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Historian Brings Stories of African-American Tradition to Michigan

From Library of Congress

This Sunday, African-American history scholar Michelle Johnson, who’s also the executive director of the FIRE Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative, will present a lecture on “Oral Tradition in African American Culture.” It will focus on acclaimed playwright and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, one of the major figures in the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson knows the subject from experience -- she actually followed Hurston into rural Florida.

In college, Michelle Johnson studied African-American history in the way most students do, from documents and books about major events and public figures. But then Johnson came across Zora Neale Hurston. And her whole worldview changed.

“There were just so many things and continue to be so many things about Hurston that make sense,” Johnson says. 

Hurston was a historian and writer, but she didn’t just focus on the history you find in books. Like in her play “Polk County,” which documented the previously little-known traditions of African-American culture in rural Florida in the early 1900s. Hurstontravelled to the region to document it all. Unique dialects, songs, greetings. It was a new way to document African-American history. Johnson says Hurston was a pioneer.

“Her insistence on the folk, on understanding culture," Johnson says. "American culture. Black culture through the people who were down in the roots. That was really important to me as well. And really to validate the elements of our culture that at that time in the 1920’s people were still trying to prove themselves that we were as elevated as the standards in European-American arts. And Hurston said, “Yeah! We can do that. But we also have this other piece of ourself that is just as rich and just as important and filled with the same kinds of standards of art and expression.”

Those songs and traditions moved Johnson so much that she decided to follow in Hurston’s footsteps. She travelled to rural Florida, where she recorded the stories of the same communities Hurston had visited decades early. Johnson also brought Hurston’s history to them through a performance of “Polk County.”

"But man, to be able to put on the first production of “Polk County”, to have that produced the first time ever in Loughman, the area she was writing about, really shifted things for me," Johnson says. "Seeing how Hurston’s work was making an impact and could make an impact on the people in that community." 

Johnson says maintaining those oral traditions is vital, particularly in African-American culture. And she says you can still see them, and the influence of Hurston, in something like a march or a protest, where authentic, unfiltered voices of the community can still be heard.

"To have individuals tell their own story, in their own way," Johnson says. "To have people have a clear sense of who they are and have the abilities to do that,"

You can learn more from Johnson at her presentation this Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Portage District Library.

Full interview with African-American history scholar Michelle Johnson

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