Folklorist Gerald Davis was invited by President Jane Beck of the American Folklore Society (AFS) to give the President’s Invited Lecture on October 14, 1995, at the annual AFS Annual Meeting, in Lafayette, Louisiana. In 1996, Davis published a copy of his AFS speech, “’Somewhere over the Rainbow…’ Judy Garland in Neverland”, in The Journal of American Folklore (JAF). The following article is an abridged version of the JAF copy of the Davis AFS speech, including portions of sections I, II, III, IV, V, and VII. Davis transitioned from section to section by humming, whistling, and singing the song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (he also refers to it as “Rainbow”) from The Wizard of Oz, and ended his performance with modified verse from “Rainbow” as well.
[Hum a few bars of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”]
Good afternoon, family, friends, and fellow folklorists…
I am confident you will regard as my singular view the reflections I will offer on our soft and very human underbelly, an underbelly that may have grown unhealthily corpulent by the increasingly problematic invocation, or thoughtless trumpeting, of our proud heritage of liberal, progressive postures. And in this too, this gentle, caring calling of “a spade a spade,” I am guided by [AFS President] Jane Beck’s spirit… I am grateful to you, Jane, for your courage and your support, and for your friendship. And I thank you deeply for extending to me this invitation. Hopefully, later this evening you will not be so humiliated as to be “indisposed” when I invite you to join me on the dance floor. [Hum a few bars of “Rainbow.”]
It is probably an unwise strategy to begin a commentary before an academic body with sets of non sequiturs. But the tactic of introducing to a congregation at the beginning of a well-structured sermon the semiotic environment in which ideas will be spoken is used to such good result in particular cultures that I am emboldened to employ a rudimentary form of that narrative strategy here. (You may venture a polite, restrained “Amen” if you feel so inclined.)
The first non sequitur: no one of us would be surprised if we were to read in tomorrow’s news that Michael Jackson, the “Pop King,” had purchased the red pumps Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz. Some might say, “Oooooo, that Michael Jackson is too many things!” and punctuate the pithy observation with an affirming and distinctive “two snaps up.” The more obdurate among us might wryly observe how easily Jackson juggles his fantasies with their seeming contradictions, real life. The subtext is that Michael Jackson is the near-perfect icon for ethnic and cultural creolization.
Jackson borrows liberally from wherever and whomever he chooses and synthesizes all of it, with a dexterous abandon, in his human form and public performance. This mutability of body parts and philosophical rationalization, if one can call it that, is forever “new.” And even if it has gotten to be somewhat berserk, somewhere in Michael we know there is an African American child and that proportion is not diminished by the other elements of his presentation. Indeed, as “the kids” say, “Michael Jackson is too many things!”
The second non sequitur: Because only real men appear publicly in high drag these days, we are all just a little curious to know if the undergarments that sheath the luscious asses — ah, butts — of Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo, and Patrick Swayze in To Wong Foo (1995) [a comedy featuring masculine Hollywood icons Snipes and Swayze as drag queens] are the feminized versions of the butch Fruit of the Looms or Calvin Kleins? No matter, really, since both brands are into a rather curiously titillating bisexual/transgender marketing. It seems to me that it’s all about knowing your product and accurately targeting your national market.
And the third non sequitur (transgressing propriety): Michel Foucault was a faggot with a very public interest in sadomasochistic eroticism, which may explain why those who are able to negotiate his challenging prose are rewarded with a well-deserved orgasm of sorts at the conclusion of their artfully guided cruise. The bottom line is to wonder aloud about the interplay between Foucault’s richly vibrant and textured sexuality and his sensually philosophical constructions, a different sort of creolization but an idea that may be shoehorned into the rubric given us by our annual meeting planners.
