Phone: (919) 962-1661
Fax: (919) 962-1613
Office: 409F Alumni Bldg
Area of Interest:
Ethnography, Belief Studies, Folklife, Public Folklore, Trauma-Informed Ethnographic Practice, Experience-Centered Anthropology, African American Expressive Culture, Vernacular Poetry, Vernacular Art; African Diaspora, The North American South
Ph.D., Folklore and Folklife, University of Pennsylvania, 1989.
The places of passion that fuel creativity . . . the realms of meaning that inspire connection . . . the domains of faith that foster communion—these are the sites that center my studies as a folklorist. The forms and performances that folklore takes—whether wood-smoked barbecue framed by golden hushpuppies, spoken word poems passionately voiced at an open mic night, sung praises soaring in a gospel anniversary, or memories captured with gentle exuberance by a self-taught painter—are all testaments to intention and evidences of meaning.
They also all speak to the workings of community, testifying to the choices that draw people together in aesthetic accord. My teaching, my studies, and my work in and with communities explore the nature of this meaningful accord. In so doing, they recognize that accord often emerges in spite of, with the crafting of identity ever wrapped in negotiations of power. To study folklife is not to study the petrified old or the romanticized other; rather, it’s to study the realized real, where contestation is often integral to the everyday claimings of self and community.
My classes seek to draw students into conversation with those masters of spirited communication—both historical and contemporary—whose performances enliven communities. Often, these performers join us in class; more often, students join them in their homes and at their places of work, conducting fieldwork that explores the ways that they create meaning. The classroom thus extends into the community, inviting students to recognize that expertise and wisdom often rest in places well beyond the academy’s walls.
Most of my own research explores the expressive worlds of African America. Being white and southern means that my understandings in this realm will always be limited, always framed by an outsiderness that silently echoes histories of oppression. My studies begin with this recognition, and move from there in conversation with those whom I count as my teachers. My goal as teacher, student, and scholar is always to move these conversations beyond the narrowness of the moment in which they unfold, to press them into understandings that find broader audiences . . . in the communities that gave them rise, in the academy, and among larger publics.
In my eyes, responsible scholarship always presses toward public engagement and public service. Towards this end, much of my work follows a public path, yielding products as diverse as museum exhibits, library talks, concert and festival presentations, CD production, and public school programming. A recent expression of this was the “Curriculum, Music, and Community” project, a five-year educational initiative that sought to re-center the curricula in 4th-grade public school classrooms in the study of local musics. I joined Prof. Dwight Rogers, of UNC’s School of Education, as the project’s co-director.
My current research is unfolding on a variety of fronts. Perhaps taking centerstage at the moment is a project exploring the history and ongoing vitality of African American vernacular poetry. In essence, this research looks to the roots of hip hop, uncovering hidden histories of eloquent talk and sounded rhyme that have long been a defining feature of African American discourse. While much of this research is necessarily archival (exploring the resonant field that encompasses such forms as preached sermons, “talked” songs, church-house recitations, radio-announcers’ reflections, and even rhymed store signs), an equal measure is ethnographic, drawing on conversations with elder poets, spoken-word artists, and hip hop emcees. A critical dimension of these poetries is their longstanding role as vehicles of social critique, with eloquence fueling (and often disguising) trenchant political commentary.
A second arena of interest addresses the ways that recent understandings about the neurobiology of trauma necessarily re-frame the way that we practice and teach ethnography. This work, conducted in collaboration with clinical social worker Dr. Amy Bauman, begins with the simple recognition that ethnographers often find themselves hearing stories about trauma, bearing witness to narratives of racial violence, refugee flight, natural disaster, and more. While mental health professionals have become increasingly aware of the risks inherent in the re-telling of trauma stories by trauma survivors, and have developed a host of therapeutic protocols to guide service providers through encounters that might prompt the telling of such narratives, these protocols remain largely unknown among ethnographers. Put simply, ethnographers aren’t trained to think about the complicated ways that trauma can frame ethnographic relationships; nor are we trained to think of our own vulnerabilities as the hearers and holders of trauma survivors’ stories. Towards this end, Amy and I are developing a protocol for trauma-informed ethnography, one that both minimizes danger for the tellers of trauma stories, and fosters safety on the part of the ethnographers who hear them.
While these two projects stand in the research foreground, a variety of others remain close by and very much alive. Primary among these is my ongoing work with gospel singers, continuing the ethnographic collaborations that yielded Fire In My Bones. I continue to be interested in the intersections of belief, spiritual experience, and performance, and am particularly intrigued by the songs and poems that emerge from this nexus, works whose authorship many African American believers attribute entirely to the Holy Spirit. (I discuss a parallel phenomenon of inspired and Spirit-driven creativity in an essay on Birmingham artist Thornton Dial, in Bernard Herman’s edited work, Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper.)
The worlds of self-taught art have also drawn my interest in recent years. One research thread winds around the experiential dimensions of memory painting, exploring the ways that such paintings not only stand as holders of remembrance, but sometimes also serve as portals for re-experiencing the portrayed scenes, thus effectively erasing the boundaries between past and present. Another thread traces the ways that the commercial market for “folk” and “outsider” art often foregrounds and exaggerates the religious dimensions of this art, turning faith into a vehicle of othering.
Classes in Regular Rotation:
The Art of Ethnography (Folk/Anth 860)
Public Folklore (Folk 790)
Vernacular Traditions in African American Music (Folk 610)
Windows of Mystery and Wonder: Exploring Self-Taught Art (Anth 77, a first-year seminar)
The Poetic Roots of Hip Hop (Folk 77, a first-year seminar)
2014. Engaging the Religiously Committed Other . . . In the Field. (A comment on Eloise Meneses, Lindy Backues, David Bronkema, Eric Flett, and Benjamin L. Hartley’s “Engaging the Religiously Committed Other: Anthropologists and Theologians in Dialogue.”) Current Anthropology 55 (1): 94-95.
2012. “Every Drawing That I Do, I Think About the Lord”: Thornton Dial’s Journey of Faith. In Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper, ed. Bernard L. Herman, 91-127. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
2009. Folklife. In Folklife, Volume 15 of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, eds. Glenn Hinson and Bill Ferris, 1-25. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
2009. Folklife. Volume 15 of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, eds. Glenn Hinson and Bill Ferris. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
2004. Music Matters: Asking Questions, Fostering Agency, and Building Community in Arts-Based Educational Programming. With Dwight Rogers, Sydney Brown, and Amy Bauman. Journal of Thought 39 (4): 15-34.
2002. Crafting Fictions, Telling Truths: Creative Collaboration in the Photography of Roland L. Freeman. Exposure 35:2: 17-26.
2000. Fire in My Bones: Transcendence and the Holy Spirit in African American Gospel. Contemporary Ethnography Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.