Tuesday, April 17, 2012

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. Dance is an English professor at the University of Richmond, who 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.”

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