Alex Constantine - November 12, 2007
" ... my work considers the role that representations of black folklore played in constructing and maintaining racial difference for the purposes of legitimizing racial separation and supporting racial hierarchy. ... Based on my analysis of post-Reconstruction racial discourse, I found that white legislators and politicians consistently employed the rhetoric of folklore as a way to endorse, by non-opposition, the legalization of Jim Crow. ... "
Excerpt: BY CUSTOM AND BY LAW: BLACK FOLKLORE AND RACIAL REPRESENTATION AT THE BIRTH OF JIM CROW, dissertation by Shirley C. Moody, Doctor of Philosophy, 2006, Mary Helen Washington U.
Title of Dissertation: BY CUSTOM AND BY LAW: BLACK FOLKLORE AND RACIAL REPRESENTATION AT THE BIRTH OF JIM CROW
Shirley C. Moody, Doctor of Philosophy, 2006
Dissertation directed by: Professor Mary Helen Washington
Department of English
and Professor Barry Lee Pearson
Department of English
Abstract By Custom and By Law:
Black Folklore and Racial Representation at the Birth of Jim Crow establishes folklore as a contested site in the construction of racial identity during the emergence and solidification of legalized racial segregation at the end of the nineteenth century. By examining institutional interests, popular culture performances, and political rhetoric, I demonstrate how representations of black folklore played a seminal role in perpetuating a public discourse of racial difference.
Alternately, my work introduces new scholarship examining the counter-narratives posed by nineteenth-century African American scholars, writers and folklorists who employed folklore in their various academic works and artistic productions as a vehicle to expose and critique post-Reconstruction racial hierarchies.
In chapter one I reveal how constructions of black folklore in ante- and
post-bellum popular culture intersected with emergent white folklore studies to provide a taxonomy for codifying racial difference, while simultaneously designating folklore as the medium through which racial representation would bedebated. Chapter two recovers the important, but virtually unacknowledged role of African American folklorists in brokering public and academic access to black folk culture and in providing an alternative to the racist constructions of black folklore prevalent in the post-Reconstruction era.
Chapter three re-contextualizes Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman as both a response to the larger national discourse surrounding black folklore and also as part of a concerted effort among black intellectuals to first expose how perceptions of racial realities were constructed through representations of black folklore, and then to redefine the role of black folklore in African American cultural and literary works.
In sum, my dissertation provides a cultural history of a formative moment
in the construction of a late nineteenth century racialized discourse that placed representations of black folklore at its center. My research both recovers the neglected role of early black folklorists and writers in studying and interpreting black cultural traditions and asserts the profound significance of representations of black folklore in negotiating the perceptions and practices that have worked to define US racial ideologies in the nineteenth century and beyond.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter I: Folklore at the Birth of Jim Crow
Chapter II: The Hampton Folklore Society and
The Crafting of a Black Folk Aesthetic
Chapter III: Conjure Justice: Charles Chesnutt and the Stolen Voice
Conclusion: “We Don’t Remember Enough:” Customary Folklore in
Ralph Ellison's Flying Home”
“To move ahead, we constantly reach back for cues. An understanding of the struggles of the past will help us become frighteningly aware that they are not past.”1
In a January 2006 letter accompanying the NAACP’s National Survey on Race,
Gender and Equality in America, NAACP Chairman, Julian Bond, evoked the 1890 debates over racial segregation to characterize our contemporary moment. In this letter Bond asked the readers to “reflect on the deliberate and systematic efforts to disenfranchise minority voters with tactics reminiscent of America’s shameful Jim Crow era.”
He continued, stating that “the historic and ongoing quest for equality is today threatened by a distorted, nostalgic view of what the ‘real’ America was like before all these ‘troublemakers’ came along”—or what Bond referred to as a “yearning for an imaginary yesterday.” Finally, Bond cited a Gallup poll to show that the public perception is that minorities outnumber the majority. The poll showed that the average American believes minorities are now over 70% of the population, when in fact, that number is closer to 30%. Bond referred to this as “a perversion of reality where the victims become the perpetrators and minorities become majorities.”2 The issues Bond alluded to in his letter—how the white majority’s perceptions of racial ‘realities’ rationalize public policy—are at the heart of my dissertation. Specifically, my work investigates the distinct role that white dominant cultural representations of black folklore, specifically those emerging from the minstrel and plantation traditions, played in constructing the public perceptions of blacks necessary to sustain the emerging system
of racial segregation at the end of the nineteenth century.
