The study of African American folklore has been grounded from its beginnings in the colonial period in discourses and power dynamics of race. This chapter posits that these beginnings have given rise to two folkloristic traditions, with differing agendas, methodologies, aesthetics, relationships to black communities, and investments in race. The mainstream tradition has been aligned with scholarly trends within academe and has seldom focused explicitly on the most pressing concerns of black people, or on the most obvious influence on the creation and expression of black folklore, namely race. The other tradition has been more aligned with the political interests, racial histories, and day-to-day needs of African American communities. This chapter critically examines these two tributaries, relative to issues of race, arguing for an African American folklore and folklife studies that embraces an African American–centered political focus while encompassing the unique intellectual contributions of both.
Teaching Native American literature to the uninformed student is not an easy task, especially when compared to teaching mainstream literature, African-American literature, Chicano literature, or Asian literature. The teacher of Native literature can help in correcting misconceptions about American Indians by teaching the reality of the American Indian experience in both historic and contemporary times. In this article, the author examines the stakes of being a Native person teaching Native American literature based on her personal experience as a teacher. She also stresses the importance of using novels and short stories to engage students.
For outsiders, the languages of Latino literature are English, Spanish, and code-switching between the two languages. What is more, code-switching is considered a symptom of not knowing either language well. At the same time, Latinos themselves feel anxiety toward perceived deficiencies in both languages. This essay argues that Latino literature offers a complex use of language that can be appreciated through the lens of translation. This essay explores the forms of translation present in Latino literature suggesting that Spanish and English always exist in the presence and under the influence of each other. Discussions of Felipe Alfau, Junot Díaz, and Urayoán Noel highlight the centrality of translation issues in Latino writing ranging from creative output and expression to the making of subsequent versions of literary texts. Overall, considerations of translation in Latino studies can lead to a more complex understanding of the work of translators and multilingual writing in general.
Emilio del Valle Escalante
Since the 1980s, Mayas in the Yucatan Peninsula have produced a literary canon that seeks to distance itself from Indigenismo, or literature about the indigenous world by non-Indians. This literary canon, which ranges from poetry to theater, songs, prayers, narrative, testimonies, and legends, is an attempt on the part of the Mayas to affirm and establish their own literary and cultural authority. This chapter examines the origins of contemporary Maya literature in the Yucatan Peninsula, focusing on Jorge Cocom Pech’s 1997 autobiographical account Muk’ult’an in Nool (Grandfather’s Secrets). It looks at the book’s critique of modernity, as well as its affirmation of Maya cultural identity and indigenous knowledge. It also discusses the ambiguities and contradictions in Cocom Pech’s work, which favors a patriarchal Maya order that ignores the contribution of indigenous women.
Amy K. Milligan
Bodylore includes the ways in which the body is used as a canvas for inherited and chosen identity. Bodylore considers the symbolic inventory of dress and hair, addressing a range of identities from conservative religious groups like the Amish and the Hasidim to edgy goth and punk devotees. The body is scripted in portrayals of race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, and politics, including such topics as tattoos, piercing, scarification, hair covering and styling, traditional and folk dress, fashion, and body modification. The central bodylore questions are whether individuals choose consciously or subconsciously to engage with their performative body, as well as why the body is often overlooked as a text within academic studies. This essay identifies the body as a malleable folkloric space, allowing for its symbols to function in both personal and public ways.
This article discusses the American constitutional elegy. It argues that American national difference in literature can be tracked in the terms of its engagement with specifically American constitutional principles, concentrating on the national period, beginning in the late eighteenth century with the Revolutionary War and sketching the story up to the present day. It then returns to the great theme of elegy as a flexible form and its practices under persistent self-scrutiny. All choral poetry carries with it an association with the choruses of ancient, especially Athenian, tragedy and thus with the common understanding that the chorus speaks as or on behalf of a democratic citizenry. Marilyn Hacker has written a ‘constitutional elegy’ in the great American tradition, a tradition that continues to challenge our principled commitment to the legal and symbolic bonds of ‘adjacent difference’ in a rights-based national polity.
Since the nineteenth century, attention in folklore and folklife studies has shifted from viewing certain customary symbolic actions such as “calendar customs” and rituals of the life course to a more inclusive performance-oriented perspective on holidays and customs. Folklorists recognize the multiplicity of events that people may consider ritual and festival, and the porous nature of these categories. The concept of the “sacred” has expanded to include realms other than the strictly religious, so as to include the political and other domains, both official and unofficial. A comprehensive study of ritual and festival incorporates a close study of folk and popular actions as well as institutional ceremony. In the twenty-first century, approaching events as both carnivalesque and ritualesque allows folklorists to describe purpose and intention in public events, and to account for political, commemorative, celebratory, and festive elements in any particular event.
