Gerald L. Davis (1941-1997) was a folklorist, activist, filmmaker, and university professor. His performance of coming out (revealing one’s identity as Gay) during his 1995 plenary address to the American Folklore Society (AFS) earned him status as an LGBTQ icon in Folklore Studies.
Davis was born and raised in New York City and spent his teenage years in Harlem. After graduating from Fisk University in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in speech and drama, he worked for the next six years in various programs for the poor in the USA and Tanzania. In 1969-1971, Davis studied anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. During this time, he says he often appeared “with a respectable Afro, dressed in a dashiki, having somewhere on my person a copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao.”
Davis became assistant director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife in 1972, helping to direct the African Diaspora Research Project. He completed his PhD in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania-Philadelphia in 1978, writing his dissertation on “The Performed African-American Sermon: A Structural Analysis,” which was published in 1985 as “I Got the Word in Me and I Can Sing It, You Know”: A Study of the Performed African-American Sermon. During this time, he also helped establish the Association of African and African American Folklorists.
Like Michel Foucault, it was only towards the end of his life that Davis became more vocal concerning his own sexual orientation. His unfinished research projects in New Mexico include an exploration of his being “twice blessed” as Gay and Black. Davis suffered from diabetes and kidney disease for much of his life. He died of complications in an Albuquerque hospital following an operation to treat cancer.
The Performed Word
In 1981, Davis produced The Performed Word, a one-hour documentary on sacred and secular performance in the African American community. Davis narrates the documentary, which includes his own verbal performance as a scholar who confronts racist and ethnocentric preconceptions of other scholars:
Ecstasy as a form of celebration is not emotional abandonment — it is expression. It is affirmation of sound psychic health. Ecstasy is a manifestation of an insight into one’s life and one’s humanity. Ecstasy in the African American church is historical. It is not an accommodation to an unrelenting feeling of ill will between peoples of differing races. It is rather a quiet voice made thunderously spontaneous in millions of African American collective minds, reminding folk of an elegant humanism already old in Africa when impudent Europe thought it was the first to discover the power of the celebrating spirit.
Coming Out as Academic Presentation
Gerald Davis was not the first LGBTQ folklorist to come out as Gay. Nevertheless, the way in which Davis did so publicly when he gave the 1995 AFS President’s Invited Lecture in Lafayette, Louisiana, combining academic presentation with transgressive LGBTQ activist language, salvific pulpit message from the African American Spirit-filled Christian community, and the basic Gay ritual of coming out, marks him as an icon for Gay folklorists.
Davis’ performance reflected the four overlapping communities to which he belonged: African American, LGBTQ, Gay African American, and folklorist. He recorded his speech in written form (with performance notes and explanations of emic terms), published in the 1996 Spring edition of the Journal of American Folklore. As he did in The Performed Word, Davis sought to trouble the preconceptions of his audience. His lecture was punctuated with humming and singing bars from “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” He likened the lecture to an African American sermon (and structuring it accordingly), and referenced his own “male homosensual, homoerotic world.” He provoked his listeners with the deliberate use of terms like butch, dyke, faggot, poof, and nigger joke.
Davis criticized a “loss of essential vitality” in the AFS, and pointed out an underlying tone of muted homophobia. He stated that the community of folklorists was on track to “quietly extend the franchise of full, participatory membership to our queer sisters and brothers” (implying that Gay folklorists were not yet accepted the same as Straight people), and predicted the extension of membership would still be conditional for LGBTQ people, saying the overall sentiment would be, “Thank goodness there are no drag queens or diesel dykes among them!”
As a scholar who was deeply involved in performance-based folklife, Davis must have been fully aware of the emotional response his own performance would have on his largely Straight White audience. His plenary talk, according to folklorist Debora Kodish, combined “a call to conscience with honest self-critique. . . . Powerfully and precisely outing himself and us, [Davis] asked, and then he showed, how freedom may open doors for others.”
Davis, Gerald L. “I Got the Word in Me and I Can Sing It, You Know”: A Study of the Performed African-American Sermon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1985.
Davis, Gerald L. “‘Somewhere over the Rainbow…’: Judy Garland in Neverland.” Journal of American Folklore, 109 (Spring 1996): 115-28.
Kodish, Debora. “Envisioning Folklore Activism.” Journal of American Folklore, 124 (No. 491, Winter 2011): 31-60.