The Yoruba have become truly global: in terms of their locations in different parts of the world; the representations of various aspects of their culture (including religion, art, music, dress, and cuisine), in these locations; the emergence of distinctive Yoruba Orisa traditions in the Americas; the physical presence, in various parts of the world, of the descendants of Yoruba people taken as slaves and now as voluntary migrants in the contemporary era; and the integration of Yoruba in African studies, Diaspora Studies, the Black Atlantic, and Atlantic history.
The geographic location of this lecture is the Atlantic, a site that unites the Yoruba in Nigeria with the coastal areas of West Africa, with Europe, and the Americas. Within this Atlantic unit, the Yoruba are located far and wide, not just along the coastlines but in the hinterland as well. The Yoruba in diaspora reveal to us profound imaginations of diasporic movements and connections, the process and outcome of cultural hybridization and identity formation, and the strategies of adaptation and social integration in diverse locations in different historical formations.
The massive expansion of the Yoruba occurred in the context of the four continents united by the Atlantic Ocean. The Yoruba were among the African slaves drawn from Central and West Africa and tragically relocated to the Americas. As the enslaved, they were funneled to the Atlantic. After the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, secondary migrations occurred as freed slaves returned to West Africa, and thousands migrated within various countries in the Atlantic World.
In my co-edited book, The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World, the contributors have examined the history of the Yoruba in different countries. The slave trade violently took the Yoruba to several places in the Americas: Brazil, Cuba, Uruguay, Argentina, Haiti, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States. There are characteristics and patterns. The breakdown reflects the following: first is location, a) in an extensive land mass from Rio de la Plata in South America to the Chesapeake Bay in North America, and small islands in the West Indies; b) in North America, areas of concentrations were in Virginia, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina; c) in Central America, the Yoruba were taken to Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua; d) in South America, the Yoruba were found in Brazil, Suriname, Guyana and Venezuala; and e) in the West Indies, they were taken to Cuba, St. Lucia, Saint-Domingo (Haiti), Barbados, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago. A second relevant aspect is concentration: in sizeable numbers in relation to the totality of African slaves, the Yoruba were concentrated in three places—Bahia in Brazil, Cuba, and Saint-Domingue. In these places, their value was mainly in their labor, working on plantations and processing firms that produced sugarcane, sugar, tobacco, cotton and other profitable crops; in mines, as domestic servants; and in such other economic sectors as ports and commerce.
While the Yoruba cultural influences were the strongest in Cuba, Bahia, and Saint-Domingue, they equally established a noticeable impact in other places where their numbers were smaller. Some impacts were Yoruba-based, that is, based on elements that we can define primarily as Yoruba. Other newer influences were part of the creolization of cultures as the Yoruba interacted with slaves from other African ethnicities and with European-derived cultures and institutions such as the church and family.
Presence is one thing, impact is another. Be it in Brazil or the United States, the diversity of those countries, even when not recognized, is grounded in the multiple histories and experiences of different groups and ethnicities from various countries. Among the citizens in these places are people with Yoruba roots. Where the roots are denied or unappreciated, or simply not known, alienation develops. This consciousness has been expressed time and again in various poems, essays, and texts to underscore how diaspora groups seek recognition, self-depiction, collective affirmation, and cultural authenticity.
Where the demographic presence made it possible, the Yoruba formed communities, and reinvented a new “nation” with its own king, chiefs, and rules. They formed an identity that others recognized, defined as Yoruba, which meant that they were able to transfer and negotiate an identity for themselves. In Brazil, the Nago, and in Cuba, the Lucumi established considerable impact on religion, orality, families and social institutions. The Nago built various communities linked by elements of Yoruba culture—language, facial marks, celebrations, names, origin mythologies, drums, songs, music, and more. The Yoruba gods and goddesses became defined as pan-Yoruba and migrated into an overarching religion of Candomblé, which in turn was used to reinforce Yoruba ethnicity.
Whether by orality or literacy, the Yoruba have contributed to developments and discussions of religion, culture, ethnicity, gender, and other issues that define migrations, globalization, and multiculturalism. These discussions foreground the reality of culture as a mosaic. Thus, on the one hand, they adopted cultural elements from their hosts and demonstrated the dictum, “when-in-Rome-behave-as-Romans” formula. By so doing, they respected other peoples and their cultures and knew what to take from them. There was no desire to pursue a project of ethnic absolutism. On the other hand, they sought to promote and protect what they regarded as the core values of their cultures. In combining those two options—borrowing and maintaining—the Yoruba affirmed the principles of assimilation and cultural retention, of creolization.
Within the duel framework of assimilation and retention, came the seeds for nationalist resistance. Countless Yoruba women and men of courage engaged in processes of cultural rebirth and collective affirmation. As stifling and crippling as the plantation systems were, there were a number of Yoruba people who demonstrated enormous courage in rebelling against enslavement and domination. The condition of slavery gave birth to cultural expressions that tapped into Yoruba ideas, practices and history, making language and religious practices resilient in the face of powerful attacks. These expressions were in turn nurtured by a sense of nostalgia, the search for liberation. Even to worship a Yoruba god was interpreted by those in power as a militant expression. Mythologies became very powerful devices of remembering, of re-enacting aspects of the past, of formulating practices for the future, of aesthetic imagination. Mythologies supplied the basis for creating ideologies of acculturation to Yoruba identity outside of the Yoruba homeland.
