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“A Central Thread of Our History”: African American Heritage Lasts Longer than a Month

“In the case of American Negroes, their labor founded the nation and was prime cause of the industrial revolution and the capitalist system of the modern world:  their slavery, revolt, escape, protest and emancipation is a central thread of our history: and without their music and laughter American art and literature would never have attained its present stature.  This is the reason we celebrate Negro History Week. It is not merely a matter of entertainment or information; it is part of our necessary spiritual equipment for making this country worth living in.”
W. E. B. Du Bois, Negro History Week, January 27, 1949

Dr. W. E. B. Dubois’ remarks, recorded for NBC decades ago (E), declares the central importance of the week-long celebration of African American culture, history and creativity that Dr. Carter G. Woodson initiated in 1926. It remains just as apt when applied to the present day commemorations of Black History Month or African American History Month. Federal institutions of cultural memory like the Library have long committed themselves to those pioneers’ visions by providing access to a wealth of unique documents, recordings, public events, teachers’ guides, and other resources focusing on the Black experience. The Story Map, Roots and Routes: Mapping African American Performances & Cultural Expressions  that I produced with American Folklife Center (AFC) colleagues Valda Morris, Melanie Zeck, and Thea Austen, is our contribution to this critical effort. Webcasts and recordings of the Homegrown concert series, which Austen coordinates, provide the foundation for this presentation, as they do for the Center’s 2021 Story Map observing Hispanic Heritage Month.

Mural in the Tunica, MS, visitor center and museum promotes the area’s rich blues history;  photo: Carol Highsmith

Without exerting undue authorial influence over individual interpretations and appreciation of the Story Map, it might be useful for audiences to understand the aims and scope of what we are trying to do through the presentation. At the outset I want to acknowledge the technical expertise and guidance of colleagues in the Geography and Maps division, which were crucial to the production of the Story Map. The division launched the Story Maps platform at the Library in 2018 and a range of innovative and eye-catching publications have been produced by other divisions since then and are available at this site. As well, the Prints and Photographs Division’s collections of historical photographs and reproductions of graphic materials and art works provide essential resources for this or any research publication.

Broadly speaking, the Library’s Story Map platform is a space in which archival collections are used to structure narratives about continuity and change, historical events, social movements, and local happenings as reflected in the realms of art, science, technology, literature and many other aspects of society and culture. For the AFC, it is a flexible way to promote our scope and mission which are to deepen public understanding of the sense of place, community history, familial connections, and deep-rooted cultural legacies that are embedded in grassroots performance genres.

For those of us staff members who have responsibilities for conducting research for the purpose of educational outreach, we can amplify the life experiences and unique histories of the artists who are documented in that research through Story Maps. The platform is a great entryway into the Library’s rich multimedia collections of audiovisual recordings, books, photographs, and graphic materials, and one of the pleasures of this approach is the opportunity to demonstrate the linkages among  collection items that are dispersed across several divisions. This sort of intertextual approach is, of course, a standard research methodology employed by many disciplinary scholars. I will note that the materials we can display in the online environment are limited to those items that have no copyright restrictions or ones that have been made available for educational uses.

Ben Payton, blues performer

Ben Payton, blues musician, 2011

One example of the linkages I refer to can be seen in the performance of the song “Opportunity” by the Mississippi blues guitarist, Ben Payton, during his 2011 Homegrown concert. The song indexes “The Great Migration,” the historic exodus of African Americans from the South to the North in the decades following WWI. The lyrics recall the experiences and yearnings of African American forebears for a better life in Chicago away from the Jim Crow South and echoes the sentiments expressed in a poem in Richard Wright’s memoir, Black Boy: a Record of Childhood and Youth (1945). In his writing, the celebrated author remembers his own journey to Chicago from the South during the 1920s. The accompanying photograph of Wright is by the legendary Gordon Parks, who photographed African American lives in the industrial North and the segregated South.

Song performance, image and poem are juxtaposed against two other FSA/OWI photographs, one of which depicts an unnamed sharecropper in Mississippi in the pre-WWII years, while the other captures a young woman, Annie Taber, working in an airplane manufacturing factory during the War. (A trove of such images, documented by Parks and others, is accessible in the Farm Securities Administration/Office of War Information collection in the Library’s Prints and Photographs division). Whether Annie Taber was one of the thousands of African Americans who migrated north seeking “opportunity” and the “warmth of other suns” is not known. Nonetheless, the image fits the broader themes evoked by Payton’s song and Wright’s poem.

The continuing hold The Great Migration and broader notions such as freedom and movement have on African American creative expression and artistic imagination play out in the subsequent section as well. “Mississippi” Fred McDowell’s classic blues, “When the Train Comes Along,” was recorded and photographed on the porch of his home in Como, Mississippi, by Alan Lomax in 1954; the song and the photograph are housed in the Center’s Alan Lomax collections and the online items are hosted by the Association for Cultural Equity, the collection’s donors. The song’s references to a train journey, departure, crossing over, and reunion are allusions to the promise of departing the earthly plane for heavenly salvation and eternal life – standard metaphors in spiritual songs.

Hubby Jenkins; Photo credit: Horatio Baltz

Hubby Jenkins, Brooklyn, NY, 2021

In a 2021 Homegrown from Home concert recorded in his backyard in Brooklyn, multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins re-frames the song so that it stands for the actual earthbound journey that African Americans undertook during The Great Migration.

To return to Dr. Dubois’s rich imagery, this particular iteration of a Story Map selectively highlights but a few of the vast range of cultural expressions that generations of African Americans have threaded into the fabric of national history over centuries of struggle. In doing so, we emphasize the extent to which the concert events, field recordings and graphic materials we hold in our documentary collections encode a rich and complex cultural legacy and social history. Roots and Routes provides the public a visual, aural and textual pathway to understand how older expressive forms and shared generational memories resonate with and are reflected in contemporary African American cultural performances, directly and obliquely. We invite you to enjoy the journey and to find other paths through history at the Library of Congress.

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