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Black Folklore and the Politics of Racial Representation

Black Folklore and the Politics of Racial Representation

Shirley Moody-Turner
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    Black Folklore and the Politics of Racial Representation
    Book Description:

    Before the innovative work of Zora Neale Hurston, folklorists from the Hampton Institute collected, studied, and wrote about African American folklore. Like Hurston, these folklorists worked within but also beyond the bounds of white mainstream institutions. They often called into question the meaning of the very folklore projects in which they were engaged.

    Shirley Moody-Turner analyzes this output, along with the contributions of a disparate group of African American authors and scholars. She explores how black authors and folklorists were active participants--rather than passive observers--in conversations about the politics of representing black folklore. Examining literary texts, folklore documents, cultural performances, legal discourse, and political rhetoric, Black Folklore and the Politics of Racial Representation demonstrates how folklore studies became a battleground across which issues of racial identity and difference were asserted and debated at the turn of the twentieth century. The study is framed by two questions of historical and continuing import. What role have representations of black folklore played in constructing racial identity? And, how have those ideas impacted the way African Americans think about and creatively engage black traditions?

    Moody-Turner renders established historical facts in a new light and context, taking figures we thought we knew--such as Charles Chesnutt, Anna Julia Cooper, and Paul Laurence Dunbar--and recasting their place in African American intellectual and cultural history.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-978-5
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-17)

    While the origin of African American folklore studies often is traced back to an 1888 letter in the Journal of American Folklore, in which William Wells Newell announced an agenda for the 235 mostly, if not all, white members of the newly founded American Folklore Society that included the study of “Lore of Negroes in the Southern States of the Union,”¹ Anna Julia Cooper’s 1894 statement on the significance of black folklore signals an alternative tradition of African American folklore studies. In the address from which this epigraph is taken, Cooper recognized that black folklore took shape within a larger...

  5. 1 “By Custom and By Law”: Folklore and the Birth of Jim Crow
    (pp. 18-45)

    Those who supported the myth of “separate but equal” were quick to adopt the rhetoric of folklore for support and protection. The notion that the social differences that were supposedly “created” by race could not be nullified by laws can be summed up in the famous adage often attributed to William Graham Sumner: “Stateways cannot change folkways.”¹ This statement represents the proverbial soap that the country, particularly the Northern politicians and press, used to wash their hands of the segregation issue in the South. That American folklore studies grew up amid the fury over racial separation and difference is less...

  6. 2 From Hawai‘i to Hampton: Samuel Armstrong and the Unlikely Origins of Folklore Studies at the Hampton Institute
    (pp. 46-71)

    The story of folklore studies at the Hampton Institute is framed by racialized discourses of civilization within and beyond the permeable national borders of the United States. It is a story about modes of resistance and agency within the dynamics of asymmetrical power relations, and it is a story about redefining the meaning of black folklore within a literary, cultural, social, and political context. I begin my recounting of this story in a rather unexpected place, tracing the journey of Hampton Institute founder Samuel Armstrong from Hawai‘i to Hampton to reveal how Armstrong’s missionary background played an influential role in...

  7. 3 Recovering Folklore as a Site of Resistance: Anna Julia Cooper and the Hampton Folklore Society
    (pp. 72-100)

    In The Hampton Project, her provocative 2000 exhibition at Williams College, Carrie Mae Weems invited contemporary audiences to step into the spaces, intersections, and divides that characterized early African American and Native American educational projects, symbolized most prominently by the mid- to late-nineteenth-century work of the Hampton Institute. The installation-based exhibition consisted of “word photography,” audio narratives and ceiling to floor panels of diaphanous cloth depicting digitally rendered images of Hampton students alongside various sites of contestation. Some of the photographs were “re-purposed” from Frances Johnston’s Hampton Album; others were digital enlargements of salient images representing moments of contact between...

  8. 4 Uprooting the Folk: Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Critique of the Folk Ideal
    (pp. 101-126)

    In turning his literary and artistic attention to African American folklore, Paul Laurence Dunbar found himself, like many of the Hampton folklorists, in a precarious position. In assessing the state of literature by and about African Americans, William Scarborough remarked, “[W]e find Dunbar easily among the first of his competitors taking rank in the world of fiction as a portrayer of Negro life and character. Chestnutt [sic] follows in the same line.” Still, Scarborough notes, “the demand is for the novelist who will portray the Negro not in the commonplace way that some have done, but one who will elevate...

  9. 5 “The Stolen Voice”: Charles Chesnutt, Whiteness, and the Politics of Folklore
    (pp. 127-156)

    When in the late 1880s, Chesnutt made the conscious, deliberate, and as yet, unaided decision to employ conjuration as the basis for his first three conjure stories, he had already identified himself as a purposeful writer.¹ As expressed in his journals, Chesnutt hoped to secure a profitable niche among the reading public while altering his audience’s attitudes about race. Chesnutt’s decision to draw on elements of black folklore in his fiction to reach a wider reading audience was not surprising, for even while the status of blacks had continued to deteriorate since the end of Reconstruction, public interest in black...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 157-164)

    By repositioning African American folklore and literary projects in relation to each other, I have shown how both undertakings sought to push beyond the bounds of the dominant popular and scientific discourses. Although disparate in their ideologies and approaches, the intersecting interests and activities of the Hampton folklorists and black intellectuals and cultural workers resulted in experimentation with various forms and strategies. The literary and ethnographic innovations that grew out of this joint engagement centered on excavating what had become ingrained, and often naturalized, protocols for depicting African American culture. In enacting this aesthetic, these folklorists and authors dislocated black...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 165-199)
    (pp. 200-216)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 217-230)