Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Introduction-P. Sterling Stuckey: In Praise of an Intellectual Legacy

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Introduction-P. Sterling Stuckey: In Praise of an Intellectual Legacy

Article excerpt

  And, finally, need I add that I who speak here am bone of the bone and
  flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil?
  W. E. B. Du Bois (February 1903)

On 21-22 May 2004, dozens of scholars, colleagues, and friends from across the United States gathered in Riverside, California, to honor the work and intellectual legacy of P. Sterling Stuckey. The immediate occasion of the conference was Stuckey's retirement from the Presidential Chair and Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside. Entitled, "Africans, Culture, and Intellectuals in North America: P. Sterling Stuckey and the Folk," the conference celebrated the achievements of one of America's greatest historians. It is rare indeed that scholars from a variety of fields and disciplines meet in conference to honor the work of a single living colleague. In this case, the conference was treated to a veritable outpouring of papers from scholars, colleagues, and former students, all of them eager to salute and discuss Professor Stuckey's influence and achievements. As the participants themselves acknowledged, the conference was an event as rare as it was rich in intellectual content and camaraderie.

In all, thirty-five papers were presented, ranging widely over the forty years of Stuckey's extraordinary career. The essays making up this special issue of The Journal of African American History consist of a selection of papers presented at the conference. The focus of the essays center around the subject that is most frequently associated with Stuckey's innovative scholarship and legacy, namely, the theme of Afrogenesis in the formation of slave culture and the collective agency of the enslaved. (1)

Publication of this Special Issue appears almost forty years since the original appearance of Stuckey's path breaking essay "Through the Prism of Folklore: The Black Ethos in Slavery" in the Summer 1968 issue of The Massachusetts Review that struck the first startling note of what was instantly recognized as a paradigm shift in reorienting contemporary understanding of slave culture. It is difficult from this distance in time to appreciate or get a sense of the extraordinary impact that the appearance of this single essay had on the scholarly profession at the time.

In fact, as we learned at the conference, an earlier version of the essay was actually written as a paper for a graduate research seminar at Northwestern University taught by Professor George Frederickson. In disclosing this bit of information at the Riverside conference, Frederickson underscored the achievement of the published essay: "It is arguably," he noted, "the most historiographically important journal article on slavery ever published. More than any other work of the 1960s it signaled [and] heralded the paradigm shift in the representation of the slave experience that came to fruition in the 1970s and 80s." After giving a careful review of the state of the historiography before and after the publication of "Through the Prism of Folklore" in 1968, Frederickson concluded:

  It was the first piece of authoritative historical writing to advance
  a new paradigm based on the exposure of a semi-autonomous slave
  culture and community, a perspective that shifted the
  historiographical emphasis away from victimization and toward
  creativity and agency. Through the use of folklore--the songs and
  stories that have been collected and passed down--he was able to
  create a compelling and persuasive counter image to the submissive,
  pathetic, and ineffectual "Sambo." Instead of being stripped of
  cultural resources, the slaves were, [Stuckey] maintained, able to
  draw creatively on their African heritage and adapt it [to] their
  current circumstances. This stereotype of the hapless, helpless slave,
  first enshrined in the historical literature by U. B. Phillips and
  then modernized by Stanley Elkins, had been dealt a lethal blow. … 
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