Friday, September 22, 2017

In Search of Brer Rabbit

Below the reader will see a feature article about Daryl Cumber Dance that I wrote in 2003. It was published by a Richmond magazine called FiftyPlus. At that time Dance was an English professor at the University of Richmond. She has written extensively about African American folklore.

*

Unbeknownst to the slave traders transporting their kidnapped human cargo from Africa to the New World, there was a stowaway on-board. Folklore scholars tell us that Brer Rabbit made his way across the Atlantic Ocean, hidden in the minds of shackled men and women on their way to a life that might as well have been on another planet.

Impish Brer Rabbit is just one of the fascinating characters from African American folklore who appeal to University of Richmond English professor Daryl Cumber Dance.

In Dance’s newest book, "From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore," she has fashioned an eclectic collection of African American folklore, music lyrics, art, toasts, proverbs, riddles, and superstitions.

“What I’m doing is capturing a certain tradition, in print,” she said of her 736-page anthology, published last year by W. W. Norton.

That “certain tradition” was a subculture that in its time relied entirely on the spoken word of storytellers, or griots (pronounced gree-oh). After all, it was illegal during extended parts of America’s slavery era to even teach Negroes how to read and write.

In "From My People," next to her collection of yarns featuring mythical characters, such as Brer Rabbit, the Signifying Monkey, and Stagolee, Dance includes thought-provoking samples of the words of well-known black figures, including Ralph Ellison, Jelly Roll Morton, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Then, too, there’s a chapter on Soul Food, with plenty of useful recipes.

While Brer Rabbit made it to America’s shores in the memories of slaves, Dance pointed out, it was Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908), author of the Uncle Remus stories, who brought Brer Rabbit to the reading public.

Slaves told him those stories, featuring animals blessed or cursed with human-like traits, when he was a boy. Uncle Remus, the kindly yarn-spinner, was Harris’s invention. Significantly, the stories were written in a style he asserted was the dialect spoken by slaves in his youth. Harris also underlined the universal nature of stories concerning subjugated underdogs and their struggle for survival with dignity intact.

Dance happily subscribes to the basic idea expressed by mythology guru Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), when he held forth, in his authoritative writings on storytelling in ancient civilizations, that fables about heroes and their transforming quests are more similar than not.

Now, well after the days of Harris’ Uncle Remus, the study of folklore has become quite important to historians and anthropologists. Then, too, folklore can also be seen as the forerunner to today’s popular culture of magazines, movies, popular music and broadcasting.

The word “toast” is among the interesting terms Dance examines in From My People. As she explains, toasts were artful rants presented from the point of view of a powerful black man. They began to be a popular form of expression/entertainment in urban neighborhoods around the turn of the century. They were always bawdy.

“A clean version of a toast is not a toast,” said Dance, eyebrows raised.

She struggled with how to include such material in From My People. Nonetheless, Chapter Nine contains some traditional toasts, including Stagolee.

If that title has a familiar ring to it, that’s because there is a raft of songs out there about a gun-toting Stagolee, or Stagger Lee. New Orleans singer/songwriter Professor Longhair did his take on it, “Stag O Lee,” in 1974. There was also Lloyd Price’s big hit, “Stagger Lee,” in 1959. Still, Mississippi John Hurt’s version of the song, “Stack O'Lee Blues,” in 1928, is considered the definitive version.

Deciding the book needed some examples of traditional toasts in it, while also wanting to make it accessible to young readers, Dance compromised her long-held belief in absolute authenticity, to do with wording. She crafted a few substitute terms, here and there, hoping to retain the original toast’s meaning and verve.

As a toast, Stagolee probably originated in turn-of-the-century Memphis. It may well have been based on a real murder. Eventually the songs came, with all the variations on the same theme. Today, it’s easy to imagine the bloody saga of Stagolee and Billy presented with a hip hop treatment.

“Rap is an outgrowth of the toast,” said Dance. “Things find ways of going on.”

That apt observation sheds light on such acts as the legendary Last Poets. Their first performances in New York City in 1968, of what many popular culture aficionados see now as seminal rap music, could also be seen as bringing the long-established tradition of the toast forth for a new generation.

