishing

KellyMichael ‘Mimesis’ The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics 1998 vol. 3 Oxford Oxford University Press

LambekMichael MageoJeannette MarieHowardAlan ‘Afterword: Spirits and Their Histories’ Spirits in Culture History and Mind 1996 London Routledge 237 250

LambekMichael Knowledge and Practice in Mayotte: Local Discourses of Islam Sorcery and Spirit Possession 1993 Toronto University of Toronto Press

LeonardElizabeth Men of Color to Arms! Black Soldiers Indian Wars and the Quest for Equality 2010 New York W.W. Norton

LewisI.M. Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism 1971 Harmondsworth Penguin Books

MahmoodSaba The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject 2005 Princeton, NJ Princeton University Press

MarriottMcKim KapfererBruce ‘Hindu Transactions: Diversity without Dualism’ Transaction and Meaning: Directions in the Anthropology of Exchange and Symbolic Behavior 1976 Philadelphia Institute for the Study of Human Issues 109 142

MasquelierAdeline Prayer Has Spoiled Everything: Possession Power and Identity in an Islamic Town of Niger 2001 Durham, NC Duke University Press

MatoryJ. Lorand ‘Free to Be a Slave: Slavery as Metaphor in the Afro-Atlantic Religions’ Journal of Religion in Africa 2007 37 3 398 425

McIntoshJanet The Edge of Islam: Power Personhood and Ethnoreligious Boundaries on the Kenya Coast 2009 Durham, NC Duke University Press

McPhersonJadele ‘Tiembla Tierra and My Abuela Speak: Ocha, Palo, and Spiritism in Latino Chicago’ 2006 MA thesis University of Chicago

MenocalMaría Rosa Shards of Love: Exile and the Origins of the Lyric 1994 Durham, NC Duke University Press 142 184

MiyazakiHirokazu The Method of Hope: Anthropology Philosophy and Fijian Knowledge 2004 Palo Alto, CA Stanford University Press

MooreDerric Maa Aankh: Finding God the Afro-American Spiritual Way by Honoring the Ancestors and Guardian Spirits 2010 Liberal, KS Four Sons Publications

Moreno VegaMarta ‘Espiritismo in the Puerto Rican Community: A New World Recreation with the Elements of Kongo Ancestor Worship’ Journal of Black Studies 1999 29 3 325 353

MorrisonToni EvansMari ‘Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation’ Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation 1984 New York Doubleday 339 345

NoraPierre ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire’ Representations 1989 26 7 25

ObeyesekereGananath CrapanzanoVincentGarrisonVivian ‘Psychocultural Exegesis of a Case of Spirit Possession in Sri Lanka’ Case Studies in Spirit Possession 1977 New York Wiley 235 394

OchoaTodd Ramón ‘Versions of the Dead: Kalunga in Cuban Kongo Materiality’ Cultural Anthropology 2007 22 4 473 500

PalmiéStephan BinderWolfgang ‘Ethnogenetic Processes and Cultural Transfer in Afro-American Slave Populations’ Slavery in the Americas 1993 Würzburg Königshausen & Neumann 337 433

PalmiéStephan FardonRichard ‘Against Syncretism: Africanizing and Cubanizing Discourses in North American Òrìsà Worship’ Counterworks: Managing the Diversity of Knowledge 1995 London Routledge 73 104

PérezElizabeth ‘Narrative, Seasoning, Song: Praxis, Subjectivity, and Transformation in an African-American Lucumí Community’ 2010 Ph.D. thesis University of Chicago

PietersJürgen Speaking with the Dead: Explorations in Literature and History 2005 Edinburgh University Press

PlacidoBarbara ‘“It’s All to Do with Words”: An Analysis of Spirit Possession in the Venezuelan Cult of Maria Lionza’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2001 7 2 207 224

PolkPatrick A. ‘Jim Crow, Used Up Joe, and Other Ghosts of the Minstrel Show: Performing Blackness in 19th Century Euro-American Spiritualism’ 2009 Unpublished lecture Joint Spring Meeting of the Society for Psychological Anthropology and the Society for the Anthropology of Religion

PooleDeborah Vision Race and Modernity: A Visual Economy of the Andean Image World 1997 Princeton, NJ Princeton University Press

Pouchet PaquetSandra ‘The Ancestor as Foundation in Their Eyes Were Watching God and Tar Baby Callaloo 1990 13 3 499 515

ProrokCarolyn V. ‘Boundaries are Made for Crossing: The Feminized Spatiality of Puerto Rican Espiritismo in New York City’ Gender Place and Culture 2000 7 1 57 79

