Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture – JOYNER (CSS)

JOYNER, Charles. Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. 361p. Resenha de: SEIXAS, Peter. Canadian Social Studies, v.35, n.3, 2001.

When we think about the major political fault lines in Canada, we tend to think in terms of regions. The recent election was one more example of ideologically defined parties whose strengths and weaknesses divide along stark regional lines. The greatest challenge to national unity in the twentieth century has been Quebec separatism, while resentments in both the Maritimes and the West have been endemic. When we examine the United States in the 20th century, however, racial divisions, and not regional schisms, appear to be the most significant threat to the success of the national project. Since mid-century, moreover, after years of northward migration of the descendents of enslaved African Americans, the problem of race relations is no longer plausibly conceived-if it ever was-as an exclusively Southern regional issue.

Charles Joyner’s collection of essays, most of them previously published, offers at least two challenges to this picture of the American socio-political map. First, he claims that the South continues to be a distinct region, socially and culturally. Secondly, he argues that the apparent racial divisions in the South mask shared traditions which are the product of centuries of interplay among folk traditions which originated in Celtic, west African, Native, and other cultures. Thus, Joyner speaks without hesitation or apology of the essential character of Southerners (p. 150). Region provides a central organizing framework for the otherwise widely disparate essays in the volume.

A second theme helps to unite his chapters: the interplay between folklore study and the discipline of history. Joyner himself, as both a folklorist and a historian, straddles the two fields. Folklore study had its origins in the collection of folk tales, legends, ballads, dances and crafts, and in the study of such products as dialects, vernacular architecture, folk religion, food and labour (p. 152). From these beginnings, it branched into a quest for theoretical foundations and several of Joyner’s essays help the uninitiated (like myself) understand the development of the field. It has been consistent in its concern with the lives and culture of non-elites. It has been less so in paying attention to the larger social and political contexts within which folkways were embedded or in serious study of cultures changing over time. This is where history comes in. Pursuing his study of the South over the course of a lifetime, Joyner promises that two disciplines offer more than either one alone could deliver.

Shared Traditions is organized into five sections. After an introduction that sets the theme of Southern unity in diversity, the first section examines slavery in the old South. While these chapters make an interesting read, they have long been superseded by the work of Jacqueline Jones, Leon Litwack, Eric Foner, and Herbert Gutman (among many others) who do not even get footnotes. Three review essays on David Potter, David Hackett Fischer and Henry Glassie comprise the second section. A third section is a disparate collection of essays on the New South, examining Jews, music, dulcimers, and a local civil rights campaign. The fourth section theorizes folklore study and history. The final section, a single chapter, is a plea for cultural conservation on the Sea Islands, where luxury resort development has largely displaced a vibrant and successful black folk culture.

Will Canadian social studies teachers and educators be interested in this volume? I do not think that any Canadian curriculum is geared in a way that this volume will be of import for its substantive detail on the American South. Nor is the volume an economical way to catch up on recent historiography of the region. Nor, when it comes to exploring the pedagogical possibilities of folklore research, does it offer anything close to what the Foxfire books did in the 1970s. There is, however, a contribution here, on the methodological and theoretical issues surrounding the interplay of capitalist globalization and regional folk cultures. These are key historical forces that touch the lives of our students and their families, whether Canadian-born or newly immigrated. I suspect, though, that hard-pressed teachers will be able to find more economical sources to enrich their approaches to these issues.

Peter Seixas – Canada Research Chair in Education. University of British Columbia.

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