Folk dramas and festivals are encapsulated units of culture that distill, concretize, and make manifest through enactment important cultural values and ideas. Bounded in time and space, they offer scholars an isolatable prism through which to examine culture, making them appealing objects of study. They are marked off in time and space and amalgamate other genres such as song, dance, art, costume, food, and narrative to produce synergistic events that are greater than the sum of their parts. They also happen in public arenas, rely on active audience participation, and invoke frameworks of play. Both festivals and folk dramas create alternative worlds in order to transform reality. Festivals in particular are characterized by license, inversion, and a high degree of ambiguity. Which ideas, values, or social arrangements are proposed, whose values they represent, and how these ideas are contested or contradicted in festival and folk drama arenas remain important fields of investigation.
C. Kurt Dewhurst and Marsha MacDowell
This chapter addresses the wide range of folk art and crafts related to the study of those who make, use, and find meaning in the handmade object in America. The definitions of folk, popular, visionary, outsider, and fine arts have long been challenged and reassessed by scholarly and public communities, communities that sometimes but not always overlap. Debates have raged over the boundaries between art and craft, the viability of the handmade traditional object in the digital, postmodern age, and the discernible distinctive aesthetic characteristics of this body of American expressive culture. This chapter presents a flexible, interdisciplinary perspective on defining folk art and craft in America. It also offers avenues for folk art and craft scholarship such as relationships of aging, human rights, migration, sexuality and gender, and health to the study of folk artists and their communities, and encourages building on the legacy of material culture scholarship from the collections and research of museums and governmental agencies in addition to higher education institutions.
Alan Dundes (1971) proposed the phrase “folk idea” as a concept folklorists could and should use to link the folk items and practices they usually study to larger patterns in American culture, a goal that other familiar folklore concepts (such as myth and genre) could not accomplish. Folk ideas are “underlying assumptions” and offer people ways to order and understand their experiences. Folk ideas move across levels of culture, entering popular culture and even high culture. Dundes saw the folk idea as the smallest unit of the worldview of a people, recognizing that the concept of “worldview” is as vague as “folk idea” and that both needed to be operationalized through concrete examples. The Dundes project is where American folklore studies and American Studies meet, as American Studies scholars look to American history, literature, and the arts for evidence of larger patterns in American culture.
Simon J. Bronner
The study of traditional buildings, constructions, and cultural landscapes is part of what folklorists refer to as “material culture.” In addition to recording the folklore of various structures, folklorists analyze buildings inside and outside as complex expressive texts examined for their form, construction, use, and decoration. Analysis of form has usually been a primary concern for comparative study of region, ethnicity, and space, and behavioral aspects in and around buildings have gained attention for studies of everyday life and cognition that generate the enclosures people build—including dwellings for animals, vegetation, and the deceased as part of cultural landscapes. Using different terms such as “folk housing” and “vernacular architecture” for constructed dwellings, folklorists examine buildings and constructions, and their surroundings, such as lawns, fences, and planted trees, in continuous development and change. This view is apparent in the different research goals using structural and behavioral evidence of buildings, constructions, and cultural landscapes to determine (1) regional boundaries and ideas of space, (2) community and individual affiliation with architectural styles and building techniques, and (3) identification of cognitive process and symbolism of American building forms.
Eric César Morales
This chapter examines the moving body as a performance site for cultural values and histories in America. It encourages cross-cultural analysis of structured movement systems that include both dance and nondance, while also examining historical approaches to dance and how dance can serve practical and aesthetic purposes. Dance is a powerful vehicle for understanding folklore since populations around the world transmit their folktales, mythologies, and histories physically—in conjunction with or in lieu of oral storytelling. Attempts to define folk dance and the forms of movement that are included in relation to tradition, mostly from anthropology, are covered and the suggestion is made to develop folkloristic approaches to the subject. This essay locates current conceptualizations of folk, ethnic, and American dance, and it suggests that folkloristics can better analyze dance, specifically narrative dance, through the metaframework of choreopoetics. This is an approach grounded in methexis rather than mimesis that engages with the community-centered aspects of narrative dance, analyzing it as a holistic unit and taking into account the staging, movement, costuming, music, and unseen layers deemed important by a cultural group.
Folk medicine and health practices have long been thought to be primarily old-fashioned and antithetical to modern medicine, whereas in actuality they are often used alongside and as a complement to mainstream medicine. The tension between vernacular authority and institutional authority has always been complex, but it has become increasingly so due to the Internet, both as a source of information and as a source of community. Online communities have defined not only how patients create identity but have also helped to define the care they choose and receive. These issues are further complicated by immigration and globalization and the rise in social movements such as feminism, LGBTQ rights, disability studies, and fat studies, among others.
Stephen D. Winick
Folk music, folk songs, and ballads are nested categories of traditional expression: folk songs are folk music that has words, and ballads are folk songs that tell stories. These genres are universal; all people make music, and almost all start with what scholars would call “folk music.” Nevertheless, this chapter suggests specific ways to find and study them in an American context. Music, songs, and ballads are created by individuals, circulate orally, are adapted by other individuals, and thus become communally re-created works of art. Finding and studying such works is a challenge, requiring us to combine aspects of historical inquiry, literary and linguistic analysis, musicological study, and ethnography. These genres have also become part of popular culture in ways that have been called “folkloresque,” one of which is the movement generally known as “the folk revival.” Virtually all Americans hear folk music in the context of these folkloresque adaptations.
