Ordinary Folk Aesthetic vs. High Culture Aesthetic

When I think of the Call and Response anthology’s governing aesthetic or the underlying principles that secure the presentation of the “African American tradition”, I immediately think of the folk traditions and privileges that are rooted in African American culture and beliefs. The anthology does this through literature that is derived from and focused on the influential and prominent individuals within African American history. The anthology features works such as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Frederick Douglass’s speech titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth Of July?”, and Alice Walker’s short story titled “Everyday Use”. These works keep the anthology grounded in a way that appreciates and recognizes the history and monumental work of African American writers, abolitionists, and idolized figures while also appreciating the traditions and customs of ordinary, everyday African American individuals.

Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, details his upbringing as someone who was enslaved at a very young age. Douglass tells the reader that he does not know his age, which is common for those who were enslaved. Douglass explains how white children knew their ages but he has never met a slave who could tell of his birthday. “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it” … “I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday” … “The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege” (Douglass 276). Douglass then details specific horrors that he witnessed while enslaved. On page 277, Douglass accounts the whipping of his own Aunt by their master, Anthony. “I have oft been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose” (Douglass 277). The hardships described by Douglass in the narrative are especially meaningful and impactful because of what happens later on in Douglass’s life. 

In chapter eleven of Douglass’s narrative, the reader learns of his escape from enslavement to New York. “On the third day of September, 1838, I left my chains, and succeeded in reaching New York without the slightest interruption of any kind. I have been frequently asked how I felt when I found myself in a free State, I have never been able to answer the question with any satisfaction to myself. It was a moment of the highest excitement I have ever experienced” (Douglass 315-316). This triumph narrative of Douglass is included in this anthology because it details an important feat achieved by a prominent figure in African American tradition and history, thus securing the aesthetic of the “African American tradition”.

Also in this anthology is Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is The Fourth of July?”, a speech given by Douglass on July 5th, 1852. This speech first praises the founding fathers of America for their bravery and courage that was displayed when America gained its independence from Britain. “Your fathers felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression. Just here, the idea of a total separation of the colonies from the crown was born!” (Douglass 322). The speech transitions to Douglass calling out Americans for their lack of bravery when it comes to abolishing slavery. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn” … “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery?” (Douglass 326-327). This speech by Douglass calls out the wrongdoings of white Americans by engaging in slavery and holding the African American race to an inferior position in society. This call to attention of racism and slavery is the aesthetic that the anthology practices throughout the selection of literature. The anthology uses famous pieces of literature, written by prominent African American historical figures, to bring attention to the folk traditions and privileges that are rooted in African American culture and beliefs.

With this being said, I also believe that this anthology uses the folk aesthetic that focuses not on high or prestigious African American culture, but the ideals and culture of ordinary, everyday African American people. This is seen in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” where we as an audience can see the lifestyle of a mother and daughter, Maggie, who have deep and meaningful roots in African American culture and tradition.​​ This is contrasted by the mother’s second daughter, Dee, who went off to college and came back with a vastly different personality and beliefs. Dee has a new name in Wangero and she is accompanied by her boyfriend named Asalamalakim. This of course surprises the mother and Maggie who both live their lives very traditionally and seem hesitant to welcome change.

The anthology portrays the folk aesthetic of ordinary, everyday people when Wangero asks her mother if she can have a set of quilts that were made by her grandmother. “Mama, can I have these old quilts?” (Walker 1724). Her mother hesitantly responds by saying, “The truth is, I promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for when she marries John Thomas” (Walker 1724). Wangero is shocked by this, she doesn’t think Maggie can ever appreciate the quilts because of her outlook on life, “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts! She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use” (Walker 1724). If Maggie were to own the quilts, she would use them for what they’re truly made for. While Wangero wants to own the quilts to hang them and show them off because she considers them priceless. The story ends with Wangero storming out of the house to her car, she says to her mother and Maggie, “You just don’t understand” … “Your heritage, You ought to try to make something out of yourself too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it” (Walker 1725). This story depicts the struggles that ordinary, everyday African American individuals face when attempting to straddle their traditional, rooted customary ways of life and the advancing, expanding appreciation of their culture.

While concluding this essay, I find myself noticing a new structure that this anthology seems to be following. It is a guiding principle that blends multiple aesthetics of African American culture and tradition. The first aesthetic focuses on the famous works of prominent African American authors such as Frederick Douglass, who paved the way for the future of African Americans by detailing his experiences from being enslaved and treated unequally in America even as a freeman. The second aesthetic portrays the traditions and customs of ordinary African American people who find themselves dealing with the advancing production of their cultural ideas. These aesthetics may be seen as contradictory in which they are unable to be blended, but upon further look, these aesthetics are harmonious in the way they work with one another. 

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