By Custom and By Law: Black Folklore and Racial Representation at the Birth of Jim Crow

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Moody, Shirley C.
Washington, Mary Helen
Pearson, Barry Lee
By Custom and By Law: Black Folklore and Racial Representation at the Birth of Jim Crow establishes folklore as a contested site in the construction of racial identity during the emergence and solidification of legalized racial segregation at the end of the nineteenth century. By examining institutional interests, popular culture performances, and political rhetoric, I demonstrate how representations of black folklore played a seminal role in perpetuating a public discourse of racial difference. Alternately, my work introduces new scholarship examining the counter-narratives posed by nineteenth-century African American scholars, writers and folklorists who employed folklore in their various academic works and artistic productions as a vehicle to expose and critique post-Reconstruction racial hierarchies. In chapter one I reveal how constructions of black folklore in ante- and post-bellum popular culture intersected with emergent white folklore studies to provide a taxonomy for codifying racial difference, while simultaneously designating folklore as the medium through which racial representation would be debated. Chapter two recovers the important, but virtually unacknowledged role of African American folklorists in brokering public and academic access to black folk culture and in providing an alternative to the racist constructions of black folklore prevalent in the post-Reconstruction era. Chapter three re-contextualizes Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman as both a response to the larger national discourse surrounding black folklore and also as part of a concerted effort among black intellectuals to first expose how perceptions of racial realities were constructed through representations of black folklore, and then to redefine the role of black folklore in African American cultural and literary works. In sum, my dissertation provides a cultural history of a formative moment in the construction of a late nineteenth century racialized discourse that placed representations of black folklore at its center. My research both recovers the neglected role of early black folklorists and writers in studying and interpreting black cultural traditions and asserts the profound significance of representations of black folklore in negotiating the perceptions and practices that have worked to define US racial ideologies in the nineteenth century and beyond.