Born in Richmond in 1938, Daryl Cumber grew up on land in nearby Charles City County that her free black ancestors of the Brown family owned in the time of legalized slavery in Virginia. Of course, if any of those pre-Civil War ancestors traveled, they were well advised to carry their precious free papers with them, to be able to prove their status. The regional tradition that kept most folks close to home had its roots in reason.

Dance’s father was a jointer at the shipyard in Newport News. He also built and owned a beer garden called the Shanty Inn. It was a no-frills place with a jukebox where the black men and women who lived in the county gathered to wet their whistles and socialize. At first he kept his day job, but eventually he began working full-time at his own business, once it began to thrive.

The Shanty Inn wasn’t a wild roadhouse or whiskey-serving speakeasy, Dance said. Still, young Daryl wasn’t permitted to go inside during business hours. She was nine years old when her father died of a heart attack, at the age of 36.

As a girl, Dance expected to become a teacher. “I always wrote,” she said with a laugh and a sigh. “I had the nerve to send a play to a radio show [called] ‘Dr. Christian’.”

Although she may have thought about becoming a lawyer, as her grandfather was, in her bucolic 1950s world women didn’t study law.

“In my family, women taught,” said Dance, who attended Ruthville High School, which had been named for a great-great aunt, Ruth Brown. Daryl Cumber went on to Virginia State College, where she majored in English, and in 1956 she began her teaching career at Armstrong High School in Richmond.

Two years later she married Warren C. Dance, a teacher who is now retired from Richmond Public Schools; he also served on the adjunct faculties of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and Virginia Union University. The union of life-long teachers has produced three children (two sons and a daughter), who, in turn, have produced two grandchildren, so far.

Speaking of family, From My People is dedicated to “my son Allen Cumber Dance, a bright, handsome, generous, and supportive individual who would make any mother proud, but an inveterate Trickster, who almost always makes me worry a little but laugh a lot.”

Dance returned to Virginia State to get an M.A., which was followed by a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia. She has received a couple of Ford Foundation Fellowships, three Southern Fellowships Fund grants, two National Endowment for the Humanities grants, a Fulbright research grant, a grant from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, and other honors too numerous to list in this space.

Ten years ago, after teaching at Virginia State University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Virginia Commonwealth University, she became a member of the English Department faculty at the University of Richmond.

Dance now has eight books to her credit. Her first, Shuckin' and Jivin': Folklore from Contemporary Black Americans (1978), established her as an emerging figure in the folklore field. Subsequent books have dealt with a variety of subjects, including Caribbean folkore and African American women’s humor.

Long Gone: The Mecklenburg Six and the Theme of Escape in Black Folklore, published in 1987, buffed her reputation not only as a dauntless researcher, but also as a scholar who was willing to weigh in on controversial matters and deal with them evenhandedly.

With an unflinching directness, Dance sought to demonstrate how the audacious 1984 escape from a maximum-security prison’s death row by the two infamous Briley brothers (and four accomplices) fell into a well-established template of tales about the authorities searching for black men on the lam.

The crimes of Linwood and James Briley (both were eventually executed) were not the book’s issue. Their much-storied last gasp of freedom was. The mainstream media’s high-profile accounts of the escape and subsequent sightings of the escapees - many of which were more hysterical than they were accurate - stoked the myth-making machine, spawning songs, stories, and all sorts of curious Briley brothers’ memorabilia. However, their crimes, carried out in Richmond, were so gruesome that some in the area couldn’t countenance the notion that such wretched men should be written about in any way, other than to condemn them.

Dance was surprised at how many people, officials and private citizens alike, attempted to frustrate her project. Nonetheless, the scholar pressed on. In the book she mentions that a good number of people also went out of their way to help her overcome contrived obstacles.

Tall and graceful in manner, Daryl Cumber Dance brings a rare combination of tools to her work. Her curiosity and integrity don’t stumble over one another. She intuitively blends her researcher’s need to seek the authentic, with her chosen role of editor/translator of an arcane language from another age. In the doing, Dance uses those colorful expressions to paint an American history with what amounts to an impressionistic style.

