It is gratifying to have one's work taken seriously by such an extraordinary panel. For Down by the Riverside to be still in print after a quarter of a century and for the University of Illinois Press to demonstrate its confidence in the work by issuing a Silver Anniversary Edition makes this an occasion for rejoicing.
Still, one approaches rituals of the life cycle—such as this—with an instinctive mix of pride and dread. Obviously both are misplaced. But I recall feeling much the same way in 1987 when Vernon Burton and I were part of a similar session at the Southern Historical Association in New Orleans. That was a ritual of initiation into our profession. This is, among other things, a ritual of celebration, which should elicit gratitude rather than pride. The privilege of being edited by Richard Wentworth and August Meier would seem to demand focusing on how much one owes, rather than how much one is due. I suspect the misplaced pride is the source of the misplaced dread. We all know what pride goeth before.1
But there are more traditional reasons for dread. The roles in ritual drama are hedged about by ancient traditions in which the panel (or chorus part) has the awesome responsibility of initiating the initiate into a new status, which can only be achieved through the advice and consent of the audience. These the chorus is expected to induce through pity and terror, with little scope for improvisation. They must offer some initial acclaim, either faint or fulsome, before launching into the obligatory brutal castigation. Both are mandatory; only the proportions and the intensity are optional. It is the panel's thankless task not only to expose flaws in research and fallacies in reasoning but also to point out roads not taken and opportunities not seized.
The initiate is confronted with a sobering predicament. Caught in a liminal limbo between the old status and the status yet to come, the initiate is expected to accept the praise with humility, to endure the indignity with dignity, and to take the bitter with the sweet (or the tasteless). One conjures an awareness of the cold dampness of a stone wall pressing against his back and imagines himself facing an armed tenure committee, while someone offers him a last cigarette. He does not smoke.
But in this case one's overactive imagination must yield to gratitude. I am indebted to David Moltke-Hansen for his generous introduction and his virtuoso orchestration of the theme and structure of the session. And I am grateful to David Hackett Fischer, Sylvia Frey, James L. Peacock, and Stephanie Shaw, who—circumscribed though they are by the rigid laws of ritual—have performed their celebratory duties splendidly, with an intensity of analysis and an elegance of expression that compel our admiration and our appreciation. Still, I'm afraid they have not only hastened with unseemly forbearance over that part about opportunities not seized, they have been utterly remiss in the one about flaws and fallacies. Only a few members of the audience have been visibly moved to pity and terror.
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The panel's underperformance in the slings and arrows department compels me to subpoena a witness for the prosecution. I summon C. Vann Woodward. In an exchange in the pages of the New York Review of Books in 1990 he chided me for having taken one road too many with this creolization business. "Charles Joyner is right," he wrote, "in saying that Africans came to America without a common language or culture." But he warned that I was "going a bit far" when I held that "enslaved Africans were compelled to create a new language, a new religion, indeed a new culture." With characteristic generosity Vann offered to rephrase my meaning. "What I think he intended to say," he wrote, "is that they Africanized the old culture they encountered in the South or adapted it to their needs."
The opportunity to have one's own clumsily expressed intentions rephrased...