The conventional dichotomy between the “religious” and the “secular” is not a cross-cultural universal. Rather, as Talal Asad points out in Genealogies of Religion (1993), this dichotomy and the definition of religions as “belief” systems are products of a specifically Protestant viewpoint and of recent Western efforts to exclude particular beliefs from the armature of the state.
By including a category of “secular” objects in this exhibition of sacred objects and beings, we are not defending this dichotomy or the premise of its objectivity. Rather, we do so, first, because many visitors begin with the conception that religions are a distinct modality of knowing, acting and being and, second, because the Afro-Atlantic realities presented here trouble this conception. In sum, we hope you will recognize, through the Afro-Atlantic example, the deep interdigitation of between supposedly secular imagery of the nation-state and the supposedly religious imagery that we tend to regard as alien to modern political arrangements.
The heart of these Afro-Atlantic traditions is the definition, the making, and re-design of human agents. All of these traditions assume that each such agent lives at the intersection of visible and invisible worlds and cannot thrive in either world without being effective in the other. Most Afro-Atlantic worshipers live under the authority of nation-states that classify themselves as secular and in economies focused on the production and sale of worldly commodities. However, in all of those nation-states and economies, representations of racial and ethnic difference are central to the assignment of political belonging and other rights that affect who is entitled to do what.
Though the motives behind the production and distribution of these images is explicitly commercial, images and tokens of the black other and of popular religions are a deeply effective and often transformative vocabulary of the citizen-self in the secular nation-state—as often an anti-type of the proper citizen as it is a folkloric mascot of national autochthony and autonomy. Moreover, black people and the practitioners of such religions cannot ignore how they are seen by the producers and the buyers of such imagery. Ritual definitions and transformations of the Afro-Atlantic self may resist these secular representations. Equally often, though, they incorporate these images in the ritual re-making of Afro-Atlantic selves and, through gifting, in the building of local and international relationships that are no less religious than secular.