Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Home Ground

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Home Ground

Article excerpt

Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Home Ground. Edited by Grey Gundaker with the assistance of Tynes Cowan. (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1998. Pp. viii, 344. Paper, $19.50, ISBN 0-8139-1824-3; cloth, $65.00, ISBN 0-8139-1807-3.)

Grey Gundaker has brought us a wide-ranging series of essays on "home ground"--the personal space in which African Americans live. Two themes dominate the work: the first is the search for African origins of the arrangements of this space, and the second is to see the way in which this space is used as an assertion of African American identity, sometimes a deliberately counterhegemonic identity. In either case, the idea is that there is value in studying yard shows and apparently trashy living spaces that are so often scorned and maligned by outsiders (and some African Americans as well) as a means of exploring the African American identity. Contributing scholars represent a broad range of disciplines--historians, literary critics, folklorists, and anthropologists--and the essays range from descriptions of work with mild commentary to meditations on larger themes raised by the question of home ground.

Robert Farris Thompson's essay best exemplifies the first tendency, the subject of the first part of the book. Thompson's method is to compare modern and occasionally historical incidents of decorations of space in west central Africa and various parts of the Americas. Some of the examples strike one as fruitful, others less so, but on the whole, the correlations are hard to ignore. His work here and elsewhere is frequently discussed by others in the collection and taken up enthusiastically in Grey Gundaker's introduction and John F. Szwed's meditation on the process of "creolization." Ywone D. Edward's review of archaeological, literary, and historical instances of the use of "trash" follows this tradition of analysis fairly closely. Likewise Alice Eley Jones's speculations on the African meaning of an apparent divining stick found in a building on the Stagville Plantation also uses the methods suggested by Thompson, only for a West African example.

The second aspect in the collection is well illustrated by Judith McWillie's approach to contemporary yard shows, where concepts from postmodernism help to inform an analysis of African American ideology. …

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