NEW YORK FOLKLORE
Vol. 18, Nos. 1-4, 2000*
Through African-Centered Prisms
Guest Editor: Barbara L. Hampton
with editorial contributions by
John W. Suter, Karen Taussig-Lux, and Sally Atwater
AFRICAN-AMERICAN FOLKLORE IN A DISCOURSE OF FOLKNESS
by John W. Roberts
IN THE FIRST issue of the Journal of American Folklore in 1888, William
Wells Newell issued his now reverberant call for “the collection of the
fast vanishing...Lore of Negroes in the Southern States of the Union”
(1988:3). Despite the note of urgency sounded in Newell’s call, a vigorous
program of collection and study of African-American folklore was
already underway by 1888. In fact, scattered references to various aspects
of African-American folklore had found their way into written
records during the period of black chattel slavery in the United States.
However, the Civil War era and its aftermath marked the beginnings of
systematic efforts to collect and study this rich tradition of expressivity.
During this turbulent period in American history, white missionaries
and others who flocked into the South to assist African freed people in
their adjustment to freedom took an early interest in the recording of
African-American folklore. In fact, by the time Newell issued his call,
several book-length collections of African-American folklore had already
been published, including the influential volumes Slave Songs of the
United States (Allen et al. 1951 ) and Uncle Remus, His Songs and
Sayings (Harris 1880).
In the more than one hundred years since Newell’s call, the collection
and study of African-American folklore have continued at a vigorous pace.
In fact, it remains one of the most prominently studied areas of American
folklore. Despite the intense interest in African-American folklore over the
years, however, its study continues to suffer from both a lack of theoretical
development and, in Adrienne Lanier Seward’s words, “a definitional
dilemma” (1983:48). Ironically, this situation exists despite the growing
sophistication of folklore study in the United States in recent years—growth characterized by an inordinate concern with issues of definition and theory encompassing all aspects of the folkloristic enterprise, from collection to the development of interpretative models. Nevertheless, African-American folklore study has derived relatively few benefits from the
maturation of folkloristics as a discipline.
I would argue that the failure of new approaches and paradigms to
bring about change in the study of African-American folklore resides in
the fact that the problems of definition and theoretical development in
this area of folkloristic concern are as much historical as they are paradigmatic. In the most general sense, the problems plaguing African-American folklore study persist because of the continuing efforts of folklorists
to explain the distinctive character of African-American folklore
within paradigms that accept Euro-American cultural hegemony as a
fait accompli. Certainly, when we examine the history of African-American
folklore study in the United States, we find everywhere evidence of
folkloristic acceptance of the hegemony of American culture and cultural
forms over African-American folklore. From the beginning, this
acceptance has manifested itself in the denial or, at the least, the
problematization of a relationship between African and African-American
cultures and folk traditions (Seward 1983:4–49).
The conception of African-American culture and folklore born of a
vision of a triumphant American cultural hegemony has had a profound
effect on how African-American folklore has been studied in the United
States. In having problematized the relationship between African and
African-American folklore and culture, folklorists literally erased the conditions of possibility of a unique African-American folkloristics—a
folkloristics capable of revealing the dynamic character of African-American
vernacular creativity. Instead, African-American folklore has come
to be seen as a static collection of expressive forms reflexive of a superficial
and one-dimensional cultural experience and identity. From this
perspective, the distinctive characteristics of African-American folklore
have been conceptualized as the product of the unique character and
experience of Africans in the New World—a character and experience
defined and shaped by a traumatic period of enslavement and a continuing
history of oppression. Within the paradigms made possible by
this perspective, African-American folklore study has developed as a
discourse concerned more with the dynamics of African-American acculturation
to Euro-American cultural norms than with the dynamic processes
of African-American vernacular creativity....
*This volume was delayed in publication and published out of sequence.
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