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Want to learn more about the faculty, students, and staff that make up the Department of American Studies? Follow along with our AMST/FOLK Coffee Chat series, where we ask our community about new research, old hobbies, and everything in between.

Q: Where’s home for you?

Here. Here is home. When you invoke home, usually folks talk about where they were from, but my father was a sailor in the Navy, which meant that there was no home for anything more than three years at any point in my growing up. In fact, I was born in California, of all places. I was there for all of five months, and then I was gone and have traveled. Until college, I had never spent four years in one place. I was just wandering, which was the perfect way for a folklorist to begin. Lots of wandering and the constant exposure to new settings, new environments, new communities forced me to be constantly asking questions. Just trying to figure out where in the world I was at any given moment and learning enough to get settled just for the short period, knowing that I would soon be leaving. I ended up, for the last three years in high school, in Florida, and that was never home. And then I moved here to North Carolina, and I’ve been here ever since.

Now, that’s not my homeplace. That’s a different question. Homeplace is South Georgia because that was where my dad was from, and that’s always where we felt was home. We never lived in Georgia. The extended family was in Georgia, down in Waycross, near the Okefenokee Swamp. Whenever we could, we would try to spend time visiting kinfolk in Georgia. So that became a kind of spiritual home, but it was never a home that I lived in. Folks around North Carolina used to say, “Where are you from?” I would say, “Well, the homeplace is Georgia.” And they’d be satisfied.

Q: How would you describe your research to an undergraduate?

I would pinpoint two different areas of research. The first one: I would invite an undergraduate to think about hip-hop and to question where are the roots of that musical form. And perhaps said undergraduate would trace that back maybe . . . either to the birth of hip-hop proper or, more knowledgeably, to the 1950s and rhyming radio DJs and such. And I would then offer the challenge of what would happen if you thought of hip-hop as a form of rhythmic rhyming that actually likely dates back to antebellum times. And in the South, in particular, it was something you would have heard variations of in the 1820s and [18]30s. So a piece of my research and a couple of classes that I teach are dedicated to understanding the trajectory of oral rhyming in Black communities as a very special claim to community and cultural identity. The rhyming itself becomes one of those paths that connects generation to generation to generation in very different forms over the years. Hip-hop emerges as the contemporary incarnation of this really old, decidedly African-American tradition.

The other area I’d probably point to is my work with the Descendants Project. The Descendants Project is an initiative inspired by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) work in Alabama. The project looks at the descendants of those who suffered at the hands of racial violence in North Carolina and works with undergraduates to expand the stories of the victims. Typically, what we are left with in history is newspaper accounts that sometimes don’t even give names, often give names wrong, and never tell things like age, occupation, family connection, church. What we try to do is to fill the story of the families. We try to understand the fullness of these individuals’ lives and not their victimhood. We then trace those families forward to today and speak with descendants and try to understand the trajectory of that family through time. What happens when life is interrupted by racial violence tragically, and then the family is forced to regather, re-comprise their sense of fullness, and move on and rebuild? So part of that project is filling out the stories and trying to understand the family path.

Another part of it is working with the communities in which the violence occurred to move towards memorialization. We work in many cases with EJI or others to try to figure out how the community can remember in ways that honor these individuals who were the victims of violence.

And the third part of the project is to bring those families–-many of which are no longer here, and many of which departed the South after the murders–-back into communication with the communities so that they can become a part of these efforts to gather these stories, and to challenge the public memory that’s been offered, and then to transform that and offer new grounds for this sort of public conversation.

One of the counties that we’ve been working with most closely is Warren County, where in 1921 there were two lynchings, of Mr. Alfred Williams and Mr. Plummer Bullock. Two men–-one 19 years old, one 45–-were pulled from a jail in which 16 of their neighbors were incarcerated. Those 16 were then sent off to prison to await trial. They awaited trial for four months. During that time, they were doing ball-and-chain hard labor at the state penitentiary. And then when they were tried, about half of them were ultimately released. The other half were charged with anywhere from six months to eight years. And one of them, it seems, died in the penitentiary because while he was there in that four months, he contracted tuberculosis. So in Warren County, we’ve been working with those families, but also with groups in the county to try to figure out what memorialization would  look like.

Our first success, I would say, happened in collaboration with the NAACP—we were able to change the death certificates of these two victims to acknowledge that they were, in fact, lynched. That was huge. And the second thing was to do a reenactment of the trial of those 16 men. That was last year. This year, we did a second reenactment of the trial, but we included a set of stories of largely women who were associated with the families, because we felt that last year’s was very male-centric. It’s 16 men in a trial where all the officers of the court are men, and we had two women serving as narrators. They guided everyone through the story, but there were no stories of the experience of families. And so this year, students drew on their research and their interviews with descendants to pull together biographies of five persons who were somehow involved. The mother of one of those victims, the wife of another one, the sister of one, etc. And we worked with women in the community over a six-week period, working with a dramaturge, Jacqueline Lawton, here at UNC. And essentially, Jacqueline worked over with these women over a six week period, bringing them into the personae of the people whose material we had provided. We gave them a framework, the biographical information that we knew, and they then stepped fully into that person and wrote a vignette of what this woman might have said on the day of that trial. And then they performed those interspersed in the trial reenactments. Again, this was all locally done. We just provided the information, and it’s these women and the playwright who did the reenactment, who put together this absolutely wrenching account of what the challenging of public memory could look like.

Q: What is your proudest academic moment?

