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Homecoming: Bahia 2011

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
November 22, 2011

For the past week I have been visiting Salvador, Bahia, Brazil as a guest of the FUNAG, an independent foundation of the Brazilian Foreign Ministry. I was invited to participate in AfroXX1, a celebration of the United Nations "Year of the People of African Descent"; my having written a chapter in African Heritage in the making of National Identity in Brazil and the Caribbean, a book that was commissioned for the event. My contribution is entitled: "African Heritage in the Making of the Trinidad and Tobago's Identity."

Bahia is the heart of Africanness in the New World, the first Africans arriving in Brazil in the sixteenth century. It was the first place the sin of sugar and slavery marked our lives. It was a time when "plantations were flourishing on a land fertilized by with corpses and blood" (Jorge Amado). C. L. R. James has argued that sugar and slavery have shaped our identities in these Americas.

Even before Africans landed in the New World they fought for their freedom aboad the ships that brought us here. Prior to the Haitian Revolution, African people in Brazil under the leadership of Zumbi of Palmares, captured the city for six months before they were forced to retreat under the onslaught of the overwhelming power of the Portuguese.

Today, in the Plaza de Se, one of the main squares of Salvador, there stands a proud statue of Zumbi who set the stage for the eventual liberation of Black people in the New World. Similarly, there ought to be a statue of the invincible Daaga who together with his fellow Africans revolted in St. Joseph against the enslavement of his people in 1837.

Many papers were delivered at this conference on the role of African heritage in shaping the national identities of the people in the various territories in the region. The presentations of Trinidadian Maureen Warner-Lewis, one of our most knowledgeable scholars on African retentions, Christopher Jules de Riggs (Grenada) and Richard Goodridge of Barbados were well-received.

Nighttime, however, was more important. Many events, together with the continuous music and dancing, took place in the Pelourinho, the part of the city that the slaves built. As I rambled through the old town houses of the district and walked somewhat gingerly along its stone-paved streets that were built by the enslaved, I could not help but think of our mutual African origins. Even today, the grit, the majesty and the beauty of that city remains; a product of the talent of our ancestors but also a reminder of the million gallons of blood that Africans spilt in the name of profits for their European colonizers.

Every nook and cranny of the Pelourinho were filled with music and dance. Never before have I been in a place, except on the continent of Africa and perhaps New Orleans, in which Africa has been so fully represented in the arts, the culture and ways of life. Listening to the music and viewing the dances of the people of Bahia, Bob Marley's lyrics and music came to mind. In "Trench Town" he reminded us that we, or at least he, "free the people with music."

In places like Bahia, the black belt of the United States, and the Caribbean, music is not only a manifestation of the lyrical souls of the people. It represents an impulse to be free. Most of our musics—be they the spirituals, the calypso, jazz or samba—always speak to the liberating possibilities of our people. It is an outward manifestation of an inward life-giving and life-asserting dimension of our being.

But a people are also its religion. In Bahia, candomble is always so palpably present. African people brought candomble with them from the gulf of Benin and Angola. It's a religion that combines the sacred and the mundane in the lives of its adherents. Like Shango in Trinidad, candomble has always posed a threat to the colonial authorities. And, as in Trinidad and Tobago, it took many years before its adherents could practice their religion without being hauled to jail and humiliated in public places.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that it was only in 1976 that the police were forbidden from interfering with the religious practices of these people. In 1989, their rights were enshrined into the Brazilian constitution. So that when Sat and his minions continue to marginalize Africans in Trinidad and Tobago and prevent them from attending their schools, they are only practicing a form of exclusion that has been inherent in our history from the time Africans landed in the New World in the sixteenth century.

Bahia is bursting with emanations of African culture. In the center of the Pelourinho stands the home of Jorge Amado, one of the most famous Brazilian writers who chronicled the Bahian ways of life in his many novels. Twenty-five years ago, the Foundation House of Jorge Amado was set up to preserve and make known Amado's work. At the House of Jorge Amado every incident of his life is chronicled as it attempts to catalog his work and make it accessible to the public. Here, too, I could not but hope that we could do a similar thing for V. S. Naipaul. He remains our best writer.

In his work, Amado spoke of the "men and women who have brought from the depth of darkness, on their wounded shoulders so much beauty saved and kept by them for us. Every time I listen to those songs of the famous musicians of today, with so many orisias hanging around, with so much candomble rhythm, so much poetry stolen from the streets of Bahia, I ask myself if these happy composers have any idea of the epic experience of Brazilian Africans."

Sitting in Jorge Amado's house, I wish that we could see the beauty of our African brothers and sisters and derive a similar lesson from their lives. Some day it would happen and we, as a country, will be better for it.

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