Black Brotherhoods in North America: Afro-Iberian and West-Central African Influences

by Jeroen Dewulf


Building on the acknowledgement that many Africans, predominantly in West-Central Africa, had already adopted certain Portuguese cultural and religious elements before they were shipped to the Americas as slaves, this article argues that syncretic Afro-Iberian elements must also have existed among slave communities outside of the Iberian realm in the American diaspora. It explores this possibility with a focus on Afro-Iberian brotherhoods. While it was long assumed that these so-called “black brotherhoods” were associated with slave culture on the Iberian Peninsula and in Latin America only, it can now be confirmed that Afro-Catholic fraternities also flourished in parts of Africa during the Atlantic slave trade era. A comparative analysis of king celebrations in Afro-Iberian brotherhoods with those at Pinkster and Election Day festivals in New York and New England reveals a surprising number of parallels, which leads to the conclusion that these African-American performances may have been rooted in Afro-Iberian traditions brought to North America by the Charter Generations.

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Jeroen Dewulf is an associate professor, director of the Dutch Studies program, and an affiliate of the Centers for African Studies and Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. From 1996 until 2006, he worked at the University of Porto, Portugal, and was a visiting professor at several Brazilian universities. His current research focuses on cultural phenomena relating to the transatlantic slave trade. His book The Pinkster King and the King of Kongo: African-American Performance Culture and the Master-Slave Relationship in Dutch-American Society from New Amsterdam to New York is forthcoming.