I would say there’s a series, and I would put “academic” in quotes. I would say, for instance, that working with the reenactment this year was certainly one of those. Five weeks before the reenactment happened, we coordinated a series of public discussions in the Warren County Library on the racial history of the county, and we brought in panelists from all over to talk. The first topic was legacies of enslavement. We talked about progressive visions. We talked about the histories of public education in the county. And we closed with descendants’ stories, inviting a panel of descendants. And then we took a week off after these five powerful public conversations and did the reenactment. There were lots of tears. There were a lot of people who were moved. There are a lot of people who are committed to working further on telling these stories, and there was also an opening up of these stories.

What we discover is that the racial violence did not end with those arrests and those lynchings. There’s a long history. And so now part of what we’re doing is investigating that and asking: Are there ways that we can bring families together? Are there ways we can open up cold cases? Are there ways that we can sort of get a fuller understanding?

So I would say when you ask ‘what is my proudest academic moment,’ I would say they are those moments where projects that are grounded in the university become community projects, and the communities take those on as their own so that we’re able to step back. And especially in cases like the Descendants Project where you’re at a predominantly white institution. I am white. And so that’s a constant question. How can we play a role but not play that leadership role? That’s always the goal. How do we spark and then step away?

Q: How can undergraduates get involved with the Descendants Project?

If you’re a first-year student, you can try to get into the first-year seminar which is called By Persons Unknown, and that draws you into the project. This year we’re doing genealogical research on some of the families of the Norlina 16–-not those who were murdered, but those who were tried–-and on some of the white families who we know were in the mob. We’re doing sort of deep historical searching to figure out what are stories in Warren County for this year’s class. So we’ll be looking at the education system and looking at the burnings of schools. We’ll be looking at convict leasing and the building of roads and how that was handled and thus jailings in the county. We’ll pick a set of topics, and then students will be working through the semester, combing archival records–-combing newspapers, largely–-to piece together what the context was in that county at the time of this violence. That will then all be provided to the community; this is all research for the community. And then there’s the second course, which is the regular undergraduate course, the Descendants Project.

Q: What music do you listen to?

I listen to a lot of Gospel. I spent a lot of years listening to the blues because I’ve recorded a lot of that music over the years and produced a lot of that. I listen to hip-hop, R&B, a lot of New Orleans music–-a lot of New Orleans music, probably more than I should. I listen to a lot of contemporary R&B/soul mix. So the soundtrack in our house is always changing. Amy, my wife, comments on it all the time. She’ll come home, and I’ll be cooking supper, and it’ll be New Orleans brass bands. The next day it’s going to be something from the 1930s, some blues or some a cappella gospel. And then it’s going to be anything from Alicia Keys to Beyoncé. So she’s always commenting about it. There’s no single soundtrack. There’s lots of soundtracks.

Q: What hobbies do you have?

That’s a hard one to answer because right now the Descendants Project has taken so much of my life that in spare moments, I often find myself on Ancestry, tracing things out for students or for communities. And that’s almost become a hobby in a bizarre way. But it’s become something that’s eminently satisfying. I love doing things around the house. We just built a new house, and so we’re living in this place that demands lots of work. And we just got a new puppy, and a new puppy demands lots of work. I would say that those are more what fill the time.

Q: What is the best advice you have ever received?

I would say the best piece of advice I’ve ever received is to allow yourself to be guided. To not step into life with too much planning. To not step with any certainty and to recognize that the path is often provided for you if you allow yourself to follow it. I think much of my life has been probably defined by circumstances that offered themselves unexpectedly, that just sort of emerged. I thought, “Follow this for a while.” And I ended up taking that path and then something else would move in. I see my life as having been guided in that way, that there’s something else going on. It’s not just me. And I would say every step of the way–-I can’t say I’ve always followed the guidance, but I feel that the path has been set forth, and I’ve tried to follow. I don’t even know who told me that. Early on, someone said that. It was Pastor Rosie Wallace Brown in Philadelphia. She said, “There’s a path that will unfold before you, and your job is to follow it and not question.”

Q: What is something you are looking forward to this year?

Two things. Academically, I’m looking forward to watching what happens with the Descendants Project and what the communities choose to do. And we’re working with communities other than Warren County, so that’s exciting. We’re working with Orange County a lot right now as well. Beyond the academic year, I would say what I’m really looking forward to is moving forward in the process of my wife Amy’s cancer diagnosis. She was diagnosed back in late February last year, and this has been a long journey, and a harrowing journey at times, just because of the changes that are wrought by chemo and surgery and radiation. But it’s also a time-limited journey. And I would say what I’m really looking forward to is getting to the place where the medical interventions come to an end, and then we can just sort of wait and trust. That’s always there right now, but it’s another one of those journeys, and I have faith in where it will lead us.

Q: Any closing thoughts or reflections?

Though I’m a faculty member here in UNC, I never intended to teach, never intended to be at a university. I never intended to, if I was in a university, be there for any extended period of time. My goal was to be a public folklorist. I went to graduate school because I was guided to do that. Archie Green, noted folklorist and shipwright and union organizer among other things, said that I needed to do this, and then he sort of made the arrangements for me. I followed this guide and never expected, though, to go into the academy. That wasn’t my goal. I found myself here by hook or by crook, not willingly. And then after a few years, I thought, “this is a really interesting platform to both be able to guide people into public engagement, but also to perhaps use this as a vehicle for serious anti-racist programing and for constant and consistent challengings of whiteness.” And over many years, that became what I did. For someone who never expected or wanted to teach, it has been a long and remarkable journey, and now I don’t want to do anything else.