Looking at Folk: Black Rural Cultural Production and White Appropriation

To my knowledge, I’ve not had a professor or anyone in a position of authority in a classroom (where sincere questioning of power structures and imagining of new futures has happened) that has been visibly rural until this semester. In the first few weeks of class, I noticed our TA Katie’s accent. At first I wasn’t sure, but her lilting tone, rhotic accent (presence of the sound /r/ at the end of a word), and pronunciation of the short /a/ that’s characteristic of Rural White [Southern] English (my brackets) and Inland Northern American English. It was so gentle to hear. I did feel a little odd just asking sorta out of the blue where Katie was from (although I do try to use, ‘where’s home for you?’ to avoid the microaggressive implications around belonging of ‘where are you from?’). The day we began these self-reflective posts, though, I got the chance to ask. Our group was talking about the use of the words ‘y’all’ and ‘folk’ as gender non-specific ways to address people and Katie mentioned that she had taken the word y’all out of her talk because upon arriving at Geneseo, she was made fun of for her distinctively rural talk. I asked Katie where her home was, hopefully nonchalantly and not in a way that signaled that this had been in the back of my mind this whole course (I have no chill). It turns out, like me, Katie is from Livingston County. Not only rural, but local! I was tearing up. We launched into a discussion on what it means to be rural and have your experiences and community demeaned by peers and colleagues in the very place where your community is. For both me and Katie, it created shame around our rural identities. While I can name the deprioritization that academia and our campus community has placed around rurality, it’s extremely unlikely that I’ll face any physical violence for that facet of my identity.

It’s important to name the presence and practice of White Supremacy here, and how it plays out in material, embodied ways that people experience racism and discrimination. To put it less academically and windy, people in our Geneseo community (both year-round residents and student members of the community) experience racism here.  And what I hope to hold clear in this reflection is how that is a function of Whiteness, not rurality. Katie made a point on not assigning ideologies to geographies and commented that rural spaces aren’t racist because they’re rural, they’re racist because of whiteness and white supremacy. Western New York is not a safe place for Black folks and People of Color, nor is it for queer, trans, and gender nonconforming folks. It’s only more so for those who live at the intersection of race and queerness. Folks shared many stories with those same themes at both the town hall and the Cultivating Community dialogue we had on campus this semester. While those were important and pivotal events, decision makers shouldn’t need a packed room of people unearthing their hardships and trauma to want to do something (or in the case of our president, distance herself from her power to avoid accountability to curb racism on campus). This is a social sustainability issue to our movements.

Getting back to the term thread, let me base myself in the etymology of the word ‘folk.’ According to an online etymology dictionary, the word can trace its origins to the Old English folc, meaning common people or laity. It as well is related to the Latin plebe, meaning the populace or the common people. So when we use this word, I’m interested in what sort of ‘common people’ we’re referring to. Popular conceptions of rurality are steeped in whiteness and this class has contributed to the unlearning of that idea.

The word ‘folk’ for me used to mean all white string bands, all white square dances, white women using herbs and poultices as medicine. Of course, before I wasn’t thinkING about the racial and ethnic composition of those spaces. They were just full of ‘regular folks.’ The term, ‘regular folks’ has sort of taken on this ideal of Americana in popular white imaginations. In the article “Are Politicians Folking with Us?” and in others that I read for this reflection, popular discourse on ‘folk’ revolves around Barak Obama’s August 2014 oration saying, “We tortured some folks.” Columnists were shocked at the flippant use of such a homey, hokey word. But politicians like Mitt Romney appropriate rural speech into their idiolect (personal language use profile) to seem more approachable. Here, folk can be used to tranquilize, to depoliticize, but language users also employ it in a specifically political way.

Clearly, ‘folk’ is a titular word in one of the base texts of this course, and Dubois uses his work to challenge the myth of all white rurality. DuBois’ “Of the Black Belt” is perhaps the most place-based of his sections. He bases it, and much of the book too, in rural areas. DuBois begins the section in a way not too far removed from how we’d begin a gathering today. He acknowledges ownership of the land, writing, “Just this side Atlanta is the land of the Cherokees…”. Even before he begins on Blackness in the United States DuBois disrupts the image of white-dominated land and continues to assert their stewardship of the land and their sovereignty. He refers to them as a “brave Indian nation which strove so long for its fatherland” and mentions the Creeks as he takes us north. Nowadays, it’s commonplace to see acknowledgments of Native claims to land like in our college’s Commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, where we recognize we’re on the Seneca Nation of Indians and Tonawanda Seneca Nation’s (Onondowagah and Haudenosaunee) traditional homelands. To talk about the land and our use of it, Dubois must give this context. He creates solidarity and mutual interest between Blackness and Indigeneity through his ubication of Georgia as the “centre of the Negro problem.” White settlers and the United States government have consistently referred to Native presence and sovereignty as the “Indian problem” and it’s even pervasive in government documents. I see this parallel construction of language as another solidarity move that DuBois makes (h/t to Noah for this framework cause I read his piece before I made this connection).