Enslaved communities, as with colonized subjects, are ridiculed by those in power. To fight back, the Yoruba turned to their mythologies to indict slave masters and colonizers, and to ridicule the culture imposed on them. In turning to Yoruba gods, they subverted repressive forces and actors. In creating hybrid religious forms, they borrowed clandestinely to accept a culture and then strategically reinvent it. Turning Yoruba gods into the equivalences of Catholic saints was not in any way an affirmation of the inferiority of their own heritage nor dependency on a borrowed one, but a recognition of their own in a way that relocate them to the center of worship. They were not making a plea for Sango or Yemoja to be recognized by repressive forces but that such forces were powerless to destroy their own heritage. By turning to their own history and drawing from it to construct a cultural presence, they created the legitimacy for Yoruba practices to spread globally. Indeed, the Yoruba were critical of themselves as they sought new ways to practice culture, debating issues around authenticity and orthodoxy, but in the process they legitimized their presence and successfully reproduced their culture for over five hundred years. Outsiders to the cultures ultimately accepted Yoruba practices, and by the twentieth century they became part of legitimate academic fields.
Cultural manifestations translated into a myriad of concrete actions, most notably of slave revolts. The Yoruba were among those agile and free blacks who played leadership roles in a number of revolutionary actions in and around the Americas. Violent insurrections involved the ability of the leaders to mobilize other slaves and to build alliances with free people of color. Jane Landers described these revolutionaries as “Atlantic creoles,” and provided evidence for the 18th century of how, among others, Yoruba royalists, maroons, and counter-revolutionaries fought against the slave system, gained freedom, and even established autonomy for themselves. Among them were José Antonio Aponte, a famous Yoruba who led the 1812 revolt against slavery in Havana Cuba, and Juan Nepomeceno Prieto, the well-known leader of a Yoruba brotherhood called the Lucumi, also in Cuba.
A linkage has been established between conflicts in Africa, enslavement and migration patterns. A link has also been established between the military and cultural background of slaves and major slave revolts, as in the 1739 Stono Revolt in South Carolina, the Haitian Revolution of 1804, the Aponte rebellion in Cuba in 1812, and the 1835 Malé revolt in Brazil. We can see the role of the Yoruba in some of these. The 1812 rebellion in Cuba was connected to the Yoruba. During the 18th century, the Oyo Empire made thousands captives who were then sold as slaves in the Atlantic slave trade. Slaves were also sold in the first three decades of the nineteenth century, captives from the wars that led to the fall of Oyo and the struggles by its successor states, notably Ibadan and Ijaye, for dominance. Many of these slaves made it to Cuba.
In moments of protest and violence, the consequences were drastic, but they ended more in the display of courage and resoluteness. In the Aponte rebellion, the authorities executed the twelve leaders, whipped many insurgents, and threw them into prison. The aspirations for freedom and justice were not killed whether in Cuba, Brazil, or the United States. To make a point, the authorities executed thirty-four protesters and publicly humiliated seventy-eight of them by whipping, and putting one hundred and seventy in prison. Loyal slaves were also rewarded with freedom, although their masters had to be paid by the colonial authorities, judicial officials, and some citizens who donated money. However, the rewards did not stop the acts of resistance. In 1835, the Yoruba again revolted in Havana to seek an end to slavery and overthrow the government. Fearful of more uprisings, some slave masters began to call on Spain to end slavery while others called for greater vigilance.
Many Yoruba also used legal and political means to protest slavery, and to fight for abolition, as in the case of the Afro-Brazilian Luiz Goma, a politician, lawyer and writer who died in 1882, six years before the proclamation of abolition. The activities of Goma have even been compared with those of Frederick Douglass in the United States.
Furthermore, radical politics continued in the post-slavery years, expressed in various forms during the twentieth century. The expression of “Africanity” has generated both political and cultural movements in all countries where the Yoruba can be found.
Forced relocation brought about by the Atlantic slave trade and the colonial subjugation by European powers imposed a certain kind of history on slaves and colonial subjects. It is a history of domination, one that attempts to erase the history of slaves and subjects, destroying their archives, and trivializing their subjectivity as agents of change.
Exploited and dominated people were presented as primitive, foolish, lazy, and incompetent, creating a damaged image as a justification for domination and exploitation. Irrespective of where they came from in Africa, the generic name of “black” was imposed on them, a way of asking them to forget where they came from and to accept a homogenous debased identity. In rejecting a blanket racial category, the Yoruba opted for a “nation” instead, in which they defined themselves in specific terms, and were accepted as such by slaves from other African groups. In this definition, history and memory played a significant role: they had a sense of geographical place of origin, the breakdown of their specific culture, and of course the use of language. Even with the minimal material objects they carried with them in support of their religions and worldview, they had memory to support their belief system: the memories of their practices, rites and rituals, myths, tales and proverbs; lyrics and rhythms; architecture and sculptures; and other vectors of religious philosophy.
