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Dianne Marie Stewart

Thursday, August 27, 11:30 a.m. | HS 5
From Syncretism to Social Belonging: Retheorizing Tradition and Innovation in African Heritage Religious Cultures of the Caribbean and the Americas

Dianne Stewart

For nearly a century, scholars have argued or assumed that syncretism is a salient feature of African heritage religions throughout the Caribbean and the Americas.  Often asserted to disrupt the notion that “pure” African beliefs and ritual practices were sustained across such religious landscapes, the syncretism theoretical framework is now a fait accompli, a conclusion and a starting point, in African-Caribbean and African-American religious studies.  My paper revisits and interrogates this dominant theoretical footprint in studies of African diaspora heritage religions by analyzing the mechanisms of "tradition" and "innovation" in the history of the appearance and transformation of one such lineage, the Yoruba-Orisa religion in Trinidad. Specifically, I argue that the cosmic-social imperative to belong—to sustain family/kinship within a wider project of nation formation—is perhaps the most enduring and authoritative precept of the common life and spirituality shared by Yoruba-Orisa devotees since their arrival in Trinidad during the nineteenth century.  Giving some attention to analogous conventions and foci in other African diaspora heritage religions, I dispute the conceptual utility of a second-order category such as syncretism for failing to capture the religious orientations, cultural dynamics and epistemological assumptions at work in these institutions from the era of transatlantic slavery to the present day.