Cultivating Folk Arts and Social Change

By Kodish, Debora | Journal of American Folklore, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Cultivating Folk Arts and Social Change


Kodish, Debora, Journal of American Folklore


Asked to speak about minority traditions and activism, the author describes the work (and pleasure) of being in solidarity and coalition with local people. Describing social justice practices of storyteller Linda Goss, hair sculptor Yvette Smalls, and activist Ellen Somekawa and Asian Americans United, the author outlines how local people have guided the Philadelphia Folklore Project in shaping work over 25 years.

Keywords

AFS ETHNOGRAPHIC THESAURUS: Folk art, urban folklore, public folklore, social justice, political activism, agency

I chose the topic "cultivating folk arts and social change" because it is something with which I wrestle, in very practical ways, every day.1

Finding a way to do my job responsibly has required me to develop a kind of cre- ole practice, weaving together a number of traditions against the folklore theory in which I was trained. I use practices borrowed from critical pedagogy and from crit- ical race studies-habits of addressing power and justice and tracing where bias creeps in (Brodkey 1996; Patricia Williams 1995; Matsuda 1996; Lee [1998] 2008). And I use principles borrowed from local people: "Beauty is as beauty does." "We cannot keep silent." And other sayings that condense the community wisdom that grounds me. And I use the insights of artists. The writer Toni Cade Bambara said: "I am trying to find out not only how a word gains its meaning but how a word gains its power" (Salaam 2008:59).

How to integrate these voices into something coherent, something my own, is a continuing challenge. Thoughts about (and work in) folk arts and social change ap- pears under many different names in widely different discourses and contexts. This is a good thing. The variety of understandings and approaches is both a challenge and an asset in movement-building. I speak from what the late and beloved folklor- ist Gerald Davis called the periphery, and primarily in regard to how we use folk arts (1996:119).

I try to keep an eye on the kinds of vision that guide this work. We have ample evidence of the transformative power of freedom dreams-re-imaginings of the world we want to live in, as described by historian Robin D. G. Kelley and others (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee fieldworkers, for example; see Payne 1995; Kel- ley 2002; Holsaert et al. 2010). As surely as Aimé Cesaire and the Black insurgent surrealists described by Kelley, people with whom I live and work every day have opened possibilities from which I have benefited. While the presence of folk arts in freedom dreams is often acknowledged, and even celebrated, their power continues to be underestimated or dismissed. But freedom dreams and the folk arts that con- tribute to them are my backdrop.

"Are you sure . . . that you want to be well?" the healer asks Velma Henry at the beginning of Toni Cade Bambara's novel The Salt Eaters (1980:3). This is a question for all of us. "Can the planet be rescued from the psychopaths?" Bambara wrote. "The persistent concern of engaged artists, of cultural workers, in this country and cer- tainly within my community, is, What role can, should, or must the [cultural worker] . . . play in producing a desirable vision of the future? And the challenge that the cultural worker faces, myself for example . . . is that the tools of my trade are colonized. The creative imagination has been colonized" (1996:139-40). I ask that we consider how the tools of our trade, our core practices, can cultivate changes in forms of re- sistance: in ourselves and in our communities (Boggs 2011).

I look to our occupational folklore: how we work with others, how we do fieldwork and write and think about (and embrace) folklore, and the inspiring models of these same practices enacted by people credentialed by their communities rather than the academy. To undertake the work that Bambara describes requires a commitment to reflexivity, a learner's stance, creole practice (and language), a sense of vision, ethical and equitable engagement, and a belief in the liberatory power and possibilities of folk arts. …

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