Searching For Roots:: Where Does Africa Stop and the Americas Start?

April 30, 2007

So needless to say I got over myself from my bout of international break down. Funny how a good nights sleep, changing to a private hotelesque room, and some good company can change ones perspective. I went on to have an absolutely FANTASTIC week last week.

Last Thursday, the afternoon began with taking a trip to Pelourinho; the historic center of Salvador. It looks like what I imagine Cuba to look like. We saw block after block of brightly colored crumbling, yet charming old buildings and churches. As we stopped for lunch we met a woman (sweaty, swarmy, wierd, lesbianwhokeptlookingatmyfriendlikeshewasdessert) at the cafe who offered to assist us with a translation of the Portuguese menu seeing how she spoke fluent English. Then she invited herself to our table (which I must note for me was initially a little disconcerting as I am particularly suspicious of strangers while traveling) and started going on about one thing or another. That woman and the craziness that occurred as a result of meeting her deserves its own separate post, but not now.

….Anyway, the day consisted mostly of going to the Afro-Brasilia museum and then we went a Folkloric Show in the San Miguel Theatre in Pelourinho. Both of them were pretty phenomenal for plenty of reasons. The museum gave alot of history in terms of the conditions of the slave trade in Salvador with alot of artifacts and art made from some of the first Africans to arrive in Brazil. The folkloric show was a artful depiction of many different sides of Salvador, the candomble (religion for 80% of Salvadorians) ceremony, capoeria, and carnival. It was fantastic!…however it´s pretty much a touristy thing to do. So the next night we went with said mad crazy sweaty lady (o such a long story) to an authentic candomble ceremony where a woman was being initiated into the religion. Between all three of these events, it was hard not to feel as if I was in Africa. Even the candomble ceremony was in Yoruba (large ethno-linguistic group primarily in Nigeria), since 20% of Salvadorians speak Yoruba.

Most of the slaves dropped off in Brazil were from Nigeria and that rings loud and true in Salvador. It´s such a experience having just left Nigeria a few months ago, and then making the voyage to Brazil. In some ways Salvadorians are more African than the Africans. From what I have read and from what I can discern, one of the large differences between slavery here and in the States is that the Africans were allowed to maintain alot more of their culture. So while we grasp for the strands of Africa left in our black roots in the states, in Salvador they don´t need to look for it because it never left.

The crazy mad woman that we met was saying that a large portion of their visitors are African-Americans who are “looking for roots”, which is exactly what I am here for. When you are traveling around and meeting other travelers, the first thing you do is exchange travel itineraries and the reason how and why you are traveling around. When I met white folks and told them that I was going to Salvador they were always like “hmm, but why there”, I just say for historical purposes and leave it at that. When I tell Black folks that I´m going to Brazil (those who know a bit about the slave trade that is), their first response is “So are you going to Salvador?”, to which I reply of course! I came here knowing that I needed to get here, but I didn´t know exactly what I was trying to see. Nevertheless, I am even more satisfied than I anticipated.

Seeing how I was just in Africa, and then Trinidad, and now Brazil its almost as if I have taken my own little transatlantic journey of the slave trade. My professor from college always spoke about the “footprints of Africa left wherever they dropped us off”, and I now see it with my own eyes. As I´ve watched the parties in Lagos, carnival in Trinidad, and candomble and samba in Brazil there are so many parts that have an eerie familiarity. Candomble ceremonies are so strikingly close to many Black churches (particularly Pentecostal) that it was an even more enlightening experience than I expected, and Carnival even with its madness is damn near a spiritual experience itself.

Looking for Roots, but why? I´ve been wondering that to myself as I´ve been traveling lately, why as Black Americas are there so many of us leaving the country (myself included) trying to discover ourselves in another country? What is this obsession with finding a mystical origin? After being in Brazil it makes perfect sense. There are very few other places in the world where slaves were dropped off and their descendants are outnumbered by those that enslaved/oppressed/colonized…other than Brazil. The difference between Brazil and the US is that they were allowed to keep large parts of their culture so their complete identity wasn´t stripped from them. On the islands Blacks remain the majority so they were in the position to create a new identity. As American Blacks, what were we left with after slavery culture wise? Empty space. We weren´t and still aren´t full fledged card carrying American citizens (I don´t give a damn what the law is), more like the slaves who turned uninvited guest who just just wouldn´t take their asses home. So there is this void that makes us “different” but what sort of history do we have to hang that “difference” on? Hip Hop? Martin Luther King? ok back further, Nat Turner? Somehow all of that is not enough to hang our cultural pride, so we struggle to find out cultural Zen.

