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AFS Review: Featured Folklorist

Featured Folklorist: Jerrilyn McGregory (Florida State University)

Wednesday, November 13, 2019   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Alexandra Sanchez

Jerrilyn McGregory is a professor in the English Department of Florida State University. She has a PhD in Folklore and Folklife from University of Pennsylvania, a MPS in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and a MA in English from Purdue University. She specializes in African American folklore and folklife, African diaspora studies, and onomastics (the study of proper names). McGregory's publication include Downhome Gospel: African American Spiritual Activism in Wiregrass Country and Wiregrass Country, among many others.

Jerrilyn McGregory in Nassau with the Late John "Chippie" Chipman, the King of the Goatskin Drum;
photo courtesy of Jerrilyn McGregory. 

What is your current job and how does it relate to or incorporate folklore?

I am a full professor in the Department of English at Florida State University. My primary undergraduate courses are “Folklore” and “African American Folklore;” otherwise, I teach folklore and literature courses as well as “Human Rights and Literature.” My graduate classes fall under a “Studies in Folklore” rubric, and I annually teach one course of my own design such as “African American Women, Folklore, and Sexualities” or ”Spirituality in African Diaspora Fiction.”

Research comprises the other half of my workload. I’m currently completing my third text, “One Grand Noise: Boxing Day in the Anglicized Caribbean World," forthcoming October 2020. My modus operandi, if it can be called this, is usually to engage in site visits on one project while completing the research, transcription, and writing on another one. I suppose I developed this strategy because I was ABD when hired for my first tenure-track job, which meant that I had to commence researching THE book (Publish or Perish and all that) while on the clock to complete my dissertation. Specifically, I signed a book contract to write a book for the University Press of Mississippi’s “Folklife in the South” series. I chose Wiregrass Country since it was one of the regions not yet allocated and, historically, it covered a tri-state area that included Wiregrass Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. I continued the practice of researching while writing due to the practicality of conducting ethnographic fieldwork on weekends, holidays, and summers allowing me to fulfill my other job-related requirements, including college, universities, and community service.

What is a day-in-the-life like for you?

Well, I don’t know how personal I should get; but I’ll preface the answer by providing some life changing issues. Becoming a folklorist was a second career move when I divorced and enrolled at Cornell University to earn a second master to make a better life for my three sons—two middle schoolers and one preschool age.

Therefore, my work ethic is such that I am all-consumed by the research that I do. During the day, back then, I completed my coursework, served as a research/teaching assistant and also conducted library research for my thesis, graduating in two years. During the evenings, my older sons and I all sat together to do our homework.

Therefore, I am now a bonafide workaholic. I realized this even more once I became ABD in the Department of Folklore and Folklife at UPenn and hired to work with Debora Kodish at the then burgeoning Philadelphia Folklife Program as a fieldworker in preparation for the centennial meeting of the American Folklore Society. In conjunction with my fieldwork as a public sector folklorist, I also amassed research for my dissertation documenting African American urban folklore. I couldn’t possibly consider this as real work, because my parents were blue-collar workers and neither worked the day shift. Like most ethnographers, once in the field, I spend entire days into the night preoccupied with multitasking: site visits, interviewing, archival research, writing field-notes, and so forth. From there, my day-to-day life continues as always—writing, teaching, and service work, except that now I am also a caregiver for my 91 year old mother. I have no desire to retire since I have another book project already in mind and a helper who gives me some respite with mom.

How did you get to where you are today? What were some important steps in your journey?

It has been an amazing trek, indeed. As I already mentioned, I am on my second career. Attending Cornell was the game changer and not because it’s Ivy and blah, blah, blah, but because it was there that I met Alan Dundes. Based on the research for my Master’s thesis, “Aareck to Zaneka: African American Naming Patterns,” I noticed that many of my citations derived from folklorists: Newbell Nile Puckett, John Brewer, and Wilhelm Nicholaisin. I was in the process of locating PhD programs, and I thought UPenn’s American Studies Program to be attractive based on admission materials that mentioned folklore studies, it had never occurred to me that PhDs in folklore actually existed there. Long story short, I attended Dundes’s invited lecture; and afterwards, when I spoke with him, it was he who told me about Penn’s Folklore and Folklife Department as well as other folklore graduate programs. He also offered me sage advice about the application process. Hoping to study with him, I applied and was even accepted by Berkeley in Ethnic Studies but the distance and living expenses...did not make it feasible.   

