Criminal Spirit: Formations Of Race And Religion In The Americas

Lucas De Lima, University of Pennsylvania


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.