Associated with all stages of life, from the cradle to the grave, American folk poetry can be serious or light-hearted, irreverent, and subversive. The genre includes rhymes, recitations, and inscriptions of many varieties. Scholars have given particular attention to children’s folk poetry; they should examine folk poetry of adulthood in greater depth and pay attention to interrelationships between children’s and adults’ folk poetry. Many studies of American folk poetry are based upon English-language poetics; more poetry of diverse ethnic and linguistic origins should be examined in detail. As in studies of other genres of folklore, it is necessary to consider connections to related expressive forms; game and ritual are among the genres that have an especially close relationship to folk poetry. In various settings, including small groups of friends, large organized groups, public performances, and interaction on the Internet, folk poetry continues to grow and change.
Charles Clay Doyle
Comprising the briefest kinds of folklore, the category folk speech (including traditional nonoral “speech” like some gestures and conventions of electronic communication) is often misconstrued. Because folklore consists of consciously performed “texts,” folk speech cannot include words or pronunciations that normally—unconsciously—characterize a given speaker’s regional, social, or ethnic dialect. Many “classic” glossaries that folklorists cite in discussing folk speech are largely concerned, rather, with dialect or with argot specific to an occupation. As with other genres of folklore, folk speech is motivated by a wish to affirm one’s membership in a folk group, but folk speech can also feature an individual speaker’s wit, creativity, even originality. The desire to certify one’s “belonging” to a group can take the form of verbally derogating other groups or disfavored members of one’s own group.
Lucy M. Long
As a central aspect of human lives, food, foodways, and eating have been included in American folklore research since the mid- 20th century and have been used to explore the dynamics of folk groups, ethnicity and regionalism, identity construction, artistic expression, and power hierarchies. This essay offers a definition of folkloristic perspectives on food, identifying three areas of emphasis that characterize folkloristics in general but are particularly relevant to the study of food: the personal (as in individual agency within larger structures), aesthetics (artistry and creativity as a part of that agency, and aesthetic experience as a motivation for engaging in cultural forms), and meaningfulness (sense of connectedness between individuals and their pasts, places, and other people). The essay examines food as cultural, social, and personal construction and as performance of identity, then offers two methodological frameworks for studying food: ethnography of eating and foodways. It concludes by exploring ways in which folkloristic approaches to food can be applied to issues within the food system as well as to broader questions around nationalism, cultural appropriation, authenticity, social inequalities, and community building.
As representations of mourning and beliefs about death, gravemarkers and memorial assemblages (also referred to as spontaneous shrines and makeshift memorials) are often cast in binary opposition, defined by temporal intention on the part of the maker(s). Gravemarkers have been studied for their materialization of ideological, socioeconomic, and aesthetic values and trends. As artifacts intended to be permanent, gradual changes in markers may provide a record of the twin forces of folklore, conservatism and dynamism, at work in shaping themes in funerary practices over time. In contrast to gravemarkers, memorial assemblages are marked as ephemeral, underscoring human mortality. Folkloristic research seeks to understand the participatory and performative nature of both markers and assemblages, noting the memorial, celebratory, and other communicative intentions and possibilities embodied by ritual and assemblage in addition to considerations of form. Moreover, these lieux de memoire are more holistically understood in relation to each other, as elements of dynamic memorial complexes.
Humor is omnipresent in modern American life. Since the late nineteenth century, a sense of humor has come to be seen as essential for a healthy personality. Along with the rise of humor in American thought and life, jokes have become a predominant form of American folk expressive culture. Folklorists document jokelore in situ, recording both texts and contexts—historical, comparative, social, cultural, and individual. They treat jokes as artistic expressions and consider how individual style and personality relate to them. As pluralists, American folklorists emphasize that the modern jokes of urban life do not constitute the entirety of humorous expression. It is in this combination of ethnographic, humanistic, and pluralist stances that folklorists contribute to humor studies generally.
Legends, anecdotes, and personal narratives express important dimensions of human experience and values. At times of difficulty, uncertainty, and threat, these narratives help people express worries and seek answers to disturbing questions. Related to rituals, games, and pranks, legends frequently appear on the Internet. The concept of ostension—enactment of legends—sheds light on legends’ relationship to ritual, especially in the context of the legend quest. Legends about gender, empowerment of women, suspicion of corporations’ nefarious activities, and natural and political disaster reflect society’s contemporary concerns. Folklorists benefit from further study of diverse ethnic groups’ legends and personal experience stories in American culture. With new forms of ostension emerging through use of the Internet and other technology, it is important to monitor and analyze expressive behavior online.