The next benchmark in my Journey occurred as a result of working at PFP because the African Americans whom I interviewed tended to be southerners, like master gardener Blanche Epp, who would always tell me: “Philly is just a big, old country town.” Being born in Gary, Indiana, I had never visited the Deep South. My parents had taken a different migration route to the midwest and never looked back. So I became enthralled about conducting fieldwork in the South and planned on bypassing the traffic jam researching Gullah traditions. Fortunately, I landed a tenure-track job at UGA in Athens while ABD. Once in place, I must credit Peggy Bulger with informing me about the UPrMs’s “Folklife in the South” series which afforded me the opportunity to study the Wiregrass region and eventually also publish, Downhome Gospel: African American Spiritual Activism in Wiregrass Country.

Finally, keeping to my pattern of fulfilling my fieldwork agenda in conjunction with other writing, in the midst of completing the Downhome Gospel monograph, I broke a promise to myself, to never again conduct fieldwork where I slept. I started attending a shooting match on December 26 in Tallahassee. Due to Leon County’s plantation economy and other conclusions drawn by me in defining Wiregrass Country, any cultural performance I observed in the capital city I left for my undergraduate students to explore ethnographically. After a few years witnessing this century-old event, I couldn’t avoid becoming curious about the ubiquitous presence of bass and snare drums music nonchalantly played by disparate musicians. Moreover, “The 26th” occurs on the property of a family on which now a Mississippi Blues Trail marker sits commemorates a historic juke joint on their land. Yet on The 26th, it remains shuttered with the only music resonating being this relic of the fife and drum tradition.

For comparison, I knew of National Heritage Award winner Otha Turner’s picnic in Mississippi; then I checked out a book in which I saw a picture of the same military-style drums—the bass and snare—depicted in the Caribbean. I next began exploring Boxing Day figuring to find a monograph about holiday festivities in Britain, Canada, Australia, or elsewhere. I mostly discovered scholarly texts  about Christmas allocating a pithy statement or a skimpy paragraph or only a few pages seldom much more to Boxing Day. My focus quickly shifted to planning a strategy for visiting the few hot spots in the ACW committing my winter holiday breaks for participant observation on Boxing Day from 2005–2012 in The Bahamas, Bermuda, St. Croix, St. Kitts and Belize.

What goals drive your work? What kind of impact do you strive to achieve?

Before working with PFP, I fashioned myself specializing in folklore/folklife and literary theory. I often communicate a personal experience narrative about when I first knocked on a few doors to interview Philadelphia community gardeners unannounced, but I always gained admittance without reservation by simply saying “I’m a folklorist and would like to speak to you about your garden.” The eager hospitality that followed gripped me because I knew the suspicion usually shown toward even anticipated visits by service workers. “Folklorist” is still a magical word to me ever since I've conducted ethnographic fieldwork in urban, rural, and now African diasporic spaces.

In accordance with my dissertation on urban folklore in Philadelphia, it has perennially been my methodology to not only seek to understand the endogenous perspective but to let those I consulted to direct the course of my folklife exploratory fieldwork instead of following any genre-oriented stereotypes related to customs, music, and/or material culture. I’ll explain my work technology as being like peeling an onion never knowing how layered and laborious the ethnographic process might be. For instance, my first foray into Wiregrass Country stymied me just because I never heard of this region in the South, but imagine my surprise when local folk never heard of it either, unless familiar with Dothan, Alabama “the Hub of the Wiregrass,” as it is called. So, I had to roll up my sleeves and realize it constituted more of a subliminal, historic region and let the descendants of “wiregrass farmers” (once a derogatory term) used to debase the poor, primarily white landowners in a relatively small tri-state area of Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. Based on the proclivity of African Americans to favor singing all known genres of sacred music, recreationally, outside of regular Sunday worship services, Downhome Gospel resulted because I felt compelled to follow the lead of these spiritual activists, as I came to perceive of them. I had already expended almost every weekend, starting on Friday night, attending singing conventions, Baptist union meetings, and gospel anniversaries for my first book. Once in press, I began in earnest to determine the size of the onion in hand, leading to the discovery of their “singing buildings” autonomous spaces utilized by a reciprocal support community as they wished since most church doors only opened twice a month for regular worship and any Fifth Sunday was like a wild card with over a century’s worth of traditions to be upheld. Therefore, my research agenda aspires to fill in gaps of awareness whether regional, folk cultural, customary, or as now relates to Boxing Day.      