Regenerative projects are the conquest of humiliation and tragic histories, displaying how the Yoruba who survived the trauma of the Atlantic slave trade and the racism that followed have become triumphant. Enslaved subjects in the Americas saw in Yoruba mythologies and religions resources to escape degeneration. To escape, they needed to preserve Yoruba inheritances, using various elements as combative instruments.
Regeneration is not just about affirming past heritage, but also about new inventions and creativities. The Yoruba in the diapora have redefined and expanded the boundaries of Yorubaness. In taking Sango and Ogun abroad, they globalized the gods. They are no longer gods localized in fixed towns of Oyo and Ire as mythical origins but redefined in regionalist and Atlantic terms as religions of the Yoruba in Havana and Miami. The cults of Osun and Yemonja have also traveled far and wide doubling as part of the Orisa, and also as the radical politics of using gendered religion to advance feminist and liberational politics.
The reimagining of the gods and goddesses outside of the Yoruba homeland creates many new practices for worshiping, making sacrifices, and communicating with the spiritual world. What the gods and goddesses can do for devotees has become endless, adjusted to meet the demands of the contemporary moment. As enunciated by various Yoruba religious leaders, the Yoruba believe, among others, in the orisa, divination, magic, the use of herbs, a supreme being, ritual songs and dance, and the power of the ancestors. In Brazil, Candomblé reflects elements of Yoruba religion, expressed in divination, healing, music, spirit possession, and sacrifice.
The Yoruba are outsiders within various other cultures in different parts of the world. The narratives of existence have become so diverse, so complex, that mythologies that sustain the Yoruba as insiders within cultures such as the Oduduwa origin story may not be sufficient or always useful with the Yoruba who are outsiders within cultures where they live in multiracial, multiethnic, and transnational spaces where an individual can proclaim that other civilizations are of me and mine.
The historical layers, as the older diaspora has demonstrated, are many. The new Yoruba in the West are recent immigrants, mainly in their first generation. They are transnationalists who talk about their Yoruba homeland and their new adopted homeland. Some present narratives that tend to imply that they carry multiple personalities of transnationalism in one body. The reconciliation of the multiple personalities entails a host of different strategies by various individuals, although globalization has provided limitless opportunities to recreate “home” in multiple locations.
Today, the Yoruba world is dominated by the young, our future. But the young are decreasingly active in Yoruba culture, far more exposed to Western culture, disconnecting their intellectual interest from indigenous ideas. Yoruba history and culture must be integrated into major studies irrespective of the future careers of students. The process of cultural immersion advances the project of cultural reproduction, enabling critical engagement with stories, legends, mythologies, proverbs, and rituals to affirm the value of the past and to minimize the burden of modernity. Expressions of cultural identity cannot be neutral in the context of globalization and Western cultural hegemony. Neither can they be neutral in the context of a growing generation of parents in cities who are disconnected from reproducing the Yoruba language and its values. Cultural competitions can close the gap between generations (as youth engage with adults as audience) and also between creativity, thought, and fragmented human lives. They can bring back forgotten voices of the past, thereby raising consciousness about the past and the present. We will certainly discover excellence in youth and creativity in ways that will advance our lives and thoughts.
We have to culturalize ourselves before we can culturalize others. The past must always have a useful function. Places that the Yoruba call “home” have expanded far beyond the geographic space of southwestern Nigeria. Those within the original homeland who invented the Isese (original traditions) have to find lasting values in them. Those “abroad” have to find value in their hybridity, combining Yoruba with elements of the culture where they live. All have to find values in continuity and change, developing the techniques to accept contradictions and ambiguities in the evolution of new cultures, popular cultures, and youth behavior. Changes will come, but locality remains as well. Modernist theories that older traditions and religions will just fade away have been proven wrong by the resilience of culture. Globalization theories that predicted the disappearance of the local are not correct either. Cultures and ethnicities remain powerful. Nationalism has been formulated around the two of them. It is how people understand themselves and their heritage that shapes how they understand others.
Our vision of modernity, as Yoruba, must remain expansive, accommodating, receptive to change, and progressive. As those at home and abroad see themselves in the framework of a “nation,” they should continue to learn from one another, interact on the basis of common interest, share ideas to promote development and innovations, and minimize divisive conflicts, while promoting competition. The Yoruba live within national, regional, continental, and global universes, as members of diverse spaces: trans-ethnic, trans-national, trans-cultural, even trans-racial. All these spaces have to be managed, but they also have to be crossed to benefit one another, to promote peace, and to minimize conflicts. We must rework the relationships between the Yoruba insiders within culture and the Yoruba outsiders within cultures so that we can merge our interests in all the locations, all the centers, and all the margins in order to create a genuine dialogue in the promotion of Yoruba humanity and progress.
• Abridged version of 2012 J. F. Odunjo Lecture, University of Ibadan, May 7, 2012. Toyin Falola University Distinguished Professor and The Frances Higginbotham Nalle Centennial Professor in History, University of Texas at Austin