The 1990 population census (the most recent available offering a racial breakdown) puts the city’s white population at 3.1 million, it’s Asian population at 500 000, it’s “Black” population at 2.1 million and it’s “Hispanic” population at 1.8 million. Of course these figures are dated, and the proportion of black and Latino residents is substantially higher, by all accounts. The terms “Black” and “Hispanic” however, are a little confusing: The overwhelming majority of those New Yorkers termed “Hispanic” are from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. And here, of course, is one of the best-kept secrets of the African diaspora–Caribbean Latino cultures have maintained their deep roots in Africa. Demographically and culturally then, New York reveals itself as a substantially African metropolis.

Dakar on the Hudson

By Tony Karon

These were some of my earliest explorations of New York’s wondrous secrets.

Take a close look at New York, and it will reveal itself as a city more African in character than any metropolis on the African continent–nowhere else in the world is there a comparable concentration of diverse African experience.

At first glance, the city has a feel familiar to anyone who has lived in an African city. In most of it, the overwhelming majority on the bustling streets are people of colour. Rap, reggae and salsa–all music rooted, originally, in Africa–blare out from every direction, and the sidewalks are jammed with tables on which incense burns and Jamaicans, Senegalese, Malians, Ivoirians and Ghanaians sell everything from religious adornments to cheap sunglasses. Homeless people wander by, transporting the means of their improvised urban existence in supermarket trolleys, while sidewalk hustlers and dagga dealers work their angles. The wealthier (and mostly white) elite spend their days in a few upmarket business and residential enclaves, while poorer people of colour survive in ghettos wracked by drugs, despair and violent crime. Besides the few who live downtown, New Yorkers tend to reside tribally, in neighbourhoods that correspond to specific ethnicities–the city is less a melting pot than a salad bowl. But in this urban chaos in which rules and boundaries are constantly defied and redrawn, something beautiful is created by the simple everyday coexistence–in the fractious world of the late 20th century, New York’s very existence is something of a miracle.

Nowhere is the African family more in conversation with itself than in New York City. That dialogue encompasses the full extended family, incorporating long-lost cousins and even branches who might, at first glance, appear to belong to other families. Sometimes their conversation is raucous and celebratory; other times it is mute, reflective and even cryptic. Sometimes it is imbued with the love and solidarity inherent in any family; at other times it is inflected with the squabbles and feuds common to most families. But the conversation never ceases.

In a city whose character has always been shaped by successive waves of immigrants, that intra-African conversation has become the loudest component of New York’s urban hum.

The 1990 population census (the most recent available offering a racial breakdown) puts the city’s white population at 3.1 million, it’s Asian population at 500 000, it’s “Black” population at 2.1 million and it’s “Hispanic” population at 1.8 million. Of course these figures are dated, and the proportion of black and Latino residents is substantially higher, by all accounts. The terms “Black” and “Hispanic” however, are a little confusing: The overwhelming majority of those New Yorkers termed “Hispanic” are from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. And here, of course, is one of the best-kept secrets of the African diaspora–Caribbean Latino cultures have maintained their deep roots in Africa. Demographically and culturally then, New York reveals itself as a substantially African metropolis.

The Africa of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean has long camouflaged its essence in order to survive in the New World. But that African essence is visible to the curious eye. For example, a pumpkin floating in the East River or a slaughtered chicken left by a crossroads could be dismissed as random urban detritus. But they might also be signs that the gods of the Yoruba make their presence felt in Brooklyn.

The horror of slavery created an African diaspora which, today, consists of over 100 million people. The descendants of those first New World Africans know no African language, instead speaking Spanish, Portuguese, French or English. They live throughout the Americas, from Brazil to Canada–in most of the Caribbean, they are the overwhelming majority. Their skin colour may vary in hue and their customs and traditions may have little surface resemblance to Africa, but Africa is the dominant influence on Caribbean Latino cultures.

Madam Eva, a petite Puerto Rican woman with honey coloured hair and caramel skin, sits behind the counter of her tiny Botanica (stores selling religious artifacts found in all Latino neighbourhoods) on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant area. The shelves of her store are lined with figurines and candles, as well as potions, amulets and oils. All of the artifacts appear to venerate various Catholic saints.

It was that appearance which allowed Yoruba slaves from West Africa to maintain their religion in the new world. Slaves to the Catholic colonies were forced, at gunpoint, to adopt their masters’ religion and forbidden from practicing their own. But the slaves belief system was flexible enough to appear to embrace Catholicism, while actually simply incorporating its symbols into an African cosmology and ritual. The slaves masked their religious practices by choosing a Catholic saint to represent each of the Yoruba gods. So, Shango, the god of thunder and lightning became represented by Santa Barbara; Elegua, the trickster and child god of the path and crossroads became represented (variously) by the Child of Atocha, the Child of Prague and St. Anthony of Padua, Ogun the god of iron became represented by St. Peter and so on. This was not simply a clever subterfuge.

Within the Yoruba belief, the deities of the spirit world manifest themselves on occasion by entering the body (or “riding”) of a believer — this usually occurs during ceremonies involving hours of drumming, chanting and ecstatic dance. Although banned from observing their own religion, the slaves were free to worship the Catholic saints in their own way — with drumming, dance, chanting, singing and other activities designed to maintain the link to the Orishas (Yoruba deities). Raul Canizares, a noted Cuban-American Santeria priest writes: “The Spanish authorities in Cuba tolerated the use of drumming and singing by the slaves without realizing that what the slaves were doing was not entertainment but an extremely powerful religious ritual. Had the Catholic authorities suspected the religious function of the slaves music, they would have forbidden its use and Santeria would never have developed in Cuba.”

Thus the survival of African religion, the heartbeat of African culture, in the Caribbean new world. The practice of Yoruba beliefs under the guise of the veneration of Catholic saints became known as Santeria in Cuba, Voudou in Haiti and Candomble in Brazil.

The drumming of which Canizares writes can still be heard in New York’s parks over weekends–casual passersby may take the drumming for simple revelry by Latinos and Haitians, but it serves as the same channel of communication with the African deities as it did for the first slaves in the New World. Santeria is more than simply a monument to the psychological triumph of the slaves over the brutal arrogance and folly of European “civilization”. It is also the fastest growing religion in the United States today, with New York and Miami its epicentres. A landmark US Supreme Court judgment two years ago confirmed the right of Santeros to practice ritual animal sacrifice, allowing the religion to come out into the open to a greater extent than ever. Salsa music, for example, has always been intimately (but secretly) rooted in the practices of Santeria, but today its lyrics openly celebrate the Orishas. While the numbers of initiated Santeros and Babalawos in New York may number in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of others engage with the system in times of need, visiting the Babalawo for advice and divination of the future, or simply going to the Botanica to buy the candles and potions needed to achieve particular ends.


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