Queer thoughts/colored readings, teased to active minds because of our second-nature dependency on and commerce with cinematic and media-reality fuck. I mean, we have held onto our revered icons and treasured fantasies for so long that they have the force of truth in real time in our lives and are the stuff of our soft, well-protected, fiercely guarded understories…
One event, inconsequential to some, was of singular importance to me. It came, returned to me one night as if in a dream, as I considered the nature of my charge today. I was dumbstruck that after all of these years the event still carried an unexpected potency. The event and the mass of feeling in which it is still encased was plucked, retrieved intact from the recesses of my nearly forgotten memory files, having been deposited there, in stunned disbelief, when I was much younger in the practices of the discipline. Inexplicably, Richard Mercer Dorson did begin his 1969 address to the California Folklore Society with a nigger joke. [Transition: sing and hum a few bars of “Rainbow.”]
When I was a teenager in New York City/Harlem, I used to enjoy the dance we called the “Sandwich.” In those days social and gender roles were well constructed and rationalized by sets of customary privileges, particularly advantageous for young African American men. And we were very full of our wildly hormonal, preening selves. Young African American women were even more encumbered, imprisoned by social constructions over which, in hindsight, none of us had any real control.
Barbara seemed to be the one exception. She seemed to be able to determine so much of what went on in her life. We boys never did the Sandwich or the French Grind or the Wall Grind with Barbara. In fact, none of my buddies ever danced with her or dated her, or ever admitted to it. Barbara was a sort of “tomboy,” who confused us and beat us at various sports and beat up on us; so we left her alone. Sandra was also good at sports, but when she put on a dress there was no doubt in our minds that she was worthy of our boys’ impure attentions and besmirched fantasies, such as they were in those barely postpubescent days. But Barbara was, even then, “different,” and somewhere deep in our heads we respectfully perceived that difference as significant and unapproachable.
I met Barbara recently at Frankie’s funeral in New York. Awkwardly, we pretended to remember the other when Frankie’s mother reintroduced us. Barbara did not attempt to disguise the fact that she is a lesbian, a dyke. And when I did not seize this rare opportunity to share something of who I had come to be, she nodded and turned away as we both retreated to our own familiar and distanced lives. It occurs to me now, weeks later, that during my New York teen years women were peripheral to but not entirely marginal to our — my, frankly — male homosensual, homoerotic world.
That anecdote is apropos of nothing, except perhaps this. This afternoon, sandwiched between our Business Meeting and a “Souper et Fais Do-Do,” I’m not sure whether I am to be a genteel sprig of deceptively zesty watercress on a buttered square of decrusted white bread served at a polite British tea, or a robust pile of ribs (beef or pork), slathered with an authoritative mustard-and-vinegar- or bourbon-and-tomato-based barbecue sauce. It may be the case that I am deluded in thinking I have any choice, any agency in my selection of identities, including, of course, the selection of my presentation within this profession…
Are we activists, technicians, bleeding hearts, cultural conservationists (I love that one), or just folk on a mission to share love and concern and caring with other folk? Is our cherished collective presentation too much a practiced artifice and no longer the naturally uneven engagement of one human soul and spirit with another, each able as equals to balance a mutually beneficial association? Or has our practice ever been that?
…We have postponed, and only that, consideration of ourselves as a privileged, voluntarily constituted community, and the consequential impact of the transient essence of our method on the lives of those who are the recipients of our good works and the targets of our best intentions.
I am alarmed and pained, as are many of you, that after 100 plus years of doing business in our fashion, we have come to this regrettable place/point/period where so very few of those we have studied are with us as colleagues to police our excesses, …and most importantly, to follow their own paths and journeys through their own cultural formations…
It is in this curious, perhaps somewhat fractious, place that I want to linger a bit this afternoon, exploring with you some of the complexity of these issues that we must think through if we are going to honor the gloriously unrestrained idealism, the palpable humanism, and the damned good, naive feelings that initially brought us all to American folklore, folkloristics, and folklife studies. But I need to add a caveat before I move on, and it is this. I am not pointing fingers from the outside. While I am peripheralized, as much by my own doing as by the practices of the discipline, I am not marginalized. I am, I claim to be, I proclaim that I am well vested in the practice and the doing of folklore, folkloristics, and folklife studies.
But in recent years I have turned away from my love of strolling sidewalks and standing on streetcorners to smell the aromas of communities and the people who live there for the safer, more emotionally and psychically spare and sparing world of people-absent pseudotheorizing. As a result I have become personally and professionally unhappy hence many of the recent decisions in my life.
