To break cyclical, systemic oppression requires a functionality that rejects reified notions of governance, global capitalism, and accommodation.
“Our ‘communities’ are not based on just racial identity or conterminous geographical locations.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Jerrilyn McGreogry.McGregory is Professor of English at Florida State University. Her book is One Grand Noise: Boxing Day in the Anglicized Caribbean World.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Jerrilyn McGregory: I have devoted my career researching resistance strategies of urban and rural African Americans and now people in the Anglicized Caribbean World. Coupled with writing my dissertation on African American urban folklore in Philadelphia and because my working class parents were disinterested in ever traveling to the Deep South, I relocated to research southern folklife in Wiregrass Country (South Georgia, the Florida Panhandle and adjacent counties in Alabama). Forty years of research divulges a magnitude of perseverance and optimized hope that social scientists, many political organizers, and other professionals tend to negate. To paraphrase Frederick Douglass, “There is no progress without struggle” and I would add or with capitulating to the contradictions of neoliberalism.
My forthcoming book, “One Grand Noise”: Boxing Day in the Anglicized Caribbean World, solidifies this sentiment. As with my prior publications, it speaks to an operational unity that permits cultural producers to act in concert, despite superficial differences over tactics and strategies. As my research reveals, the problem is that our “communities” are not based on just racial identity or conterminous geographical locations. Instead, in Black Metropolis, African American sociologist St. Clair Drake discloses a distinction between African Americans who are “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 groups. I speak to the maintenance of an Africa-derived communitarian outlook on which those organized into sacred and secular communities psychologically thrive. For instance, on this past Boxing Day (December 26)—whether in The Bahamas, Bermuda, Belize, St. Croix, or St. Kitts—and during a pandemic, aficionados mobilized each of their performance communities to interact virtually. In obedience to ancestral survival imperatives, adherents of Junkanoo, Gombey Dancing, and Playing Mas, social distanced from home to center their collective joy. Their social memory built cultural identities to overcome self-negation, not reducible to a binary – the social elite vs. the economically disenfranchised.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
As during the Harlem Renaissance and among the Black Cultural Nationalists of the ‘60s, while compounded by today’s realpolitik, the resilience of African American sociocultural networks may be deemed retrograde, lacking “organic” intellectuals. I espouse that these times call for forces that go beyond a politics of disposability and rather should adhere to new political and educational narratives. To break cyclical, systemic oppression requires a functionality that rejects reified notions of governance, global capitalism, and accommodation. It is age-old allocative principles that helped our ancestors to survive bondage, colonialism, and now the violence of inequality. On many Caribbean islands, cultural pedagogy is de rigueur—just as every child should learn to swim. They gain instruction about their living traditions. For instance, beginning in primary school, Bahamian culture is being passed on as a means of developing a Bahamian cultural identity
“It is age-old allocative principles that helped our ancestors to survive bondage, colonialism, and now the violence of inequality.”
Past history should heighten our awareness about the present-day reactionary, facetious calls for diversity and antiracism. Empowerment hinges on not relegating cultural dynamics into obscurity. At the turn of the twentieth century and contemporaneous with Zora Neale Hurston, a HBCU Hampton Institute formulated a folklore society to study the role of black cultural representation as a site of resistance. To Anna Julia Cooper, generally recognized for her role as an African American feminist and suffragist, promoted social change and justice as a member of the Hampton Folklore Society. She contradicted the African American middle class ideology of racial uplift, electing to identify black folklore as a “site of memory.” The Society established that organized communities transmitted their own ethical systems for evaluating, instilling, and perpetuating values, norms, and beliefs. African American folklore/folklife endure and should effectively increase students’ cultural self-confidence by inculcating a cultural pedagogy that is humanizing. Traditionalized groupings persist among students, their families, and other voluntary associations. The urge is not to fetishize or fossilize past traditions but also surmise their reinterpretation.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
In practice, people of African descent organize around belonging relying on collective economics, reciprocity, and cooperative responsibility. Binarism is the bane of our existence, reifying polarities that persist and are taken for granted as though universal. Dualism results in functional forms of racism, sexism, classism—white supremacy, patriarchy, and other hierarchies. Even in the 1960s Black cultural nationalists (including myself), preached political stances that constituted a silhouette of Western metaphysical dualism, inverting white power to privilege a militancy that sustained patriarchy and misogyny while promoting an Afrocentricity that negated Africana culture in the U.S. Let me interject that my standpoint is not intended to romanticize the “folk” but to support sacred and secular communities that retain an ethos consistent with their forebearers’. There are guardians of culture with a legacy of rejecting Western paradigms by embracing traditional indigenized knowledge with continuity and change. The intent is to value esoteric, shared knowledge and to preserve those cultural realms from the ethically bankrupt. Doing so reminds adults of their ethical and political responsibility to future generations, further investing in youth as a symbol of collective resistance as a response to the suffering of others.
