The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion, written by Stephan Palmié

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

Stephan Palmié, The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. xxii + 360 pp. (Paper US$27.50)

The Cooking of History articulates Stephan Palmié’s most provocative vision to date, and I find most of it enormously persuasive. Palmié is trenchant (though not disrespectful) in his critique of “widespread and damaging simplifications” of “Afro-Cuban religion” arguing that they rely on a notion of a hypothetical African past that does not match important aspects of its history. It is clear that this book concerns “Afro-Cuban religion,” the way it is being studied, and the way in which practitioners approach it.

Interestingly, however, endorsers claim more and it is not clear to me whether Palmié agrees. For example, Jean Comaroff writes that Palmié “unseats key premises regarding the stability of social science knowledge,” and Robert Hill adds that the book “turns ‘cooking’ into a ‘turning,’ a turning upside down of the stale, conventional story based on the idea of cultural holism, and replaces the idea of cultural endowment and transmission with the idea of an analytic space or ‘ethnographic interface’ as the locus of the creation of the episteme called ‘Afro-Cuban religion.’” Paul Christopher Johnson sees this as “a radical critique of anthropological knowing and its time-honored techniques of cookery and, dare we say it, crockery.”

Palmié is quite thorough and compelling, but I think readers also need to contemplate the larger claim that others have made. As a critique of the study of “Afro-Cuban religion,” this book is directly and indirectly about contemporary perceptions of Africa, race, Africanism(s), and indeed the mass slave system that brought so many Africans to the Americas in the first place. It critiques legacies of scholarship many of us prefer to think are things of the past, and targets both scholars and nonscholars who persist in viewing anything with African origins as African, perpetuating a notion of origin, historicity, source, and indeed authenticity in ways that seem less likely when contemplating other places with other histories. Palmié clearly takes on the “thing” generally called “Afro-Cuban religion,” but in so doing also, in my view, takes on contemporary scholarly and nonscholarly conceptions of Africa, especially in the African diaspora.

The book consists of five substantive chapters, a meaty introduction and a 31-page “coda” (titled “Ackee and Saltfish vs. Amala con Quimbombo, or More Foods for Thought”), followed by an epilogue, many endnotes, references, and an index. Chapter 1 takes on “Yoruba origins” focusing both on scholarship that looks for “origins” and on the objectification of the Yoruba, especially in the Americas and in the twentieth century. Chapter 2 addresses Fernando Ortiz, the person he was and the scholar currently being read, consumed, and used. Chapter 3 challenges some versions of “syncretism” Palmié considers widespread and dangerous, a topic he has taken up elsewhere but fittingly includes here, too. Chapter 4 explores race and color, officially of “the gods” but more with respect to late twentieth-century U.S. conceptions of race, including those that tie Africanity to “blackness.” And Chapter 5 (intriguingly but elusively titled “Afronauts of the Virtual Atlantic: The Giant African Snail Incident, the War of the Oriates, and the Plague of Orichas”) explores a current schism engaging ordained, lay, and scholarly practitioners of “the Lukumi tradition”/the “Afro-Cuban religion” (a large part of it occurring on the Internet).

Palmié does a very effective job in Chapter 5 discussing the ins and outs of “The YTR Challenge” (that is, the challenge currently being posed by “the Yoruba Traditional Religion”), the “outcry among Miami’s practitioners of regla de ocha” (p. 177), and the questions of legitimacy, change, “the race card,” and the centrality of Cubanness in “Afro-Cuban” religious practice, ritual, and objectification. As Palmié puts it, “theirs still is very much a struggle over authentification and authorization” (p. 179). That this discussion comes late in the book is telling and not just because it is so recent (beginning in 2009). To some a contemporary split among Miami-based “santeros” might be worrisome, a sign of a religion falling apart, or even the key reason Palmié wrote this book, but I do not get the sense that Palmié would agree and I find him convincing in presenting this just as an illustration of a longstanding pattern, a characteristic he attributes to these religious formations associated by all, at least in part, with Africa—that they are always “in flux” and “always on the way to a novel predicament” (p. 221).

To focus on “origins” might be something some scholars, priests, and practitioners do, and the social, historical, political, and economic context of those claims and arguments matters to Palmié, but flux and change, he argues, are what one really sees if one looks carefully at the historical data in Cuba, in West Africa, and in the United States.

At times Palmié is forceful but at times he pulls back, I sense out of respect for practitioners he knows, respects, and has befriended. This creates a bit of a conundrum for me as a reader. Palmié does indeed want to slay dragons, while being respectful of people who may well not agree (including scholars and practitioners of one or another objectification of an “Afro-Cuban religion”). The mix is disarming, but does one desire win out over the other? I think it does, and I do not know at what risk to Palmié.

Consider his epilogue. Opening with apparent doubt, Palmié writes, “Where, then, does that leave us? Have I managed to slay the dragons I set out to tackle? Maybe not. But perhaps I managed to put them in perspective” (p. 253). The question is what the implications are of putting them “in perspective.” Putting it in Latourean terms, he writes, “who in the world could nowadays dispense with ‘lactic fermentation’ any more than he or she could … do away with ‘Afro-Cuban religion,’ the legally recognized American denomination constituted by the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye or, for that matter, entities such as Iyami Ochoronga, once its rituals and powers have become facts to be reckoned with?” (p. 261). The point is both specific and quite broad, but 100 percent analytical, and it is just as much about race, class, nation, and religion, anthropological arguments about social construction notwithstanding. Palmié struggles here, though I am sympathetic with his struggle. On p. 261 he writes, “That we have brought them into being as knowable objects, at oftentimes specifiable historical moments, does not mean that they are not here to stay. At least for the foreseeable future, we’ll have to live with them, for better or for worse.” He is right, I think, but it is obvious that his main message is that there are many ways of “cooking” history and, even more importantly, many ways contemporary scholars are mistakenly studying “Afro-Cuban religion.”

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