Authored by DPDF 2007 Black Atlantic Studies co-director, Andrew Apter.
It is an anthropological truism that ethnic identity is “other”-oriented, such that who we are rests on who we are not. Within this vein, the development of Yoruba identity in the late nineteenth century is attributed to Fulani perspectives on their Oyo neighbors, Christian missionaries and the politics of conversion, as well as Yoruba descendants in diaspora reconnecting with their West African homeland. In this essay, my aim is to both complement and destabilize these externalist perspectives by focusing on Yoruba concepts of “home” and “house” (ilé), relating residence, genealogy and regional identities to their reconstituted ritual frameworks in Cuba and Brazil. Following Barber’s analysis of Yoruba praise-poetry (oríkì) and Verran’s work on Yoruba quantification, I reexamine the semantics of the category ilé in the emergence of Lucumí and Nagô houses in order to explain their sociopolitical impact and illuminate transpositions of racial “cleansing” and ritual purity in Candomblé and Santería. More broadly, the essay shows how culturally specific or “internal” epistemological orientations play an important if neglected role in shaping Atlantic ethnicities and their historical trajectories.