I also give props to Black Feminisms’ engagement with intersectionality, which challenges the bipolar tensions that accommodates either/or ways of thinking without engaging ambiguity. Intersectionality, ultimately, speaks to difference as it relates to one’s epistemic status or social location. How one experiences the world is key to resisting ideological inheritances from the Enlightenment era. Instead, it generates another multifaceted dimension to erode Eurocentric models of oppression. Afrofuturism, too, upholds radically different worlds because adherents recognize the significance of change and organize around new forms of social activism.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I am a womanist, but my intellectual history privileges African American men, not bounded by binaries and who promote the survival of the masses. As recent as the 1970s, there were very few books in print written by African Americans, and Lerone Bennett, Jr. became my sage. In The Challenge of Blackness, he formulized a radical discourse. In the chapter, “Beyond Either/Or: A Philosophy of Liberation,” he acknowledges “that the masses have mastered in practice the dialectic commended here.” Consequently, I can confidently implore liberationists to transform because “everything must be made new” (Bennett 311). Houston Baker and W. Lawrence Hogue offer me the leeway to observe first hand that there is no theory without praxis. Baker’s Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era, is where he endorses “black cultural style, efficacious public institutions such as mosques and churches, performances by black musicians breaking the hold of white global systems of expressive domination on the black mind, secure social safety nets, meaningful and gainful employment, real wealth accumulation.” Accordingly, Black intellectuals blame the “culture of the people they are trying to convert” (emphasis his 143) Then, too, Hogue embraces a polycentric approach that takes into account the rich diversity among African Americans, stating: “My objective is to eschew the binary and to speak equally of African American differences, to examine and discuss African Americans in terms of their own distinctions and traditions, to engage the polyvalent nature of African American literature, history, and criticism” (2). I add Robin Kelley, too; his Black Rebels speaks to “Building community in the dark.” He writes: “Many African American working people pierced the stillness of the night with the sounds of blues and jazz, laughter, and handclapping, moans and cries.” (44). In the main, these intellectuals theorize about Africana people, whose cultural practices implant persistence, renewal, and resistance to the benefit of all.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I also have an alternative way of viewing success dependent on a healthy psyche by realistically expending one’s time, energy, and money (not just ideally) but in actual everyday life. While studying at Cornell’s ASRC, I took a course in political economy. In terms of the political economy, present dogma does not honor the viability of accepting the power unleashed by upholding what we can control: our internal labor process. Under late capitalism, African Americans produce our own ownership. For there to be change, we have to recreate the culture mechanisms that have supported African Americans through slavery and feudalism—post-emancipation. These important revolutions were propelled by the people and do not articulate a doctrine but their survival capabilities. Therefore, the internal labor process is just as productive as our external labor as workers. By rejecting basic survival techniques, systemic racism resulted in the inability to control our external labor under savage capitalism. In this pandemic laced era, the question becomes: how do we extricate ourselves and gain control of our external labor, too? Forge alliances with other people similarly impaired in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and its globalizing appeal. Today, core pundits assume our future relies on becoming capitalists, which it should not.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.
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