I shared this growing deep discomfort with a friend and colleague who suggested that this is just a part of growing older and becoming more intellectually mature. I disagreed, but all I had in response was a kind of vague emptiness, a vacuum surrounded by a handsome, embarrassingly well-salaried patina of stuff and things. Perhaps I thought my friend and colleague was right, that growing old and crusty meant hammering more impenetrable reality checks in the paths of my best students. But the other, passionate side of me says, “Bullshit, Gerald, fight for the feeling and empathy, always.” And I am just self-centered enough to believe that my fight and my personal struggles, in the context of the discipline, mirror our own peculiar, necessary quest for a distinctive, marketable personality and identity for folklore, folklife studies, and folkloristics. (There’s a scary thought.)
Let me push this near-heresy a tinch (tiny inch) further. While we are not “God’s chosen,” we are special. We are not better than practitioners of any other discipline or organized discourse — thank heavens we have more humility than
archaeologists — but we are special…That is, by conviction we are scholar-activists and wonderfully excessive humanists of the first order. But we need to rise more compellingly than we have to the challenge of interrogating and reinventing or rediscovering ourselves, the core from which we generate our elementally human-centered study, projects, as we rapidly approach the dawning of a new century.
…in our minds’ eyes, where we have always dared to dream of rainbows, we see meeting rooms and classrooms full of multihued American practitioners of our discipline. But to realize those visions we will have to surrender some cheek, let go of ego, restrain our lusts, bridle our passions, and think hard about who we are and who we want and ought to be. [Transition: sing a few bars of “Rainbow.”]
So let me return to Richard Dorson’s Berkeley keynote address. I know of Dorson’s liberal reputation. And I know many of you loved him dearly. In fact, when placed alongside the enormous respect Dorson enjoyed from so many of his students, the incident seems so contradictory as to be improbable. But I did not search my memory banks for some obscure offense with which to excoriate the man, this major presence in our modern disciplinary history, this man who seemed to especially befriend his African American graduate students. It is just that this incident has remained with me over all of these years because it seems so emblematic of an arrogance of privilege and an insensitivity that is both atypical of the way most of us see ourselves, and all too typical of the way we are often seen…
What is so instructive in the Dorson event is that it was apparent that Dorson knew his Berkeley audience and played to a generally responsive and receptive body of his colleagues and peers. At the same meeting another major presence in our field, a male, reported on an African hymenectomy (female circumcision) ritual in such salacious terms that I was caused to rise from my seat in strong vocal protest. He too apparently knew his audience, and something of how his singularly vulgar description of a transitional ritual in the life of an African woman would be received.
Did Dick Dorson “misspeak” his nigger joke? Did he not understand that some of his colleagues, certainly his colleagues-to-be, the Berkeley folklore graduate students in the audience, might consider the joke racist and offensive? Did I miss his mention of some sort of context that would have made the joke “okey dokey” after all? On the heels of all that had publicly transpired in Berkeley prior to his arrival, did he not feel some sort of moral compunction to signal to new and old colleagues that folklorists and folklore had a long and progressive history that opposed the very sort of bias he seemed to champion and otherwise take for granted?
And what was I supposed to do, feel, and act when a great man of my chosen discipline looks me dead in the eyes as if to tell me, “You are not welcomed in these precincts as coequal. You are and will ever be an interloper, subject.” I was the only African American there. Did Dorson expect me to grin and bear his insult? To act invisible? Did he understand that for a brief moment I had to wonder about my kinfolk at Indiana?
Anomaly? Maybe. Fear? Perhaps. My greatest fear right now, as I listen to eager new folk coming into the discipline, is that Richard Mercer Dorson, as symbol of that old guard, is still at the gates. And as I approach my anniversary of a quarter century in this discipline, from the time I began as a folklore student, I pray that I do not carry Dorson’s anomalous genes.
