Academic journal article Western Folklore

"The Dynamic Qualities of Proverbs in Performance": Roger Abrahams 'Pioneering Contributions to Paremiology

Academic journal article Western Folklore

"The Dynamic Qualities of Proverbs in Performance": Roger Abrahams 'Pioneering Contributions to Paremiology

Article excerpt

There can be no doubt that Roger D. Abrahams (born 1933) is one of the leading folklorists of modern times not only in the United ----States but throughout the world. His versatile scholarship has enriched the study of folklore, his presence at national and international meetings has enlightened the participants, and his distinguished professorial career has benefited several generations of eager students. His scholarly productivity is mindboggling in its breadth and depth, its multiethnic dimensions, its theoretical foundation, its varied approaches, and its concern with such verbal genres as ballads, folksongs, folk narratives, riddles, folk speech, and proverbs. He basically has done it all, to use a common cliché. The result of his masterful fieldwork are such classic dictionaries as Jump-Rope Rhymes (1969) and Counting-Out Rhymes (1980, with Lois Rankin), as an informed anthologizer he produced such collections as African Folktales (1983a) and Afro-American Folktales (1985), he edited the two invaluable festschrifts By Land and By Sea. Studies in the Folklore of Work and Leisure (1985, with Kenneth s. Goldstein and Wayland D. Hand) and Fields of Folklore (1995) in honor of his friends Horace R Beck and Kenneth S. Goldstein, and he tilled the field of folksongs with such volumes as Anglo-American Folksong Style (1968, with George Foss) and Deep the Water, Shallow the Shore (1974). There is much more in the treasure trove of the rich Abrahams scholarship, but this cursory overview must suffice for now.

Perhaps less known, he and his friend John Szwed also put together two invaluable volumes on Afro-American Folk Culture. An Annotated Bibliography of Materials from North, Central and South America and the West Indies (Szwed and Abrahams 1978) that is based on their earlier research in this area and that put their own and the work of all scholars and students interested in Black culture on a solid bibliographic footing. Roger Abrahams began this significant work with his 1963 dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania that was published as Deep Down in the Jungle. Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia (1964). Its lasting value was well expressed by Alan Dundes in his foreword to the second edition of 1970:

Deep Down in the Jungle became an indispensable work almost from the moment it first appeared in 1964. Its pioneering aspects were many: it was concerned with urban rather than rural folklore; it considered ghetto Negro folklore in depth; and it presented materials regarded by many as obscene, not in the usual cowardly bowdlerized way but in an honest unsensational scholarly manner. In this revised edition, Professor Abrahams has updated his analysis and has included much more of his personal fieldwork experience than in the first edition. (It is almost as though he were inspired by one of the important stylistic features of the Negro folklore he analyzed in making such a remarkable shift from the objective "intrusive eye" of the conventional fieldworker's report to the more subjective "intrusive I" which is inevitably a factor in the actual recording of data by all sensitive fieldworkers!) (Abrahams 1964 [ 1970]:vii).

This personal sensitivity and deep-rooted interest in Black culture, folklore, and language in particular have informed his books Positively Black (1970a), Toward a Black Rhetoric (1970c), Talking Black (1976), and Singing the Master. The Emergence of A frican American Culture in the Plantation South (1992). His work in turn has influenced numerous subsequent studies on the rhetoric of African Americans, among them also my books "No Struggle, No Progress. " Frederick Douglass and His Proverbial Rhetoric for Civil Rights (2001), "Making a Way Out of No Way. " Martin Luther King's Sermonic Proverbial Rhetoric (2010), and "Yes We Can." Barack Obamas Proverbial Rhetoric (2009b). It is indeed regrettable that Roger Abrahams did not write an entire book on African American proverbs and their use and function in Black rhetoric, but this has been accomplished in magisterial fashion by Sw. …

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