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"Half Bacchanalian, half devout": white intellectuals, black folk culture, and the "negro problem"

"Half Bacchanalian, half devout": white intellectuals, black folk culture, and the "negro problem"
"Half Bacchanalian, half devout": white intellectuals, black folk culture, and the "negro problem"
In the wake of the Civil War, white Americans generated an unprecedented amount of writing about the songs, stories, and “superstitions” of black southerners. This interest was not purely esthetic. In the late nineteenth century, folk culture was commonly conceptualized as a gauge of racial character and potential; in consequence, discourse on black folklore was entangled with the debate on the social and political place of African Americans. A number of scholars have noted the ways in which white supremacy was bulwarked by the work of folklorists, ethnologists, local color writers, and other intellectuals. The variety and contingency of this discourse on race, however, has sometimes been obscured, giving the impression of a static and monolithic racial ideology. Ideas about black folk culture shifted over time, shaped by a range of racial attitudes encompassing a liberal emphasis on uplift, a conservative commitment to stasis, and a radical insistence on regression. Moreover, the racial politics of intellectuals determined not only the ways in which they represented black folk culture, but also the particular cultural forms about which they wrote. Thus, while the Christian content of the “spirituals” suited the agenda of liberal reformers, the supposedly sinister figure of the conjure doctor complemented radical discourse on dangerous racial degeneration.
1466-4658
241-267

(2015) "Half Bacchanalian, half devout": white intellectuals, black folk culture, and the "negro problem". American Nineteenth Century History, 16 (3), 241-267. (doi:10.1080/14664658.2015.1095441).

Record type: Article

Abstract

In the wake of the Civil War, white Americans generated an unprecedented amount of writing about the songs, stories, and “superstitions” of black southerners. This interest was not purely esthetic. In the late nineteenth century, folk culture was commonly conceptualized as a gauge of racial character and potential; in consequence, discourse on black folklore was entangled with the debate on the social and political place of African Americans. A number of scholars have noted the ways in which white supremacy was bulwarked by the work of folklorists, ethnologists, local color writers, and other intellectuals. The variety and contingency of this discourse on race, however, has sometimes been obscured, giving the impression of a static and monolithic racial ideology. Ideas about black folk culture shifted over time, shaped by a range of racial attitudes encompassing a liberal emphasis on uplift, a conservative commitment to stasis, and a radical insistence on regression. Moreover, the racial politics of intellectuals determined not only the ways in which they represented black folk culture, but also the particular cultural forms about which they wrote. Thus, while the Christian content of the “spirituals” suited the agenda of liberal reformers, the supposedly sinister figure of the conjure doctor complemented radical discourse on dangerous racial degeneration.

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More information

Accepted/In Press date: 7 September 2015
Published date: 20 November 2015
Organisations: History

Identifiers

Local EPrints ID: 393811
URI: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/id/eprint/393811
ISSN: 1466-4658
PURE UUID: 2e47c040-bf41-4ec4-a5b7-52502e8e89c4

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Date deposited: 06 May 2016 08:32
Last modified: 15 Jul 2019 20:32

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