Journal of World History 8.1 (1997) 182-183
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In 1992 the organizers of the "Maroon Program," a substan-tial component of that year's Smithsonian Institution Festival of American Folklife (FAF), approached recognized authorities Rich-ard Price and Sally Price to serve as "presenters," or cultural media-tors between African American maroons from Suriname and French Guiana and visitors to the Washington, D.C., Mall. The object was to bring together for the first time Saramakas and Ndjukas from Suriname, Alukus from French Guiana, Jamaicans from the Moore Town and Accompong communities, Seminole maroons from Texas and Mexico, and Palenqueros from Colombia. Although they had some misgivings, the Prices agreed with the understanding that they would document their experiences for publication later. The result is a fascinating account of their participation in the nine-day event.
Based largely on a diary the Prices kept before and during the event, On the Mall has substantial value as an ethnography of the 1992 festival. Beyond that, however, the scope of the authors' argument is extended to raise important questions about the purposes, methods, and costs of such public folklore programs generally. The Prices note the tension between "education" and "entertainment" in exhibiting exotic peoples, and they draw attention to universal elements in the history of human display. Through a series of reflections and sidebar quotations, the Prices draw discomforting comparisons with earlier zoo, circus, and freak show displays, and with manifestations of scientific racism. The authors feel that, despite the FAF's current ideology of "liberal pluralism," "the imprimatur of its anthropologists for 'living exhibitions' certainly created a strong link, in our minds anyway, with these complex pasts" (p. 17).
The Prices clearly find problematic what the FAF considers to be and not to be "folklore." The festival supposedly was organized around the notion that "cultural continuity and cultural innova-tion are not necessarily in conflict, and indeed, may at times be complementary" (p. 14). Yet the organizers coined the term "tradition-bearers" and emphasized continuity at the expense of innovation. Smithsonian staffers clearly preferred exotic customs with a history to contemporary realities. Although the Prices stressed that the Saramakas' [End Page 182] only culinary requirement would be lots of white rice and large spoons with which to eat it, the organizers sought to inject into the foodway what they perceived to be more interesting ingredients, such as meats, vegetables, and spices. In so doing, they forgot the rice and spoons. As Richard Bauman has suggested, "Folk Festivals display forms of folk culture as conceived by folklorists and other cultural programmers and executed by practitioners they select" (p. 44). The audience, too, seemed to reject the "nontraditional," refusing to participate in contemporary Aluku French discothèque-style couple dancing, preferring instead the more traditional gourd playing and singing.
Knowing and respecting both the festival organizers and the peoples exhibited, and playing a central participant/observer role in the event, the Prices were well positioned to produce a thoughtful and informed monograph. They argue convincingly that they had no hidden agenda. In the afterword, the authors state their intentions clearly: "Our observations are offered in the hope that those who engage in Festival-making will be able to harness them constructively for the future" (p. 110). By the time the reader reaches this statement, however, it is difficult to feel constructive.
The Prices document carefully the sense of decontextualization, alienation, and frustration experienced by the maroon participants. In its seemingly endless schedule changes, wrangles over money, intra- and intergroup conflicts, deals, and problems with food, personal hygiene, sleep, and other individual needs, the 1992 FAF had much in common with the downsides of Woodstock, the Isle of Wight, and other outdoor rock music festivals. The authors also raise serious questions about the goals of such events, the power relationships they create, and the...