How does your work impact your community?

I suppose the answer to this question hinges on how one defines community. Relative to African Americans, while writing my dissertation, one of my findings pertained to the tendency to equate race with place and the formation of a singular, inherent ‘community.’

Instead, I discovered a multiplicity of African American urban communities which seldom involved conterminous city blocks, neighborhoods, of a plainly shared ethos, culture and value system. In reality many African Americans maintain a host of organized performance communities which they engage calendrically as a collective experience. Sociologist St. Clair Drake also positioned a distinction between African Americans who were “organized around churches and a welter of voluntary associations of all types” and those he deemed “disorganized” due to a lack of involvement in such sodalities.

Now, in terms of my research, if I must label those whom I consult with, ethnographically speaking, other folklorists call them key informants, but I—like one of my folklore professors, Henry Glassie—call my teachers. They school me and I consult with them to gain their endogenous perspective. From them, I have received spiritual nourishment and knowledge at every juncture.

What sorts of issues are most pressing for your community and how do your personal or professional endeavors intersect with these issues?

Although not related to a community per se, I crusade to champion “difference.” On the surface, I am sure the first response is…”so what...we all do that.” Writing Wiregrass Country gifted me with a platform from which to preach all about it. This region is part of a fire-dependent ecosystem that is built to burn with wiregrass being the ignition. It requires fire to germinate in order to reseed the forests. Unbeknownst to the creators of Smokey the Bear, the campaign about fire prevention produced a dualistic paradigm that resulted in a turn toward monoculturalism, resulting in the extinction of the Ivory billed woodpecker and others. To get to my point, the lack of periodic fire can be harmful for this ecosystem and actually lead to more devastating wildfires resulting in Smokey needing an update. Based on the knowledge gained, the Wiregrass region constitutes a ready-made metaphor to advance multiculturalism when an assimilation model dominates for peoples and cultures.

On the other hand, I do not articulate this narrative as a panacea for greater diversity. Many of my published articles and essays oppose what passes for multiculturalism and what some consider simply political correctness. For instance, in my essay, “Playing in the Dark: Under the Big Top, the Africanist Presence,” I articulated how the thrust toward diversity concealed the inability to deal with cultural differences, creating more of a universalizing fantasy. In an article directed to feminist science fiction, “Nalo Hopkinson’s Approach to Speculative Fiction,” I conclude: “In this manner, Brown Girl deconstructs excessive universalism. Resisting excessive relativism as well, it provides a case study constitutive of a realist theory. A realist theory of identity positions the social facts (such as gender, race, class, and sexuality) that aggregate an individual’s social location and is relevant for her life experiences. It helps that intersectionality is the academic buzzword of the day."

What do you like best about where you live and/or the communities you work with?

Starting with my dissertation, a major finding disclosed the extent to which Africana peoples engage in reciprocity, hospitality, and phenomenon time. In essence, while these African-based retentions are not earth-shattering news, ethnographically, I discovered that their recurrence, in situ (within a variety of natural contexts), is an ever expansive continuity considering the distinctive spatial and temporal contexts whether urban, rural, or circum-Caribbean. So St.Clair Drake’s early study endures forecasting for me the existence of a multiplicity of performance communities that are in no way monolithic possessing a plethora of variants endemic to belonging. Understand, being ethnographic, I enter each community without an established hypothesis. I am the neophyte. In each instance, falling back on my earlier approach, I steadfastly allow each performance community to unveil itself without any presumptions, just anticipation. How could I do otherwise, given my own outsider position? My analyses privilege participation-observation followed by formal recorded interviews and informal ones along with archival research. In particular, Downhome Gospel granted me the opportunity to indulge in transparency and self-reflexivity enough to present a transpersonal ethnography that explained my own subject position so that readers might triangulate and assess me (the ethnographer), the folk, and my analyses to contribute their own analytics.