“’By Custom and By Law’” is an effort to recover the historical circumstances
surrounding the cultural and literary representations of black folklore between 1880 and 1900 and to locate these representations squarely within the debates over racial identity and segregation that defined this period. My dissertation maintains that it is not coincidence that the US system of racial segregation, which would come to be known as Jim Crow, takes its name from a white entertainer’s popular performances of what were ostensibly black folk customs. To the contrary, I assert that at the end of the nineteenth century, questions of racial identity, equality and segregation were debated, in part, through, the medium of folklore. Representations of black folklore and images of black “folk” proliferated on the minstrel stage, in the popular plantation tradition literature and in literature of the “Lost Cause.”3
The institutionalization of folklore studies in the late 1880s through the formation of the almost exclusively white American Folklore Society provided a language for codifying racial difference and added an air of intellectual cachet to a post-Reconstruction racial discourse already saturated with images, representations, and references to black folklore.
The combination of the popular minstrel and plantation images of black folklore, along with the scientific framework provided by the newly emerging field of folklore studies, supplied segregationists with a convenient apparatus for legitimizing a system of racial separation predicated on the premise that racial identity.
As I will discuss in greater detail in chapters one and three, whether
subversive or conservative in intent, the minstrel tradition provided visual evidence of outrageous black difference. The plantation tradition valorized Southern patriarchy and supported ‘romantic’ or paternalistic racism.
Literature of the Lost Cause, exemplified by Thomas Dixon’s Leopard’s
Spots, portrayed blacks as lazy, thieving, sexual predators. They could be clearly demarcated, if not through physical appearance, then at least through the observation of what were ostensibly racially-differentiated behaviors, i.e. folk customs.
The African American writers, scholars, activists and folklorists I investigate were intimately aware that white dominant cultural representations of black folklore were an integral part of the elaborate myth of white racial superiority and black inferiority that was necessary for whites to sustain the racial hierarchy. Specifically, I examine the work of the Hampton Folklore Society, alongside Charles Chesnutt’s 1899 folklore-inspired text, The Conjure Woman, recovering both literary and folkloric responses to these white cultural representations of black folklore.
My analysis brings several key questions to the forefront. For instance, how were African American representations of black folklore influenced by larger dominant cultural interests in black folklore from groups such as the American Folklore Society and individuals, such as Joel Chandler Harris? How did African American writers, scholars and folklorists negotiate their desires to present more sincere representations of black folk culture against the public perceptions that constructed black folklore in racist and dehumanizing terms?
How does Chesnutt’s relationship with the Hampton folklorists illuminate the literary strategies employed to translate folklore into popular fiction? This dissertation responds to these questions by first providing a cultural history of constructions of black folklore in the late nineteenth century, then by recovering the role of African American folklorists and writers in providing alternative approaches to the preservation and representation of black folklore and finally, by suggesting that our readings of folklore in post-Reconstruction African American literary texts must include an understanding of the deep and intricat relationship between white representations of black folklore and the racial politics at work in fortifying Jim Crow segregation.
Questioning the Constructions of the Folk in Contemporary Critical Discourse
Our contemporary moment has seen a flurry of attention to the construction of the black “folk” in relation to questions of authenticity and racial identity. J. Martin Favor, for example, begins Authentic Blackness with a question. “Who is Black?” Favor asks, querying the reader while referencing the important study by that same title.4 Favor uses this question, the veritable calling card of anti-essentialist critiques of “authentic” racial identity, to position his own study of the ways in which literary criticism has constructed
an “essentialized” racial identity based on the valorization of the black folk.
