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Black Folklore and the Politics of Racial Representation

Shirley Moody-Turner

Publication Year: 2013

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.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Series: Margaret Walker Alexander Series in African American Studies

Title Page, Frontispiece, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-xi

There have been many, many people who have given of their time, energy, and intellectual resources, helping me meet the challenges of this project with joy, rigor, and enthusiasm. Without them this book would not have been possible, and to all of them, I am eternally grateful. First among them...

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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...

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1: “By Custom and By Law”: Folklore and the Birth of Jim Crow

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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...

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2: From Hawai‘i to Hampton: Samuel Armstrong and the Unlikely Origins of Folklore Studies at the Hampton Institute

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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...

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3: Recovering Folklore as a Site of Resistance: Anna Julia Cooper and the Hampton Folklore Society

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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...

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4: Uprooting the Folk: Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Critique of the Folk Ideal

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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...

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5: “The Stolen Voice”: Charles Chesnutt, Whiteness, and the Politics of Folklore

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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...

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pp. 157-163

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...


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pp. 165-199


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pp. 200-216


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pp. 217-230

E-ISBN-13: 9781617038853
E-ISBN-10: 1621039781
Print-ISBN-13: 9781621039785

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Margaret Walker Alexander Series in African American Studies

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism
  • African Americans in literature.
  • African Americans -- Intellectual life.
  • Folklore in literature.
  • Race -- Social aspects -- United States
  • Literature and folklore -- United States.
  • African Americans -- Folklore.
  • African Americans -- Race identity.
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