I liken this move of creating solidarity across oppressed groups through the word ‘problem’ to Trans Folx Fighting Eating Disorders’ (TFFED) use of the word ‘folx,’ calling it a way “to denote a politicized identity.” Pulling from Gramsci’s work on subalternity, which we can understand as the state of being part of an oppressed group, or a (sub)altern. DuBois wrote a piece “The Souls of White Folk” that doesn’t posit white people as subalterns, but rather politicizes them, like TFFED’s use. This leads me to when folk is used as a sub-disciplinary or sub-genre term. Folk music, folk tales, folk art, folk medicine, you name it. I’m thinking that folk (insert discipline/genre) is a way that Gramsci’s alternity can enter the academy and a way for white rural people to appropriate culture.

Prince has commented that he features hands in his art to emphasize the ideas of labor and work. Thinking about all of this got me wondering how much of predominantly white rurality is based in Blackness and Black labor? Popular (read: white) realizations on how the stolen, extracted labor of enslaved Africans allowed some the wealth with which this country was built are becoming more and more common, but what about the labor that wasn’t forced and compulsory? Here I’m thinking of cultural production by Black people for Black people, work that Prince features in his work, “Sew.” The print depicts Prince’s Grandmother working on a quilt with his aunt (I believe) sitting at her feet. In the quilt are the stories that have been passed down in his family. One story that he shared during his “Kitchen Talk” was how his great grandmother escaped slavery by hiding underneath petticoats to get on a train. The quilt and the storytelling that goes along with it contain a craft, design and content that Dan Dezarn had spoken with us about that qualifies it as art. Quilt making and other home-y creative efforts are often classified as folk art. Folk art doesn’t make it into art museums and the people who build it aren’t recognized as artists. And this is what’s so remarkable about Prince’s work; he brings folk art into fine art spaces.

Banjos are a tangible way to envision this cultural extraction of Black rural cultural production. For all its modern associations with bluegrass music It had never occurred to me, until I saw it on Instagram, that the banjo is an instrument belonging to the African Diaspora. Hannah Mayree, creator of the Black Banjo Reclamation Project (@reversethediaspora), built a “multicultural collaboration that centers the Black experience” to connect those who come from the African Diaspora with an instrument that “systemic results of racist power structures.” In the article linked above, Mayree talks about the traditions of gourd instruments that enslaved Africans carried with them across the Middle Passage (many thanks to Dr. Adams for the language shift). Banjos were a primarily used by Black people until minstrelsy shows where white performers using blackface would play the instrument. After that, white musicians incorporated the banjo and other traditionally Black instruments into what we know as bluegrass music. Now the banjo is most associated with extremely famous musicians like Pete Seeger and our popular associations with it are very white. Mayree’s work is indispensable to a reclamation of Black rurality and allows white rural folks to further contextually engage with our heritage.

While this paper’s meant to serve as semester reflection, I can’t help but look back on my time taking literature classes at Geneseo. My second semester freshman year INTD 105 class with Beth was the first time I felt interpretively challenged in a meaningful way. There’d been times in English classes before where I’d mistake the nitpicky question on a standardized test, but never before had an educator presented to me something (perceived to be) so far from my own experience or requiring reflection like Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing and Oedipus Rex. I’d not really responsibly thought about structural or even interpersonal racism before beyond a simple Democrat, left-of-center take and only had an analysis that was largely based in the oppression I experience as a person assigned female at birth (I identified as a woman then). I spent too much time in that class in my own white fragility, worrying about ‘being wrong’ and thinking about Italian Americans as an ethnic group that has experienced discrimination and turns right around to weaponize racism. Beth talks about giving ourselves an honest self reflection and how self hatred can be an obstacle to that. I’m choosing to disrupt that narrative and that practice and recognize that I have worked really hard to develop an analysis and a practice. I’ve grown (and shirked and succeeded and messed up) and see this paper as the coming together of threads of rurality, folk practices and identities, Blackness and Indigeneity that I’ve been studying the past four years. Looking inward again to my own community (a rural one instead of an Italian American one), I notice that my analysis is more contextualized and filled with more intellectual humility. This class has been a kind, challenging vehicle to think of that.



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