His project, to the contrary, is to examine how black writers “between the world wars” created alternative versions of black identity as a way to challenge the predominance of the privileged “folk” identity they had inherited from the previous generation of black writers. David Nicholls’ Conjuring the Folk also analyzes constructions of the folk by blacks writers “during the period between the world wars,” examining how these writers mediated their representations of the folk from their position within modern, metropolitan culture.5 Both Nicholls and Favor suggest “historically specific” approaches as a corrective to vernacular theories, which both critics argue have served to “essentialize” selective cultural elements and social classes as more authentically black than others. In F. James Davis, Who Is Black? (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991); J. Martin Favor, Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999). David Nicholls, Conjuring the Folk: Forms of Modernity in African America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000).
“Ideologies of Black Folk,” Hazel Carby argues that the African American literary tradition is dominated by an ideology of the “folk” based on fictional representations that collapse sharecropping and slavery into one idealized past. She further maintains that critics interpret these representations of “the Southern ‘folk’” as “the source of Afro-American literature” that they then reconstruct black culture as rooted in folk culture.
Carby maintains that the critical discourse precipitated by Henry Louis Gates and Houston Baker identifies slavery as the defining African American experience and creates a mythology of the rural South as the site of “one mythical rural folk existence.”
Like Favor and Nicholls, Carby challenges the romanticization of the “folk” by examining how literary works composed after World War I provide alternative versions of a mythic, undifferentiated, rural, folk existence.6
Favor, building on the critical discourse initiated by Carby, expresses his
skepticism of “the critical discourse of blackness that places the ‘folk’ southern, rural, and poor—at its forefront.” Favor asks, “How and to what end did such a discourse come into being?”7 Favor then locates responsibility for this discourse of authentic blackness in the vernacular theories of the 1980s, assigning responsibility to Baker and Gates, both of whom have become the standard vernacular theorist scapegoats. ...
In response to the call articulated by Favor and McBride, a number of important studies have been published over the last five years that interrogate constructions of blackness, while paying particular attention to representations of the folk. Many of these studies, such as Nicholls’ Conjuring the Folk, Barbara Foley’s Spectres of 1919, Martha Nadell’s Enter the New Negroes and Anne Carroll’s Word, Image and the New Negro, locate their analyses in the first half of the twentieth century and are centered on the Harlem Renaissance trope of the “New Negro.”
In my doctoral work, I too, take seriously Favor’s question. My work, however, examines the period preceding that in which these critics situate their analyses, a period dictated by a different, if not more constrained, set of historical circumstances surrounding the politics of representing black folklore.9
In my examination, for example, I argue that late nineteenth century black
scholars, folklorists, and writers created representations of black folklore and depictions of the black “folk” that were not uncritical assertions of an idealized black folk located in a mythical rural past, but instead were “always already” (to borrow Derrida’s phrase) in conversation with dominant cultural representations and often engaged in an overt or implicit critique of a national discourse that constructed the folk as a racialized and politicized “other.” As I argue in the chapters that follow, African Americans’ representations of black folklore in the post-Reconstruction era were not intended to create a discourse of nostalgia for an idealized past, but to the contrary, were often aimed at disrupting a mythical version of the past that was already being constructed largely through the popular plantation and minstrel traditions. Another source of debate between the vernacular theorists and their critics revolves around what the anti-essentialist critics allege are the vernacular theorists’ attempts to fix what is “authentic” about black culture by identifying the events that define the African American experience, namely slavery and segregation.
Bernard Bell, for example, convincingly argues that the “economics of slavery and the politics of racial segregation” are “the major determinants of African American biracial and bicultural identity.”10 It is not within the scope of this present study to engage fully the debate over what, if any, experiences can be said to define what it means to be African American. Instead, taking segregation to be an important even if not “defining” experience of African American identity, my work considers the role that representations of black folklore played in constructing and maintaining racial difference for the purposes of legitimizing racial separation and supporting racial hierarchy.