…so we search for the part that makes us proud, the part that says we belong, the part that validates our existence for being something other than the unwanted stepchild of a major World Power. Sadly, in that search we are rarely satisfied because some things can never be reclaimed.



  1. Hi,

    Coudn’t find your name.

    Very interesting points of views about Salvador.

    I am a “brazilian-japanese”. All my genetic material came from the land of the rising sun. So when I am travelling abroad nobody assumes that I am actually from the “carvaval futebol e samba” land.

    I am never inconspicuous anywhere I go (I’ve never been to Japan…).

    Even inside Brazil… (I am from São Paulo) it is hard for me to pretend I am “a local” as you manage to do in Salvador.

    “In some ways Salvadorians are more African than the Africans.”

    It is probably true..

    When I am travelling, I have contact with lots of “real” japanese backpackers because they all assume that I am one of them…

    As I don’t speak japanese, the ones that speak english are always intrigued.

    I had lots interesting discussions about the exact same matter.

    It all started when I met a japanese architecture student that was making sketches of European historic buildings in Spain…

    He could talk about Michelangelo, spanish baroque, etc… But when I asked about his favourite movie… expecting some Kurosawa, Ozu, or some other artsy japanese director… he said: “Ghost” (Yes.. the chick flick with erotic ceramics).

    I felt more “japanese” than him.

    That night I had the exact the same feeling… and my theory is:

    Most of japanese came to Brazil before the Second World War (the first ones came in 1908). After the war the “real” japanese got a huge american cultural influence and got less “japanese” (IMHO, a good thing in the political sense… they are no killing other people… and bad in a cultural diversity way… but that is a long discussion).

    Japanese in Brasil are stuck at the pre-Marshall plan japanese culture. My mother speaks perfect japanese… but when she went to Japan everybody found very funny… cause the accent and most expressions she used where from the first half of the 20th century…

    Propably when you are a minority (or not the dominant race) you tend care more about preserving your original culture (maybe is the hope of coming back… ) and things don’t “evolve” like in the former homeland.

    Sorry for my broken english,

    Cogito ergo doleo


  2. no wonder i always see salvadorians getting along with blacks. me being one of them i get along with everybody but i get along mostly with blacks. i never knew about this and thanks for sharing. Next time i go to el salvador i’ll visit the place you went.

  3. What, MLK, Nat Turner and hip hop aren’t enough for you to be proud of? Not to mention jazz, blues, rock, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Angela Davis, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Spike Lee, Obama etc., etc. etc…?

    That feeling of rootless malaise you’re feeling is a transracial AMERICAN feeling and inventing a mythological history isn’t going to make it go away. White Americans feel it too and they don’t start creating grand origin myths about their great-great-whatevers in Bavaria in order to fight against it. Creating lies about your past isn’t the way to empower the future: if there’s one thing that the American experience should have taught everyone by now, it’s that.

    The whole idea of a “roots” African culture is patronizing and even racist. The underlying belief seems to be that “real” African culture is only found as petrified remnant of the 16th century and that everything else created since then has been somehow “fake”. So different from every other people on earth, black people are somehow “cultureless” individuals unless they adhere to cultures which only made sense a half millenium ago?

    Culture doesn’t work that way. Culture is not an object that one has: it’s a series of protocols by which one lives and these protocols are LIVING, MUTATING, MISCEGENATED entities. By any reasonable understanding of culture, hip hop is as “black” (or not) as anything else you can point your finger at.

    And the belief that somehow African culture exists in pure, unsullied form in Brazil? That’s simply nuts. Bahia has 500 years of non-African history behind it and almost every single thing that man can point to as “African” is in fact significantly different from Nigerian culture, past or present.

    This is wholly romantic bullshit which would be funny if it weren’t so pernicious. Pernicious? Yes: it is bad because it denies black Brazilians THEIR OWN HISTORY AND CULTURE as anything other than an appendix of a mythological Mama Africa.

    This is a far more imperialist and sinister way of looking at Brazil than anything which white Americans or Europeans could have dreamed up. Sure, Africa has impacted deeply upon Brazil, but Africans have created something NEW here: something which is not simply a re-run of 16th century Africa. It deserves to be understood as such.

    I wonder if, in your search for “roots”, you have even bothered to read any black Brazilian authors or philosophers? Or does you think that any Black Brazilian who can write literature needs must be a “sell out”?

    I hope you get your head unstuck and begin to realize that if you wants black culture, you need to deal with Brazil and Black America as living, breathing MODERN entities and stop searching for some pure fossilized cultural remnant of what you imagine to be your past.

    It saddens me to think of all the REAL ancestors you are ignoring in your search for your kinté cloth “roots”. To believe that a capoeira roda somehow “culturally” trumps MLK is just sad and deeply ignorant.

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