Appointed As

Brown University Libraries


ACLS Emerging Voices Fellowships program


Brown University

PhD Field of Study

PhD, English, University of Virginia

Dissertation Abstract

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

Playing the Folk draws from a range of primary source materials to argue that Black, Native, and white authors created musical and dramatic performances using Black and Native folklore and anthropology in order to exchange and address changing ideas concerning race, gender, and class. The project focuses on the period from 1880 to 1940—a time in which Americans instrumentalized the intersecting arenas of music, folklore, and drama in an attempt to construct and claim an identity original to the nation. At the time that 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—the violence of assimila- tion of Native tribes, and the violent exclusion of Black communities—in the intersecting realms of poli- tics and culture. Black and Native 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-defini- tion, and insisted on bringing those spaces to life.

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, eth- nologist 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. The study illustrates how the vogue of writing about “the folk” enabled Black, Native, and white writers—from their respective social positions—to treat folklore as a contested space to negotiate matters of personhood, na- tionhood, and cultural authority on a national and global stage. In this study, I advance scholarship from a wide variety of interdisciplines to elucidate the significance of these vernacular musical performances of race. This scholarship includes, for instance, cultural historians like Sonnet Retman, who studies the rela- tionship between the creation of a “folk” past to meet the desire for national belonging; Black archival studies scholars like Daphne Brooks, whose work repositions Black artists and listening communities out- side of the damaging paradigms of “loss” and “discovery”; and Native Studies scholars like Margaret Bruchac, who introduces Indigenous informants as the co-creators of the Americanist school of anthro- pology.

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 on- going critical conversation about Hurston’s unique position as both ethnographer and ethnographic sub- ject by demonstrating how her folklore in particular was explicitly its own stage for Black drama; that she treats performance and recording each literally as a rehearsal of the other, disturbing the insistence on a distinction between them observed in ethnographic conventions. The second chapter compares the unex- amined dramatic work of Francis La Flesche (Omaha, Ponca) to that of prolific playwright Helen P. Kane’s 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 “Indi- anness.” Chapter three unearths and analyzes Langston Hughes’s sustained, non-teleological, and ex- ploratory 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 pub- lished in The Southern Workman, the chapter examines Curtis’s white, feminized, sentimental appropria- tion of Native life to trace that period’s association between Black and Native folk-song and folk-drama, as well as the lived relationships among Hurston, Hughes, La Flesche, Kane, and Curtis.