Exploring a Year in White: 7 Questions for C. Lynn Carr

In our interview series, “Seven Questions,” we ask some very smart people about what inspires them and how their latest work enhances our understanding of the sacred in cultural life. For this segment, we solicited responses from C. Lynn Carr, author of A Year in White: Cultural Newcomers to Lukumi and Santería (Rutgers University Press, 2016). 

1. What sparked the idea for writing this book?

A Year in White is an intimate exploration of the 52 weeks that follow the seven-day priestly initiation ceremony called kariocha in the Lukumi religious tradition in the United States. Also known as Santería, Regla de Ocha, Lucumi, and simply “Ocha,” Lukumi is a variety of Orisha worship that travelled – through slavery and revolution – from Yoruba speakers in West Africa to Cuba and then to the U.S.  Orisha are believed to be aspects of –or intercessors to— the divine, that are aligned with natural forces, and are considered to have specific arenas of human life that they influence. (For example, the Orisha Chango, to whom I have been especially dedicated in the kariocha, is associated with thunder and sometimes with fire, leadership, the drum and dance, persuasive speech, and masculine sexuality. Other important Orisha include Eleggua, who sits at the crossroads and offers opportunities and lessons; Oshun, the lady of the river, whose domain includes feminine sexuality, the blood in ones veins, and all that is sweet in life; Ochossi, the hunter, protector of animals and seeker of justice; Oya, ruler of the winds, the cemetery, and the marketplace; Ogun, the smith and soldier, connected to hard work, iron, the knife, protection, surgery, and technology; Obatala, the father, offering wisdom, tranquility, and clarity; and Yemaya, the nurturing – and sometimes fierce – ocean mother.) The year in white, also called the yaworaje, is a 365 day stint following the Lukumi priestly initiation ceremony, during which initiates – who lose their names for the year and are called only iyawo (Yoruba for “bride”) — must wear only white and are subject to numerous social restrictions. In the book I draw on diverse, rich stories from 52 in-depth interviews, almost 200 survey responses, and my own experiences, to describe how cultural newcomers and natives to the religion thought, felt, and acted with regard to the year in white, and how the practice gradually transforms their identities.

I first became intrigued by Afro-Cuban Orisha worship upon encountering it at a festival. Drawn in by the rich culture, music, and intricacies of the tradition, I decided to interview Orisha devotees for a research project on religious identification. Using a grounded theory approach, where the researcher begins with a broad topic but allows the specific thesis and direction of the research to evolve, I consulted with cultural newcomers to these religious traditions – people who had joined Lukumi or other Orisha religious paths as adults.  I asked about how they were introduced into religious communities with historical habits of secrecy, and about whether their entry into the traditions seemed difficult or easy. I invited them to speak about what attracted them to these paths and what difficulties they encountered along the way. I questioned those who experienced the year in white about what was the best and most difficult about the year, why they undertook the commitment and expense of the kariocha and the yaworaje, and how they experienced it. From all, I inquired about issues of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and language – and how they affected their religious experiences. In asking these questions, I sought answers to my own:  What attracted me to ideas and practices so foreign to those in which I was raised? How could I handle the conflicts and differences between my Jewish upbringing and the practices of Orisha veneration – including, for example, spirit embodiment (“possession” of priests by Orisha), worship through drum and dance, incorporation of the divine into stones, and divination with cowrie shells? How could I reconcile a religious worldview that was so distinct from rational, scientific, and mainstream, secular understandings?

As my research progressed I also became more personally involved in Lukumi variants of Orisha devotion. It was a few years into my research, after I had undergone the priestly initiation ceremony and during my yaworaje, that I was inspired to refine the research emphasis. As is customary in my religious house for priestly initiates in the first few months of the year in white, I was sleeping on the floor on a mat beside the containers housing my newly born Orisha. One morning I arose with an epiphany about how I should focus my analysis of the 900+ pages of interview transcripts I had thus far gathered – and that was the year in white. “What was more sociologically interesting than the stories of the many iyawo, who – despite their lives as pastry chefs, graduate students, construction workers, nail stylists, nurses, retail managers, lawyers, accountants, social workers, teachers, business owners, police officers, artists, librarians, bartenders, legal secretaries, interior designers, psychiatrists, and medical assistants in the postindustrial U.S. – were arising after nights spent sleeping on mats upon hard floors, taking their meals on those same mats, and were for an entire year, wearing white exclusively, shunning the dark, spurning forks at meals, and keeping the rain from falling on their heads? What did such practices among people not raised in Lukumi tradition tell us about religious identification in the U.S. today? What varied stories of triumph and toil, salvation and frustration were hiding underneath protective layers of white?” (p. 9)

2. How would you define religion in relation to your work? Where do you see the sacred or sacred things in this book?

A Year in White is an example of “lived religion,” exploring how the sacred, as created in the transformative Lukumi priestly initiation ceremony, becomes part of everyday life for the new initiate going through the yaworaje. In this way, the sacred infuses the mundane, and religion is something that not only occurs within ritual performance and in temples: “Religious expression happens at home, on the streets, at work and school, in artistic performances, in financial dealings, at the playground and the gym, and in the grocery” (p. 23).