Yet, her very Southern-seeming modesty makes her laugh softly and shrug off the suggestion that she should be called a “historian,” a “folklorist,” or even, a “writer.”

“I haven’t written novels,” said the English professor in her Ryland Hall office.

What about the seeming contradiction of an expert on the folk culture established by generations of slaves, and their descendants, on tweedy Richmond’s West End campus?

“Richmond is beginning to be a different school than what people think,” replied Dance.

Throughout her enlightening examination of an American history that has been largely ignored by traditional historians, Dance uses the words Negro, Colored, Black, and African-American with equal ease. She explains that she chooses the term that was appropriate in the era to which she is referring.

In fact, Dance seems completely at ease with all sorts of words that ruffle feathers. And, she seems just as at ease in her own mahogany-colored skin. That has to be part of her success as a researcher. It’s easy to imagine that strangers would be disarmed by her gentle curiosity and trust her with their stories.

While Brer Rabbit was shanghaied, once he returned to land he was far too slippery to be held down for long. He freely hopped from one generation to the next. Trials and tribulations came and went, but Brer’s dignity was crushproof.

“The story of our history, as African Americans,” said Daryl Cumber Dance, “is just beginning to be told.”

-- 30 --

From Yeats to Greene to Stone

As a professor, Balcomb Greene
is said to have had a significant 
influence on Andy Warhol.
Revved up over an English class assignment to write a paper on "The Second Coming," by W. B. Yeats, I stayed up all night crafting it, and thought I had hit a home run. The professor, an awkward, gangly sort of fellow in his mid-20s, gave me a “C” on it.

Well, I just had to ask him to explain to me what was wrong with the paper. In a private conference he told me my analysis of the poem didn't jibe with the accepted school of thought on what Yeats was saying. While admitting my writing and analytical technique were fine, he nervously explained that I was simply wrong in my conclusions, no matter how well-stated my case might have been.

That sort of pissed me off, so I told him I thought that ambiguity could imply multiple meanings, and it deliberately invited alternative interpretations. Rather than defend his stance the man suddenly grabbed his face and broke into tears.

The sobbing professor went into a monologue on the shambles his life had fallen into. His personal life! Worst of all, he said, his deferral had just been denied by Selective Service, so he would soon be drafted.

He was wearing a pitiful brown suit. His thinning beige hair was oiled flat against his scalp. My anger over the bad grade turned into disgust. As I remember it, I walked out of his office to keep from telling him what I thought. Now I regret my impatience and feel sorry for the poor schlemiel.

Still, when the offer came at the end of the semester to expand my part-time job to full-time, I took the leap. My chief duty was to schlep visiting scholars around Virginia from one university campus to the next in a big black Lincoln.

Each week, under the auspices of the University Center in Virginia -- a consortium of Virginia colleges and universities -- there was a new scholar in a different field. Somebody had to drive them to lectures, dinners, convocations and to hotels throughout the week. For the spring semester of 1969 that was me.

Naturally, in the crisscrossing of Virginia, the wiseguy driver and the actually wise scholars had a lot of time to talk. Some of them kept to themselves, mostly. Others were quite chatty, in several cases we got along well and had great talks.

Three of them stand out as having been the best company on the road: Daniel Callahan (then-writer/editor at Commonweal Magazine), Henry D. Aiken (writer/philosophy professor) and Balcomb Greene (artist/philosopher and art history professor).

Callahan challenged me to think more thoroughly about situational ethics and morality. He was happy I was reading the books of Herman Hesse and others. He turned me on to “One Dimensional Man,” by Herbert Marcuse.

Callahan was quite curious about my experiences taking LSD, we talked about drugs and religion. Click here to read about him.

Aiken (1912-‘82) was then the chairman of the philosophy department at Brandeis University, he loved a debate. He was used to holding his own against the likes of William F. Buckley. Talking with him about everything under the sun in the wee hours, I first acquired a taste for good Scotch whiskey (which I haven't tasted in years).
From a ‘pragmatic’ point of view, political philosophy is a monster, and whenever it has been taken seriously, the consequence, almost invariably, has been revolution, war, and eventually, the police state.