ReyTerry HeywoodLinda ‘Kongolese Catholic Influences on Haitian Popular Catholicism: A Sociohistorical Exploration’ Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the Atlantic Diaspora 2001 New York Cambridge University Press 265 285

RiveraEdil Torres ‘Espiritismo: The Flywheel of the Puerto Rican Spiritual Traditions’ Revista Interamericana de Psicología/Interamerican Journal of Psychology 2005 39 2 295 300

Rolph-TrouillotMichel Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History 1992 Boston, MA Beacon Press

RománReinaldo L. ‘Governing Man-Gods: Spiritism and the Struggle for Progress in Republican Cuba’ Journal of Religion in Africa 2007a 37 2 212 241

RománReinaldo L. Governing Spirits: Religion Miracles and Spectacles in Cuba and Puerto Rico 1898-1956 2007b Chapel Hill University of North Carolina Press

RombergRaquel Witchcraft and Welfare: Spiritual Capital and the Business of Magic in Modern Puerto Rico 2003 Austin University of Texas Press

RombergRaquel ‘Ritual Piracy or Creolization with an Attitude’ New West Indian Guide 2005 79 3/4 175 218

RosenthalJudy Possession Ecstasy and Law in Ewe Voodoo 1998 Charlottesville University Press of Virginia

RoutonKenneth ‘Conjuring the Past: Slavery and the Historical Imagination in Cuba’ American Ethnologist 2008 35 4 632 649

SchusterMelanie Until the End of Time 2003 New York Kensington Publishing

ScottDavid ‘That Event, This Memory: Notes on the Anthropology of African Diasporas in the New World’ Diasporas 1991 1 3 261 284

SingerMerrillGarciaRoberto McClainC.S. ‘Becoming a Puerto Rican Espiritista: Life History of a Female Healer’ Women as Healers: Cross-Cultural Perspectives 1989 New Brunswick, NJ Rutgers University Press 157 185

StollerPaul ‘Horrific Comedy: Cultural Resistance and the Hauka Movement in Niger’ Ethos 1984 12 165 188

SzafraniecAsja JaurretcheColleen ‘“Wanting in Inanity”: Negativity, Language and “God” in Beckett’ Beckett Joyce and the Art of the Negative (European Joyce Studies 16) 2005 New York Rodopi Press

ThorntonJohn K. The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement 1684-1706 1998 Cambridge Cambridge University Press

ToewsJohn E. ‘Historiography as Exorcism: Conjuring up “Foreign” Worlds and Historicizing Subjects in the Context of the Multiculturalism Debate’ Theory and Society 1998 27 4 535 564

WardenNolan ‘Cajón pa’ los Muertos: Transculturation and Emergent Tradition in Afro-Cuban Ritual Drumming and Song’ 2006 M.A. thesis Tufts University

WardiAnnisa J. ‘Inscription in the Dust: A Gathering of Old Men and Beloved as Ancestral Requiems’ African American Review 2002 36 1 35 53

WehmeyerStephen C. ‘Indian Altars of the Spiritual Church: Kongo Echoes in New Orleans’ African Arts 2000 33 4 62 69 95 96

WehmeyerStephen C. ‘Indian Spirits on the Rock Island Line: Chicago as “Gate of Tradition” for African American Spiritualism in the Gulf South’ 2008 Unpublished lecture American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting

WexlerAnna OlmosMargarite FernándezParavisini-GebertLizabeth ‘Dolls and Healing in a Santería House’ Healing Cultures: Art and Religion as Curative Practices in the Caribbean and Its Diaspora 2001 New York Palgrave Macmillan 89 114

WilsonJeremiah Moses Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History 1998 Cambridge Cambridge University Press

WirtzKristina Silke ‘Divining the Past: The Linguistic Reconstruction of “African” Roots in Diasporic Ritual Registers and Songs’ Journal of Religion in Africa 2007 27 2 240 272

WolcottVictoria W. Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit 2001 Chapel Hill University of North Carolina Press

WrightSylvia ‘The Death of Lady Mondegreen’ Harper’s Magazine 1954 209 1254 48 51


February 28 2004. Most subsequent ethnographic references to Ilé Laroye are based on four years of IRB-approved fieldwork 2005-2009 (Perez 2010). I have changed the name of this community and all my interlocutors for reasons of confidentiality.


. 197828-29.


Personal communication September 22 2006.


Personal communication April 15 2005.


Personal communication October 8 2005.


Personal communication February 4 2006. This statement was made long before Barack Obama’s famous speech on race in Philadelphia in which he mentioned his white grandmother.


Content Metrics

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 119 119 21
Full Text Views 89 89 42
PDF Downloads 9 9 0
EPUB Downloads 1 1 0