Judging from the new anthology of African-American folklore, From My People— published by Norton and edited by Richmond scholar and UVA alumna Daryl Cumber Dance— black people in this country have traveled through the last 400 years with laughter and tears, art and vision, humor, perspective, and song. This book has it all, 700 pages worth, from Nat Turner and Zora Neale Hurston to De La Soul and “yo mama” jokes.
Many of these gems speak a world of truth in a few words: “Our father, which art in heaben / White man owe me leben an’ pay me seben. / Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, / If I hadn’t took that, I wouldn’t git none.”
Others seem unfathomable, like the Harlem rent party invitations collected by Langston Hughes: “Fall in line, and watch your step, For there’ll be / Lots of Browns with plenty of Pep At / A Social Whist Party / Given by / Lucille & Minnie / Saturday Evening, Nov. 2nd 1929.”
All through this long, hard passage, as Dance shows in her book, story and song, dance and rhyme have buoyed the Black American spirit. This collection includes firsthand memories of a slave ship from an anonymous passenger— “In our extremities the captain and people told me in jest they would kill and eat me, but I thought them in earnest and was depressed beyond measure, expecting every moment to be my last.”
It cites Harriet Beecher Stowe’s impressions of the great anti-slavery advocate, Sojourner Truth: “I do not recollect ever to have been conversant with any one who had more of that silent and subtle power which we call personal presence than this woman.” It contains ringside boasts by Muhammad Ali, speeches by Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, and sermons by Richmond’s legendary Reverend John Jasper. It offers song lyrics we all know— “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “We Shall Overcome”— and lyrics known by fewer— “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” and “I Ain’t No Ice Man.”
Dance’s wise and circumspect comments guide readers through these cultural treasures. Even in 1971, finishing her UVA Ph.D. in English, Dance was on this track, writing a dissertation on Wit and Humor in Black American Literature. Since then, she has become a professor of English at the University of Richmond and, in the words of one critic, a nationally recognized “Dean of Folkculture.” Many contributions to this anthology (from antique folktales collected in Richmond to recent Virginia State step dances) remind us that from this Virginia homeland spring many black riches.
Dance will share African American folklore from her book at Barnes & Noble in the Barracks Road Shopping Center on Tuesday, February 26, at 7pm. 984-0461.