Playing the Folk: Black & Native Vernacular Performance, 1880-1940

Abramowitz, Sophie, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ross, Marlon, AS-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia

“Playing the Folk” draws from a range of primary source materials to argue that Black and Native folklore, Native anthropology, and white interpellations of Black and Native musical and dramatic performance were in active material and rhetorical exchange during the period of 1880-1940. My research brings together the work of Americanist cultural historians Michael Denning, Karl Hagstrom Miller, and Sonnet Retman, Black (archival) studies scholars Daphne Brooks, Kara Keeling, Fred Moten, and Stefano Harney, and Native studies scholars Kiara Vigil, Elizabeth Maddox, Margaret Bruchac, and John Troutman, to elucidate the significance of these vernacular musical performances of race. Working both within and against discourses of extinction, primitivism, and pre-modernity that dominated the cultural and folkloric spheres, anthropologist, folklorist, and fiction writer Zora Neale Hurston, ethnologist and autobiographical fiction writer Francis La Flesche, and poet and vocational polymath Langston Hughes used ethnographic materials to experiment with different types of musical performance across cultural arenas and disciplines. In this way, each writer articulated their own creative versions of vernacular Black and Native identities that both worked within and resisted dominant discourses. At the same time, reformist folklorists like then-renowned Natalie Curtis Burlin and dramatists like lesser-known Indianist Helen P. Kane used Blackness and “Indianness” to negotiate their gendered whiteness in the public sphere using the same tools that Hurston, La Flesche, and Hughes reappropriated.

Drawing from Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic audio recordings, ephemera from her Black vernacular play The Great Day, and her extensive writing on Blackness and drama, the first chapter expands the ongoing critical conversation about Hurston’s unique position as both ethnographer and ethnographic subject by arguing that her folklore in particular was explicitly its own stage for Black drama; that each genre of performance and recording is often literally a rehearsal of the other, collapsing the distinction between both. The second chapter compares the unexamined dramatic work of Francis La Flesche (Omaha, Ponca) to prolific playwright Helen P. Kane’s writings in order to navigate La Flesche’s search for liberatory forms of meaning-making and to offer an early history of the “Indian Play”-genre, including both Native and white female interpellations of “Indianness.” Chapter three unearths and analyzes Langston Hughes’s sustained, non-teleological, and exploratory approach to Black music through his life’s work as a song collector, songwriter, and historian of Black music, paying particular attention to his unpublished song revue Run, Ghost, Run and avant-garde mixed media poem Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. A final coda engages with Curtis’s proposal to La Flesche to stage a traveling ethnographic performance. Reading her Indians’ Book next to a piece she published in The Southern Workman, the chapter examines Curtis’s white, feminized, sentimental interpellation of Native life as a means by which to trace the associative relationship between Black and Native folk-song and folk-drama, as well as the lived relationships between Hurston, Hughes, La Flesche, Kane, and Curtis.

At the time these authors were writing, fantasies of “primitive” Black and Native life on stage and in song helped to produce the theories of biological race that justified social oppression in the intersecting realms of politics and culture. These authors decided that the idea of “the folk” as it was communicated through music and drama had the potential to foster a space of possibility for racial and social self-definition, and insisted on bringing those spaces to life.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Hurston, Hughes, La Flesche, vernacular, performance, folklore
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