With counterparts in Nigeria, the Benin Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Trinidad, and the United States, Candomblé is a religion of spirit possession, dance, healing, and blood sacrifice. Most surprising to those who imagine Candomblé and other such religions as the products of anonymous folk memory is the fact that some of this religion's towering leaders and priests have been either well-traveled writers or merchants, whose stake in African-inspired religion was as much commercial as spiritual. Morever, they influenced Africa as much as Brazil. Thus, for centuries, Candomblé and its counterparts have stood at the crux of enormous transnational forces.
Vividly combining history and ethnography, Matory spotlights a so-called "folk" religion defined not by its closure or internal homogeneity but by the diversity of its connections to classes and places often far away. Black Atlantic Religion sets a new standard for the study of transnationalism in its subaltern and often ancient manifestations.
Matory describes the competitive process that hierarchically structures their self-definition as ethnic groups and the similar process by which middle-class African Americans seek distinction from their impoverished compatriots. Drawing on research at universities such as Howard, Harvard, and Duke and among their alumni networks, he details how university life—while facilitating individual upward mobility, touting human equality, and regaling cultural diversity—also perpetuates the cultural standards that historically justified the dominance of some groups over others. Combining his ethnographic findings with classic theoretical insights from Frantz Fanon, Fredrik Barth, Erving Goffman, Pierre Bourdieu and others—alongside stories from his own life in academia—Matory sketches the university as an institution that, particularly through the anthropological vocabulary of culture, encourages the stigmatized to stratify their own.