Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Comparative Literature and Literary Theory

First Advisor

Emily Wilson


This dissertation examines how understandings of spirit possession across the Americas mark secular modernity’s racial limits. I argue that the criminalization of possession religions such as Candomblé and Santería solidified racial/religious classification in post-abolition Brazil and Cuba. By codifying rivaling cosmologies and the fear of Blackness, antispiritism encapsulated hemispheric racial imaginaries. Forged against the permeability and unfreedom of Black bodies/spirits, the nation-state hinged on a bounded model of personhood. Producing transcendental whiteness vis-à-vis corporeal Blackness, the Western genealogy of spirit possession shapes the ways white-authored texts encode race. From eugenics to the celebratory ethos of hybridity, racial discourses uphold hierarchy even as they idealize miscegenation in the 1920s, invoking a utopian alternative to segregation in the US. To interrogate this construction of racial paradise and its quasi-secular underpinnings, I turn to Black and brown actors who take up queer, feminist, and Afro-diasporic aesthetics of the sacred. Analyzing medical literature, literary and sociological texts, and visual art from the 1920s to the contemporary era, I situate possession religions as an epistemological nexus between the US and Latin America. By activating spirit knowledges, writers and artists such as Adão Ventura and Ana Mendieta navigate a raced sense of time and space beyond Enlightenment thought.


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