-- Henry D. Aiken
Aiken, like Callahan, agreed to help me with a project I told them about. Inspired by popular new magazines like Ramparts, Avant-Garde, Rolling Stone, etc., at 21-years-old, I wanted to jump straight into magazine publishing, with no experience, ASAP.

That dream stayed on the back burner for 16 years, until the first issue of SLANT came out in 1985. How I went about designing SLANT to be a small magazine, mostly featuring the work of its publisher, flowed in great part from my brief association with Balcomb Greene (1904-90). Of the rent-a-scholars I met, he was easily the funniest.

The son of a Methodist minister, Greene grew up in small towns in the Midwest. He studied philosophy at Syracuse University, psychology at the University of Vienna and English at Columbia University. Then he switched to art, having been influenced by his first wife, Gertrude Glass, an artist he had married in 1926. He became a founder of the avant-garde group known as American Abstract Artists in 1936.

After World War II, just as abstract art was gaining acceptance, Greene radically changed his style. He began painting in a more figurative, yet dreamy, style that fractured time. Click here,
and here, to read about Greene and see examples of his work.

One day I’ll write a piece about the visit to Sweetbriar with Greene. It was a hoot collaborating with him, to have some fun putting on the blue-haired art ladies of that venerable institution. This time my mention of him is to get this piece to I.F. Stone. It was Greene who gave me a subscription to I.F. Stone’s Weekly.

I.F. “Izzy” Stone (1907-89) was an independent journalist in a way few have ever been. In the 1960s his weekly newsletter was a powerful voice challenging the government’s propaganda about the war in Vietnam. Click here to read about Stone, and here.
"All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out."
-- I.F. Stone
Stone remains one of my heroes. At my best, over the years, I have emulated him in my own small ways. Thank you for the schooling, Professor Greene.

-- 30 --

Monday, September 18, 2017

Bizarro Easter Parade

Sat., Sept. 16, 2017: 10:27 a.m.: 1600 block of Monument Ave.


It was a bright, beautiful Saturday morning all over town. Folks came to Richmond's storied Monument Avenue with their placards and supplies. They came in their get-ups, including T-shirts with slogans for some, including combat equipment for others. They came to ruffle feathers; they came to keep the peace. They came to strut their righteous stuff … oh yeah.

On September 16, 2017, tasteful green, waist-high barricades hooked-one-to-the-next defined the areas around the towering Robert E. Lee memorial that had been designated for civilians, as well as the areas restricted to officials only. There were plenty of tourists in pairs and there were a few teams/organized groups that marched, en masse, into the scene with banners … oh yeah.

Exactly five months after this year's Easter Parade crowd milled around on that same stately Fan District avenue, what amounted to a Bizarro Easter Parade unfolded before us who live in the neighborhood.

For a much fretted-over demonstration set in motion by self-styled Confederacy aficionados, a rally that threatened to be Son-of-Charlottesville, there was a surprising shortage of signifying for the Lost Cause. If the alt-right was represented in the neighborhood, they were stealthy and I missed them. I saw no Nazi regalia.

Basically, there were the two opposing aspects of the spectacle, such as it was: The CSA II's mini-rally of Confederate monument worshipers and the much larger turnout of people to confront and denounce that rally. Then, of course, there were the spectators satisfying their curiosity.

On the east side of the Lee Monument a faction of those confronters caused a stir for a spell with their chants and fuming at their opposition – Hey Ho! Hey Ho! – but what I saw of it came nowhere near boiling over into violence.

What didn't happen was a riot. Even the media on hand, pros and amateurs, out-numbered the main attraction – those demonstrators, local and imported – determined to save the monuments from removal. If it was a contest for turnout, the so-called counter-protesters – Antifa and various peace and social justice groups – won by a wide margin. In that sense, it was a good day for the lefties and moderates.

Kudos to the City of Richmond for its plan to deal with the range of possibilities the situation presented, going into the day. Likewise, from what I saw firsthand the cops executed their strategy well. Looking back on the expense of managing that event, it's harmless to joke about how much money was spent. No doubt, on Monday, the 18th, some of it might seem to have been unnecessary. Still, on Friday, the 15th, no one could know what would be necessary.
OK, about Antifa: First of all, as an old goat watching from afar, I gather it's not accurate to view all Antifa activists and sympathizers in the same light. So I'll try to be fair.

