P. Sterling Stuckey – Understanding Slave Culture: Looking Back to Move Forward

P. Sterling Stuckey – Understanding Slave Culture: Looking Back to Move Forward

Interview by Corey Arvin
Portraits by Benoit Malphettes

Stuckey, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at University of California, Riverside (UCR), joined UCR’s history department in 1989. Prior to his tenure at UCR, he was a member of the faculty at Northwestern University. Stuckey was also a Visiting Research Fellow at UCLA from 1975 to 1976, an Andrew Mellon Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, in 1980 to 1981, and a Senior Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. in 1987 to 1988, and a Fellow at the Humanities Research Institute, University of California, Irvine in 1991 to 1992. © Benoit Malphettes

Stuckey, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at University of California, Riverside (UCR), joined UCR’s history department in 1989. Prior to his tenure at UCR, he was a member of the faculty at Northwestern University. Stuckey was also a Visiting Research Fellow at UCLA from 1975 to 1976, an Andrew Mellon Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, in 1980 to 1981, and a Senior Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. in 1987 to 1988, and a Fellow at the Humanities Research Institute, University of California, Irvine in 1991 to 1992. © Benoit Malphettes

Until recently, rarely did the complex history of American Slavery and its indelible impact transcend into our national conversation. As these remarkable tales and explorations of Black America’s past and present continue to spur cinematic works and intellectual discourse, cultural historians such as Riverside resident, author and distinguished intellectual Dr. Sterling Stuckey deserves attention for inspiring generations and provoking thought.

This week Oxford University Press will release the 25th anniversary edition of Dr. Stuckey’s Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America which argues that at the time of emancipation, slaves remained essentially African in culture through Black Art, music and dance.

To reflect on how Slave Culture shaped education on Pan-African culture and modern Black America, Dr. Stuckey granted The VOICE an interview to share his thoughts on what has changed since the book was first published 25 years ago.

As a veteran educator who has taught students on multiple levels, what is it about academia that has appealed to you through such a long career?

It has enabled me to think more deeply about historical events, offering the advantage of student participation in the process. In fact, bright students can be, and often have been, a source of strength in solving basic problems. That was my experience especially in investigating the works of Herman Melville, a great novelist under the particular influence, we now know, of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass for the music, symbolism and more in Moby-Dick. A special advantage that bright students offer that is not necessarily offered by fellow professors is the absence of a professional stake in historical findings. They are not members of a particular wing of professionals with a political angle to protect. Major problems such as slavery and freedom require continual attention that can last as long as one teaches as knowledge about them grows. If you are a leader in your field you are likely to be open to what is revealed of it in related disciplines, not just by fellow historians.

“Slave Culture”, one of your most successful published works, will reach its 25th anniversary in November. In what manner would you hope this book has established or re-establish an understanding of Black America’s foundation and cultural identity?

Slave Culture’s major achievement, in my view, is that it makes a strong, indeed an undeniable case for the African sources of African American art, indeed for American art at its best. We know that not only the Negro spiritual but the blues were created by slaves from multiple African ethnic people, and that such mutual involvement in the creative process, in the face of brutal enslavement, strengthened the bonds among them by knowledge of their jointly having acted in concert. That was Pan Africanism in the deepest sense. In other words, they overcame hardship while providing a common understanding of the process of artistic creativity that in time would be global in impact, hence the simultaneous birth of Pan-Africanism, the spirituals and the blues in slavery.

An impressive finding in the book is that the creative process among slaves occurred in the North as well as South, at times in places where one might least expect it—that is especially true of the blues having been created in the upper South, in Maryland rather than in Mississippi, as we have long been urged to believe. The decisive testimony on this comes from Frederick Douglass, who describes, in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the music later defined as the blues. But the most far- reaching feature of Slave Culture is the depth and sweep of its investigation of Africans enslaved in North America, in the opening section of the book, Slavery and the Circle of Culture.

How have your colleagues and students responded to “Slave Culture” over the years?

Slave Culture was strongly influenced by some prior work of mine, especially by The Ideological Origins of Black Nationalism, a book that appeared more than fifteen years before the publication of Slave Culture. Though Ideological Origins went out of print a few years later, students and others continued to show unusual interest in it. Historian Clement Price, who teaches at Rutgers, paid me the ultimate compliment by saying Ideological Origins “anchored a generation of Black scholars,” and he has in mind student-scholars as well, for a student of his brought the book to his attention, urging him to read it. So among that early generation of supporters Ideological Origins helped prepare the foundation of respect for Slave Culture since similar issues and figures appear in both books. For more than thirty years mention has been made of Ideological Origins, at times with mention of the documents that comprise the work. Recently a distinguished scholar from the University of Massachusetts astonished me by referring to “Sidney,” a particularly brilliant young Black scholar from the 1820s whose letters—found in Ideological Origins– she found captivating.

But Slave Culture itself has of late received a level of praise that I never expected to receive—in part because its principal contribution, the Ring Shout, various scholars now argue, was more widespread than even I imagined.

What published books or articles were you inspired by before embarking on “Slave Culture”?

By a number [of books], especially by W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk; A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States and Alan Lomax’s The Folk Songs of North America.

As an expert, do you believe pivotal moments in African-American history, e.g. slavery, are accurately, fairly and informatively shown in media (cinema and television) or is there often something missing from the stories told?
Certainly television captured pivotal moments of our struggle in the Sixties—the Sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and so on. And television captured brutalities against Blacks and their white allies in the Freedom Rides, the Mississippi Summer Project, and the March on Washington. As for slavery, I’d have to say I’ve seen little in the media that has been first-rate.

Another one of your most highlighted works is “Going Through the Storm”. Can you explain why you were inspired to share Black contributions in the art world?

I was inspired to share Black contributions to the art world because they reflect the genius of Black ability in the arts. Slave tales, slave music—the blues and spirituals—slave dance have carried global significance. The preeminent example of modernist music globally is jazz, which reaches across the globe. The spirituals and the blues, the slave tale and slave dance reflect artistic genius created under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Black Art in slavery was a major form of protest to an uncommon extent.

How important is it for African-Americans to understand their cultural history and why?

It is important for Blacks to understand their cultural history because the richest offerings of that history are through Black art. A great amount of that history, through slave tales, is still untapped or misunderstood. James Weldon Johnson, In The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), all but dismisses Negro Dialect, contending that the richest veins of Negro genius cannot be reached through dialect, which he thinks has but two full stops, humor and pathos. Therefore, it is not the appropriate language for the poet, novelist, folklorist, or historian, he argues, when there is no better language for exposure to the deepest veins of Black genius, for the gift of slave genius to the world. Slave Culture’s exploration of slave rituals offers unrivalled exposure to the position that counters Johnson’s deeply confused position and a similarly confused position from Ralph Ellison, who carried the torch of opposition to dialect no less passionately than Johnson, failing to understand that Herman Melville probes dialect with extraordinary results in Moby-Dick when he, Ellison, denies the presence of dialect in Moby-Dick

How does cultural history translate today in understanding the state of Black America?

How does cultural history translate today? Take the example of Richard Wright in Black Power (1954) he is of immense help in illustrating the means by which new insight into Black cultural history might be achieved. He signals, through his findings of parallel cultural forces among Blacks separated by thousands of miles of ocean and centuries of time, among Blacks in Ghana and Blacks in Mississippi. That is treated in the anniversary edition of Slave Culture.

If you were able to publish another book, what subject would you approach?

I am [currently] working on a biography of Paul Robeson.

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