Just over twenty-five years ago, in 1984, the University of Illinois Press published one of its most perduring and influential titles, Charles—Chaz—Joyner's Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. In the previous two decades many scholars had intensively examined the formation and lives of communities from colonial New England to Virginia, first using the tools of the burgeoning "new social history" and, by the 1980s, also the perspectives of the emerging "new cultural history." Too, a growing number had explored the structures and lives of slave communities across the South in an effort to develop a synthetic picture and understanding of the influences shaping and constraining those communities' development and dynamics. Yet almost no one had combined these two approaches. And none had done so by drawing on folklore, anthropology, linguistics, and the rest of the array that Chaz brought to bear on the interlocking plantation slave communities in Lower All Saints Parish in northeastern South Carolina. The accomplishment was remarkable on many counts.
What Chaz had to do just to search out his subjects was one reason he was anticipating rather than following the scholarship. From letters, diaries, account books, census lists, WPA slave narratives, and travelers' accounts, among other documentation, he developed a compelling portrait and analysis of the Gullah community's formation and dynamics on the Waccamaw Neck, once among the richest areas of plantation cultivation in all the Americas. Most of the archival material upon which Chaz drew had been available for decades, if not always well arranged and described. But previous researchers had focused on the planters—not the workers.
Knowing the northeastern part of the South Carolina coast intimately from childhood, Chaz originally studied history made significant both by its distance from his roots and by its address of political and cultural issues important to him. It was only after he had finished his doctorate in history at the University of South Carolina that he decided that he did not need John Dos Passos to give him perspective on the unfinished business of American character and reform. Continuing his civil rights activism while teaching at St. Andrew's College just inland and north a bit, in North Carolina, Chaz increasingly found compelling the history and the culture of the people with whom he had grown up, sung, marched, and campaigned. Moreover, he discovered that he could help translate for people who were isolated by language and customs from outsiders' understanding.
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His sympathy and passion led Chaz to do the unthinkable: get a second doctorate, in Folklore and Folklife, from the University of Pennsylvania. In the process, he equipped himself to write a book drawing on the model and the approach of Kamau (Edward) Brathwaite's works on Jamaica. No one else had the combination of intimate knowledge, trained rigor, subtlety infused with empathy, and willingness to see through others' eyes and hear with others' ears and speak with others' tongues. And that is why the panel discussion printed here took place.
Unfortunately, Kamau Brathwaite could not in the end join the conversation. The others who leapt at the chance to participate in celebrating and exploring the continuing influence of Down by the Riverside, however, together represent the high level and wide range of the scholars inspired by the book. These four are not just thoughtful about, but are critical shapers of the scholarship that has been building on Chaz's singular accomplishment. In inviting David Hackett Fischer, Sylvia Frey, James Peacock, and Stephanie Shaw to join the panel, I asked that they meditate, if they liked, in some way on the creolization model and process that Chaz used to connect the story of the Gullah community's formation and life to Brathwaite's Caribbean and beyond.
The reason for the question is simple: like the best of the pioneering community studies of New England or of the Annales school of French history, Down by the Riverside has served as a model. Like the work of Claude Levi-Strauss on Amazonian tribes, it also has compelled attention across many social science and humanities disciplines. Indeed, the influence...