* * *
Rayford Logan identified the late nineteenth century as the nadir of American racial relations, an ominous designation, as Eric Foner notes, which Logan deliberately bestowed on the post-Reconstruction era, as opposed to slavery, the more likely candidate. Based on his “encyclopedic” research, Logan characterized this period by the unchecked reign of white supremacy and racial violence, the reversal of many of the political and legal advancements made during the Reconstruction era and, most explicitly, by the Supreme Court decision in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case. Indeed his landmark work, The Betrayal of the Negro, marked a vital contribution in the revisionist project, started by W.E.B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction, to provide a more accurate picture of African Americans during the Reconstruction era and the subsequent sacrifice of the Reconstruction gains to the desire for an amiable reunion between the North and the South.
As Foner notes, the real contribution of Betrayal is not only that Logan reconstructs an obscured legal and political history, but that he establishes in painstaking detail the book’s central thesis that “in the relentless purveying of racist iconography and literary images, in distortions of black history and indifference to lynching, race riots, and disfranchisement, popular culture in effect legitimated and ‘naturalized’ the system of political and economic subordination.”11 Logan’s work alerted me to the insidious relationship between the black images in popular culture and the fortification of legally-sanctioned racial segregation. My specific interest in this period, however, hinges on the role that folklore played in constructing what Eric Sundquist refers to as “the brutal artifice of racial distinction.”12
Based on my analysis of post-Reconstruction racial discourse, I found that white legislators and politicians consistently employed the rhetoric of folklore as a way to endorse, by non-opposition, the legalization of Jim Crow. In the debates over segregation, racial difference and equality, the rhetoric of folklore held a premium. It was Bernard Bell, The Contemporary African American Novel: Its Folk Roots and Modern Literary Branches (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004), 4. ...
The very phrase “by custom and by law,” which was popularly used to describe how Jim Crow was accomplished, borrows from folklore studies the term used to denote both the traditional way of doing things and the things done in the traditional way. The notion that racial separation and difference is accomplished “by custom” implies both that it is a result of the force of tradition, or in everyday parlance, just the way things are. It also implies
however, that racial distinction is evidenced in the “customs” that distinguish the two races.
This second use of custom conflates social behavior and racial identity, providing the much needed markers of racial distinction. Justice Brown’s majority opinion in the 1896 Plessy case illustrates how the dual meaning operated. When Brown declared that it was legally permissible for the state of Louisiana to act in accordance with the “the established customs, traditions and usages of the people,” he was drawing on the first meaning of nthe term. When he later stated that “if one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot be expected to put them on the same plane,” he was basing his constitutional interpretation on the second meaning of custom, implying that in the absence of the ability to rely on ‘admixture of blood” or even
appearance, it was blacks’ behaviors that distinguished them from whites.
This idea was repeated throughout post-Reconstruction discourse, and perhaps most overtly in the Mississippi Supreme Court Ratliff v. Beale case. In this case, the court deferred to the 1890 Mississippi State Constitution in supporting its decision upholding poll taxes. The court stated:
By reason of its previous condition of servitude and dependence, this race had acquired or accentuated certain peculiarities of habit, of temperament, and character, which clearly distinguished it as a race from that of the whites--a patient, docile people, careless, landless, and migratory .... Restrained by the Federal Constitution from discriminating against the Negro race, the [Mississippi State] Convention discriminated against its characteristics.13
In other words, the Supreme Court, and lower courts both before and after Plessy, claimed discrimination, in part, on the basis of inherent differences in behaviors, manners and customs that naturally existed among the races. This was the type of maneuvering Chesnutt referred to, for example, when he stated that black disfranchisement was accomplished by various methods, devised with “much transparent ingenuity.”14 As I argue in chapter three, it is this “transparent ingenuity” that Chesnutt sought to expose in The Conjure Woman.
Recognizing the political significance of black folk customs, members of the
black intellectual community decried the misrepresentations of black folklore in popular forms, protesting that literary conventions governing the representations of blacks had been laid out by white writers. In 1893, Anna Julia Cooper noted that most writers who had attempted a portrayal of the life and customs of African Americans were, at best, only marginally acquainted with the individuals whose lives they sought to portray.15 ...