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  • The Influence of Down by the Riverside
  • Sylvia R. Frey (bio)

Charles Joyner's intimate knowledge of the Lowcountry landscape and his gift for sensually summoning up its haunting beauty are in and of themselves enough to propel readers through his story. But the importance of Down by the Riverside lies far beyond narrative and style. This envelope-pushing book made no pretense of being an exhaustive study of every aspect of slave culture, but it offered pioneering insights on slave foodways and clothing, on work patterns and recreation, on religion and language, which continue to serve as vital platforms for diverse and far-reaching studies on the process of cultural creolization.

Until the 1970s foodways was a marginal subject of interest primarily to agricultural historians, whose research tended to focus on the adequacy of slave nutrition. Thanks to magisterial studies like David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed, foodways are now generally recognized as one of the earliest formed layers of culture, an act by which identity is performed. Chaz was among the first scholars to recognize the cultural importance of food. In 1971 he published an exploratory article in the Keystone Folklore Quarterly in which he reached conceptually well beyond the usual interpretations of slave nutrition to focus on social and cultural factors. He argued that what slaves chose to eat and how they prepared their food were critical to their sense of identity. He also pointed to the political meaning of food by tracing the evolution of slave food to "soul food," the cultural and ideological significance of which persists in modern times as a "symbol of racial identity," an argument he elaborated on in Down by the Riverside. Although Chaz did not make a sustained and explicit connection, his identification of an "African culinary grammar" laid the groundwork for the more systematic studies of the cultural, historical, and political dimensions of African and African-American foodways that have proliferated in recent years.1

Chaz's insistence that we pay attention to the language of clothing has also had far-reaching implications for our understanding of the cultural politics of race and aesthetics. His insistence that "how clothing is worn is as important as what clothing is worn" anticipated by decades recent work on the psychology of clothing and the architecture of hair. Although, as Chaz points out, the enslaved community of All Saints Parish was not completely free to outwardly express members' sense of group identity, stylistic choices such as the "ubiquitous head covering" worn by enslaved women, the choice of colors, and the way articles of clothing were combined all functioned as expressions of the self. The unique subcultures based on improvisational aesthetics created by enslaved communities everywhere are the forerunners of the black diasporan aesthetic. What Chaz described as the "clothing behavior" of the enslaved community of All Saints Parish is now widely recognized as a prerequisite for black resistance politics, which finds aesthetic expression in the conk of the 1940s, the "ideologies of the beautiful" of the 1960s, the curly-perm of the 1980s, the zoot suit, and the Black Panthers urban guerrilla uniform.2

Joyner's two chapters on religion and language form the centerpiece of Down by the Riverside. Religion is commonly recognized as a crucial component of cultural creolization, but how it is defined continues to be a subject of some debate. Until quite recently, studies of African-American spiritual traditions largely ignored Islam. Although he did not explore the subject, Chaz acknowledged its presence among enslaved Afro-Carolinians, leaving it to later scholars like Sylviane Diouf and Michael Gomez to press the study forward.3 Even today, many studies treat conjuring, magic, and the healing arts as distinct from religion, giving rise to a vast literature on harming traditions. Chaz and Albert Raboteau were among a handful of pioneers who treated these spiritual traditions as permutations of African religions. Although he didn't have the demographic data available to today's scholars to make precise links with the African cultural provenance, Joyner recognized that African-American religion was part of a once unified African cosmology that was shattered into diverse components under slavery. His broad conception of the African...


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pp. 24-25
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