Meanwhile, I'm glad that some people were brave and smart enough during the evening of Aug. 11 to help protect peace-loving worshipers in a Charlottesville church from the lathered up, torch-carrying alt-right crazies on the street.

If an aspect of Antifa deserves the lion's share of credit in that instance, then I'm grateful to them. Direct action worked.
Just as Antifa, Black Lives Matter and many Americans who aren't members of mission-driven groups, I am alarmed by the growing threat a new wave of fascism is imposing on the USA today. While I want to help quell that threat, too, my experience tells me to be careful with my tactics.

Which brings me to this point: The faction of Antifa currently insisting that no one photograph them when they are making news on public streets must be challenged. Sorry, in this country no matter how righteous their cause may seem, no one is morally or legally entitled to assault members of the working press who are documenting events in the public way. No one is entitled to menace bystanders shooting photos of what's happening outdoors in front of them.

The threat of fascism being sold by populist hate-mongers will always be with us. Societies will always be somewhat vulnerable to the harm radical ideologies can facilitate. Each generation faces threats of that sort to the commonweal. It's our duty to deal with them wisely in our time.
On the other hand, hurling threats and violence at the media is exactly how fascist villains have operated in the past. Activists of any stripe who advocate using such intimidating tactics today can't be allowed to become the face of “the resistance.” 
Simply put, that mistake would invite disaster.
Now let's sit down over coffees, or perhaps beers, and talk calmly about which Confederate monument in Richmond should be the first one removed … oh yeah.

– 30 – 

-- Words and photo by by F.T. Rea

Monday, September 11, 2017

Guerrilla Art in Bryan Park Gets a B

Image from Indecline
Please note: My background to do with street art, graffiti, guerrilla art, etc., is a little different from most folks who opine about it in periodicals and on social media. Some longtime Richmonders know what I mean with that assertion. For those who don't, let's just say my hands didn't stay clean in the day.

That admission isn't to say I'm endorsing vandalism today. Nor is it to brag about my outlaw handbiller times. It means I've considered the realm of unauthorized expression and prankdom from various perspectives. My mind is open to the notion that sometimes such urgent, do-it-yourself expressions can sometimes have a righteous nature. 

Anyway, here's what I've got to say about the Sept. 5, 2017, Ku Klux Klowns stunt/art installation in Richmond's Bryan Park, a beautiful urban park with lots of big old trees, executed by a group calling itself Indecline.

As far as commenting on this caper/piece goes, I'm doing it without having seen it firsthand. It didn't stay on display in the park for all that long, so like most people who know about it at all, I've only seen still and moving pictures. Plus, I've read at least 10 articles about it. I also watched the Indecline-produced video on the stunt

As far as I know, no one was injured and no property was damaged. In my book that's good and not always easy to manage. So, in some ways the caper was done with precision. While the image of eight lynched clowns Indecline created had its disturbing aspects – after all, it drew on horrific photographs of mass lynchings we've all seen – it was not over-the-top vulgar or gross.

The group said they were reacting to Charlottesville's violent scene on Aug. 12th. They said they chose Richmond for its history. All that made sense. Mocking the KKK always makes sense. 

It was a striking image. Still, by putting clown masks and big clown shoes on the KKK-garbed effigies levity was used to softened the nightmare angle, somewhat. Moreover, that's just where I think they began to create a little problem, in that they raised the bar.

It seems the clown masks and goofy shoes weren't enough, the political pranksters hung a placard on one of the effigies that said: "If attacked by a mob of clowns, go for the juggler."

Photo from Indecline
OK, I'm not sure how many meanings can be wrung out of that statement. It seems mostly like a superfluous last-second dollop of absurdity. Not knowing when to quit can hurt your grade. Were they hedging their bet? 

If you want to be spot-on, art-wise, politically and flawless with the caper … AND then you want to be funny, too, well, that's trying to play at the top level of social commentary. That's on Luis Buñuel's level. That's on J.D. Salinger's level.