Noteworthy regarding the sacred in the book is the Lukumi idea that sparks of particular aspects of divinity are incorporated into iyawo during the kariocha priestly initiation ceremony. As a result, the sacred becomes something that grows within religious practitioners, and is something they carry with them everywhere. A specific example of how this is recognized by Lukumi during the yaworaje is through prohibitions against touch and exchange. For a year following the initiation, initiates are told to avoid physical contact from other adults who have not gone through the priestly initiation themselves. Moreover, they are instructed not to take things handed to them by others. (This is no easy task! When asked what was the most difficult of the many rules of the year in white – such as wearing only clean, bright white modest clothing; keeping one’s head covered; abstaining from using cosmetics, perfumes, and jewelry; eschewing alcohol and recreational drugs; staying inside once it is dark; shunning mirrors during the first three months of the yaworaje; and avoiding recreational social spaces and wild places such as restaurants, movie theaters, parties, bars, gyms, and forests – the second most frequently cited were prohibitions concerning touch and exchange.) When I complained to my godmother in the tradition about the difficulty of following this rule, especially when it came to dealing with cashiers and clerks who might become offended when I refused to receive money or items directly from their hands, I was told that “I had been cleansed and filled with shiny new light [and that]…. each exchange with strangers risked decreasing my brightness just a little bit” (p. 82). As this example illustrates, the kariocha priestly initiation ceremony is believed to “seat” a bit of divinity within the iyawo, and many of the restrictions of the year in white are meant to protect that sacred spark from diminishing through spiritual pollution.

3. Can you summarize the three key points you’d like the reader to walk away with when finished?

First, the book is meant to call attention to a religious tradition that is growing but is not well-known to many. The Lukumi year in white is beautiful, complex, and evocative. It is a remarkable example of “everyday” or “lived” religion that blurs boundaries between the religious and mundane, sacred and profane, and that allows us to see how ordinary people “do” religion as they go about their daily routines. Those who commit to the year in white go about everyday lives in conventional, secular society “while covering freshly shaven heads, wearing bright white clothing offset only by silver and brass bracelets and several strands of consecrated multicolored beads, while avoiding their reflections in mirrors. They give up being away from home after dark, appearing in photos, dancing, going to movies, eating in restaurants, and many other ordinary social situations” (p. 169). The yaworaje is instructive this regard; in the same way, religious practitioners in contemporary society more generally can be seen to transcend strict boundaries of religious domains and practice beyond churches, synagogues, and mosques, to also include homes, subways, libraries, groceries, laundromats, workplaces, and sidewalks.

Second, the year in white is a lesson that “understanding religious pluralism involves more than adding a few more groups to the accepted categories of Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant” (p. 170). While Yoruba-derived religions such as Lukumi boast 10-25 million practitioners in West Africa (Stephen Prothero, God is Not One, Harper Collins, 2010) and possibly 5 million in the United States (Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 2005), they are often neglected. In part this is because they defy the categories relied upon by scholars of religion such as the East/West dichotomy (Prothero, 2010). Muddying clear distinctions further, those who practice these African-derived religions may also be involved in Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Almost 40% of respondents to my survey about the year in white indicated that they continued some involvement in the religions in which they were raised. Religious traditions are not necessarily practiced exclusively, as we might expect if we study only the Abrahamic religions.

