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Voice of Houstons Past

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Essay title: Voice of Houstons Past

Voice Of Houstons Past

For most of American history, African-Americans have been considered and treated as inferiors. Their folksongs and tales have been benignly looked upon as harmless, meaningless expressions of a dull-witted race whose only contribution to American life was a strong back and a weak mind. Even after the Civil War, the ingrown prejudices continued to relegate the freedmen to the bottom rung of a strict caste ladder. Their folklore was repeatedly ignored or belittled. Only since the coming of black awareness, pioneered by men like W. Dubois and Frederick Douglas, has the African American community realized that their culture is uniquely American and singularly important to the understanding and establishment of the American cultural and artistic scene. It is one of the few elements of their heritage that they can look back on and recognize as valuable in America's development. This is the essence of the black folksongs, stories, and art; they fill a void and force recognition of the African American contribution. These superstitions and folklore from the past demonstrate the influences wielded upon African Americans of today, as well as pave the way for a new form of folklore, which is told through art.

In order to effectively illustrate the progression and correlation of early African American folklore and the emergence of a new breed of artist, a specific group of artist all utilizing the same type of art form will be discussed. Therefore, the focus of this paper will be on recent African American artist in Houston, Texas; all of whom utilize place-specific art to convey their images and messages. Before discussing the current art movement, it is vital to understand the history of the superstitions and folklore which are the inspiration for Houston's place-specific art.

A Brief History of African American Superstition and Folklore Since their arrival on American soil, African Americans have contributed to our collective culture. Their songs, poems, stories, spirituals, and proverbs, while at times reinforcing the white theory of supremacy, gave them a foundation of identity that was passed from generation to generation. The ghost stories and superstitions are probably the best known examples of early black culture. This is because white men used them as a means to prove the black's innate inferiority to whites. They ignored the obvious fact; all cultures posses similar superstitions, even their own. The problem in collecting and evaluating black folklore is the misinterpretation and lack of understanding of early black dialects. "We must read the transcriptions with some care and occasionally wonder what the white man did when they were confronted by sounds strange to their ears; some tried to transcribe the actual sound, but others, assuming mispronunciation made editorial corrections...and some expecting alien sounds misinterpreted and misheard."1 The innate prejudices of many recorders helped to distort the materials. Still the black dialect presented a road block to communication between the races. The notion of a nation within a nation arose from this language barrier. The dialect that evolved within the segregated nation was a combination of West African languages and English, and became known as the plantation dialect.2 It was with this misunderstood dialect that African Americans passed on their superstitions.

Black superstition encompassed many themes. It covered procedures to insure good luck, healthy children, harmony, good crops, and a myriad of other situations. The theme of luck was the most prevalent superstition, namely the attainment of good fortune and the avoidance of bad luck. For example, a pepper bush in the yard brings good luck3; it is good luck for a buzzard to light on your house on a Monday4; and, if you are deeply depressed in spirits, it is a sure sign that you will hear good news.5 Additionally, the avoidance of bad luck was a mainstay of their beliefs. They held to an inordinate number of rules that were intended to prevent misfortune. Everything from fishing rods, old gloves, spiders, nose bleeds, and the familiar black cat were all precursors of an ill-fate. Perhaps the preponderance of luck-omens and slogans familiar today grew out of early black superstitions. Their existence was difficult enough without added misfortune. Any means they could utilize to ward off bad luck was not to be ignored.

Another aspect of their superstition concerned agriculture. Naturally, the bulk of blacks only knew the routine associated with their rural surroundings. Their primary job was to work the land. So it follows that they would form superstitions concerning nature. Weather was an indicator of the future, as were seeds and farm animals.

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