So I give Indecline a B for its well-executed KKK stunt and I'm looking forward to what they do next.

-- 30 --

Evil's Second Coming

Note: This reaction to 9/11 piece was originally published by STYLE Weekly on May 15, 2002.

*
Evil's Second Coming
by F.T. Rea

Washing in on what poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) might have called a “blood-dimmed tide,” the specter of evil suddenly emerged from the periphery of modern life eight months ago. In the blue skies of the time before 9/11’s sucker punch, the notion of pure evil had an Old World air about it. Absolutes, such as good and evil, had no seat at the table of postmodern thinking.

After 9/11, a generation of Americans suddenly learned a bitter lesson: Evil never went away. Living in a land of plenty, it had gotten to be a pleasant habit to avert our eyes from evil-doings in lands of want. Evil had gone out of style, as a concept, only because times were so easy.

The last American president to get much mileage out of the word "evil" was probably Ronald Reagan, with his “evil empire” characterization of the USSR and its sphere of influence. Now, 20 years later, we have a president who sees “an axis of evil” — an alleged phenomenon that puzzles most of the world’s leaders, or so they say.

George W. Bush apparently has little use for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stalwart advice to a nation in need of a boost in confidence — “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Rather than urge his people to rise above it, Bush chooses to color-code fear. The propagandists of the Bush administration have been successful in cultivating the public’s anxiety since September. Whether that’s been done for our own good remains to be seen. Perhaps it has, but this much is clear now — all the official danger alerts about nuclear power plants, bridges and crop-dusters have been effective in keeping most of the natural questioning of the administration’s moves at bay.

To hear Attorney General John Ashcroft tell it, the architects of 9/11 are the personification of the most virulent form of evil ever known. Although much of the evidence that would establish his absolute guilt in connection with 9/11 remains a state secret, Osama bin Laden is said to have shot to the top of the chart.

Forget about Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin and Pol Pot. They were amateurs.Then again, evil, like beauty, has always been in the eye of the beholder.

Wasn’t it evil to deliberately dump tons of potent pesticide into the James River during the ’70s to make a greedy buck? Once it was in Virginia’s water, Kepone wasn’t so different from a bio-terror agent in the same water.


With the news seeping out of the cloisters about child-molesting priests and the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-ups, whose betrayal was more evil, the molester or the higher-ups who hid and facilitated his crimes?

Whether evil exists in some pure form, off in another dimension, is not my department. What’s known here is that in the real world evil is contagious. Lurking in well-appointed rooms or hiding in caves, evil remains as it ever was — ready to spread.

None of this is to suggest that al Qaida shouldn’t be put out of business. It isn’t to say that knocking the Taliban off was a bad idea. There’s no question here about whether the United States should protect itself from the networks of organized terror that are hell-bent on destroying the modern world.

Still, today’s evil is the same evil our forefathers faced in their wars. Evil hasn’t changed; technology has. With modern weapons in their hands, the fanatics of the world have the potential to wreak havoc like never before.

What has changed is the extent to which the hate festering in the souls of the world’s would-be poobahs and their sociopathic minions can be weaponized. It’s worth noting that the weapons of mass destruction that are scaring us the most were developed during the arms-race days of the Cold War by the game’s principal players.

So another question arises, who is more dangerous to civilization, the guys who spent their treasure to weaponize germs, or the guys who want to steal the stuff and use it on somebody?

Decades ago this was a concern expressed by some in the disarmament movement. Its scary what-if scenarios always included the likelihood that the Super Powers would eventually lose track of some of their exotic weapons. Looking back on it now, it seems obvious there was no way any government could keep all that material locked away from the greed and hate of determined free-lancers.

A man with a briefcase-style nuclear device may be no more evil than a man armed with a knife. Either danger could kill you just as dead. Those of us who feel connected to others, those who care about humanity's future know which one we should fear the most. The “rough beast” of dreadful evil “slouching towards” us is traveling on the back of technology of our own making.

While we watch out for organized terrorists in the short run, with a handy color code to guide us, it’s time to think more seriously about how to get rid of a lot of very dangerous weapons in the long run.

-- 30 --