What do you most wish outsiders knew about your community?

Essentially, it is difficult for me to comprehend what is meant by “your/my community.” When it come to folklore study, I am such a nomad that I possess/own no community. I study foremost Africana communities locating similarities and differences within regions like the Wiregrass region and cultural holidays like the 20th of May (Emancipation Day in Florida) and Boxing Day (in the ACW). I attempt to bring my “findings” out of obscurity and into the spotlight to advance greater understanding about little known practitioners. For example, in my current Boxing Day study, I adopt a tropological approach advancing three vernacular constructs: noise (“One Grand Noise”); darkness (“Before Day Morning”); and time/space (“From Back o’ Town”). I speak to a re-Africanization process as part of a survival impetus and to deconstruct the persistence of darkness/night within the diaspora, imparted through a sense of endarkenment to combat what the Enlightenment era wrought.

Share a bit about one or two of your projects (past, present, or future) that you are most excited about.

On the threshold of releasing another forthcoming monograph, I am excited about coming full circle back to onomastics, the study of African American naming patterns, to be exact. I project that since I’ve already collected a great deal of raw data that this book should be completed faster than the previous ones requiring multi-sited fieldwork. Over time, I assumed such a monograph would be written by now. I plan to rely to a greater extent on digital ethnographic and new media along with other qualitative data. I also am looking forward to adding a chapter tentatively entitled, “‘Stop Being So Damn Creative’: The Devaluation of African American Personal Names within Popular Culture.” 

What kinds of things do you do with your personal time? Activities, endeavors, commitments that you pursue when you’re not on the job?

I love my solitude. When I’m home, I mostly read genre fiction by the likes of Walter Mosely or science fiction, especially dystopian ones and ones about the zombie apocalypse. Not as sheer escapism, but to incorporate new literatures and ways of thinking into my courses. I also favor films featuring these tropes along with thrillers, movies with kickass women, Asian cinema and almost all of Samuel L. Jackson flicks, except those based on Marvel comics. Ok, I like Iron Man and Black Panther, too. Having grandchildren now (15, 12, and 10), I’m heavily invested in cosplay, and I must thank Camille Bacon-Smith for introducing me to what’s now known as Supercons while in grad school although it’s taken until recently for me to attend several in-state conventions.

How did you discover folklore and what do you like best about it? Why did you stick with it?

Perhaps, I’ve answered this one in passing. Ethnography is addicting, traveling to new places and meeting amazing people who deserve a text all about them, except I must keep in mind the multiplicity of hidden transcripts to be written to extol and deconstruct. I stick with it because I’ve long recognized my addiction from day one. I am an introvert, to say the least, literally; therefore, I am a better listener and studious with a willingness to understand that which I only know of from books while recognizing each novelty.

Performance artist, Guillermo Gomez Pena, influences my outlook as well. I was privileged to see several of his staged performances and talks, including one time at a conference in Wales. I became fixated by his mention of “micro-republicas” relating to what we call folk groups and their prevalence today. Without addressing globalization, in a nutshell, he incased the fact of the plethora of communities to which citizens belong, essentially stating that consumerism and popular culture only informs a portion of our everyday lives although the corporate media might imply otherwise. Every time I attend a calendrical folk cultural production I bear in mind and use the term “reciprocal support network” to acknowledge the extent to which they constitute a micro-republica, a third space in which they expend much of their time, energy, and money—i.e., classic folk groups. To my understanding, even E. P. Thompson viewed folk culture to be residual, easily displaced by popular culture. I bear witness to the sustainability of vernacular culture as the most quotidian aspect of social being.

Anything else we failed to ask that you want to share?

I credit folklore and folklife study with broadening my identity from being a professed atheist and emerging a spiritual activist because over the course of a life time I am honored to have met so many tradition bearers (churched and unchurched) who demonstrated otherwise. As a novitiate, I developed blind faith in serendipity, which guaranteed a mystical experience with every encounter—manifested as being in the right place at the right time. As I’ve written, elsewhere, I am no Zora Neale Hurston. All the knowledge about each dynamic cultural tradition that I’ve garnered, presented itself to a blank slate on which I chose to inscribe lessons learned.


Tina Bucuvalas says...
Posted Sunday, November 24, 2019
Wonderful interview!

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