Third, the book calls for greater attention to –or re-examination of— religious “seekership,” cultural newcomers to religious traditions, and religious conversion. “Spiritual seekers” are commonly overlooked by scholars of religions (and some lay persons) because they are considered to be religious transients. As the stories in my book show, many who might have been dismissed by some scholars as religious nomads or “shoppers” did eventually commit to the Lukumi priestly initiation ceremony and the year in white, spending thousands of dollars, submitting to 53 weeks of numerous prohibitions, and beginning what is believed to be lifelong service to the Orisha. “Seekers should not be dismissed wholesale as those who are unable to commit; some simply may not have yet found their niche” (p. 171). Along related lines, my examination of the year in white asks for an expansion of our understandings of conversion, and questions the usefulness of the term in an increasingly complex, multicultural religious environment. Conversion is generally defined as the exclusive embrace of a new tradition. In the stories shared in my book, Orisha devotees often narrated paths to their new religious practices and beliefs that did not resemble exclusivist, radical alterations. Instead, many described a gradual (and sometimes additive), process of seeing the Orisha’s influence in their lives, one that I call the “Orishafication of everyday life,” alongside increasing identification with the Orisha. I believe these experiences may be better understood as those of “cultural newcomers” to religious traditions, rather than as “converts.”

4. Who were intellectual models or inspirations for you as you wrote this book?

A major inspiration for me was anthropologist of religion Karen McCarthy Brown, particularly in her groundbreaking work Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Not only did she portray the much maligned Haitian Vodou as life-affirming and as assisting in the survival of a culturally rich yet materially challenged people, but she was a trail blazer in what is now known as postmodern, feminist, and auto- ethnography. In this type of in-depth, qualitative study of a culture, the researcher does not attempt an “objective” view from a distance, but aims at understanding that is both deep and particular. The researcher includes herself in the study. When I first read Mama Lola I found myself laughing and crying out loud. The book was both edifying and emotionally moving. In my book I also employ autoethnography, telling my own story alongside those of the Lukumi priests I interviewed. If my book can educate and touch readers with a fraction of the beauty of Brown’s, then I will feel accomplished.

In A Year in White I also relied on the work of several scholars who mentioned the yaworaje in their work on Lukumi tradition. Although many have written about the seven-day priestly initiation ceremony, most make only brief mention of the 52 weeks that follow. I draw on the few who have attended with greater depth on what I believe to be a noteworthy sociological and religious process of the year in white, as well as groundbreaking scholars of Lukumi religion: religious studies scholars Joseph Murphy and Mary Ann Clark, and anthropologists George Brandon, David Brown, Michael Atwood Mason, and Stephan Palmié.

5. What was the most difficult thing about writing the book? Did you encounter any unexpected problems or challenges?

Having gone through the year in white myself, I was both a cultural newcomer and an insider into Lukumi practice. As a member of a Lukumi community I found it difficult at times to write about some of the less positive aspects of the tradition. As a scholar, however, I wanted to present a balanced portrayal of the year. I believe I was successful in describing both the joys and tribulations, the successes and pitfalls of the year in white.

6. What’s the most unexpected response, critical or positive, that you’ve gotten about the book?

I’m happy with the praise the book has thus far received. Times Higher Education said that the book “offers both an insider and outsider perspective (initiate and researcher) that allows us to be privy to the trials and triumphs, the struggles and joys of committing to a faith largely misunderstood and often disparaged by the American mainstream.” Sociologist Salvador Vidal-Ortiz wrote that the book was “Insightful, beautifully written, and empirically sophisticated, this book will be cited by many others, as it establishes the core of what it means to turn to religious conversion, to become an Orisha ‘priest’… a joy to read.” Anthropologist George Brandon said that in the book I “executed a methodologically innovative study of religious identification and self-creation in American Lukumi with integrity, intimacy and insight. Its focus on the ‘everyday religion’ of devotees is especially welcome.” And professor of comparative religion, Sarah M. Pike called the book “an excellent contribution to the study of the complicated process of negotiating religious identity in the increasingly pluralistic context of twenty-first century America.” The most surprising feedback I’ve gotten, however, was from the many Lukumi religious practitioners who saw themselves and their tradition realistically reflected in the book.

7. With this book done, what’s up next for you?

Although I would like to write about Lukumi religion again in the future, and particularly about divination, I’m turning my attention for now, to issues of Jewish identification. I’ve begun gathering data for my next study that will explore contemporary Jewish identity in the U.S. and particularly Jewish Reconstructionism. The new project examines the relationship between religious and political identification, and may also consider issues of prayer, faith and religious identification amidst skepticism.

C. Lynn Carr is an associate professor of sociology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. She is a scholar of contemporary identification in the U.S., examining the interplay between the individual and the social with qualitative methods. She is the author of A Year in White: Cultural Newcomers to Lukumi and Santería in the United States  (Rutgers University Press, 2016), and several articles on religious, gender, and sexual identification in Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review , Gender & Society , Symbolic Interaction [, Journal of Bisexuality , and Sex Roles: A Journal of Research .