Not all of us in that audience were appreciative of Dorson’s confident humor; spontaneously Lucy Turner and I led most of the folklore graduate students — this was Berkeley in 1969 after all — in a resoundingly rude, if ineffectual, Bronx cheer. But if Richard Dorson was amused by the perhaps predictable response of Berkeley folklore graduate students to his “good old boy” humor, Alan Dundes was, I think, humiliated by the ease with which Dorson matter-of-factly pimped racist stereotype. To this day I am grateful to Alan Dundes for his salving consternation over the license presumed by the man he revered as his mentor….
Perhaps in the final analysis, as one friend cautioned, “Eh, Jerry, we’re just people.” But at the core of my soul and spirit I have to scream in response “That’s not enough!” I want more from you and from myself, and I expect more because I have chosen you and what you represent, your possibility. And that possibility is part the dynamism of your intellect and part the sloppy, mawkishly sentimental, well-intentioned, and at times passionate embrace of humankind which I both abhor in its excess and duplicity and hunger for in its purity and intent. I accept many of your imperfections and contradictions as I wince at my own each day at my morning ablution.
But I am not confused about who I am. I am not defined by the accident of my gender or my size or my exceedingly good looks. I am defined by any choices I may have made about my gender presentation, my corpulence, or the way I shine my balding pate. And I am most certainly recognized by the color of my skin and the very special conditions that have contoured my identity, my personality, and some of my behaviors. And I know I am not any more unique than any of you in that regard. But where I have gotten to is sacrosanct…
As folklorists, we know from our own experience of a couple of years ago how easily the persistent perversion and commodification of race can turn constructive, mutually beneficial political and personal relationships sour. And of course it is about “race,” in part, that we are speaking this afternoon…
[Transition: sing a few bars of “Rainbow.”]
… I do not think the American Folklore Society is in danger of being destroyed, although it does feel to me that we have lost an essential vitality as we have in recent years bartered our passionate, curious spirits for a tempered, highly self-conscious and as yet ill-fitted drive for intellectual acceptance by our sister disciplines. Not even the strong and progressive womanpower energy we tried to fold into our organizational personality a few years ago could fully restore the pulsations that at one time seemed to keep us on point. And I doubt there will be any significant structural change in our association as we decide to quietly extend the franchise of full, participatory membership to our queer sisters and brothers. Thank goodness there are no drag queens or diesel dykes among them! Maybe next year. There seems to be only one area of our organizational life which has the inherent dissembling power to so push us out of our present, customary orbit that fundamental political and ideological change in the American Folklore Society has to result. Those communities that have been for the entire span of our existence the ubiquitous shadows, the voiceless plantation hands, the bastardized cousins from illicit social unions kept on an anemic academic welfare, must begin to insinuate themselves, ourselves, infect us, rudely intrude to the very core of our Society.
And this goal I am confident I share with many of you extends far beyond the cynical addition of a few darker-hued faces here and there or in the AFS presidency…
That there must also be major readjustments of priorities within the Society is equally clear. We are not encouraged to entertain such matters, but in moments of madness one considers whether Europe is, in fact, the birthing ground of the discipline. Egyptian and Mexican expressive culture texts predate our European founding by a couple of thousand years. Communities beyond the borders of the West were organizing aesthetic systems, recognizing esthetic excellence, and trafficking in and exchanging materials and ideas long before there was a polity known as Europe. The positing of our historical center in Europe was a political decision, not a statement of phallocentric intellectual primacy or superiority! A human-centered discursive future for the American Folklore Society, worthy of our proud history of hopes and fantasies, pronouncements and presentations, will surely depend on the extent to which non-European complex, culturally diverse intellectualized esthetic systems are genuinely welcomed at the pulsing center of our practice. [Transition: aggressively whistle a few bars of “Rainbow”.]
… I do not have red pumps, but I am wearing my burgundy ropers. So I am
going to click my heels three times and-”poof!”—disappear after thanking you for indulging me. And thank you again, Jane, for the invitation.
Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
If birds fly over the rainbow
Why, then, oh why can’t … we?
“’Somewhere Over the Rainbow’…Judy Garland in Neverland.” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 109, No. 432 (Spring 1996), pp. 115-128.