Folkroots: Images of Mississippi Black Folklife (1974-1976)
This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 5 No. 2, "Long Journey Home: Folklife in the South." Find more from that issue here.
The Mississippi Folklife Project grew out of the research and documentary efforts of black folklorist, organizer and poet Worth Long and myself for the 1974 Smithsonian Institution Festival of American Folklife. Our exhibit for that Festival is now permanently housed in the Smithsonian and in the archives of the State of Mississippi Department of Archive and History.
Through the research, photo-documentation and exhibition of the Project, we wanted to record and help preserve the fast-disappearing aspects of the black cultural heritage. We learned that most of the previous work done in Mississippi had focused mainly on the Delta region; we chose to start in the 11-county area of southwest Mississippi. In a relatively short period, we found a rich tradition of folk art, including quilting, basketry, blacksmithing, wood carving, moss and cornhusk weaving, crafting of musical instruments and children’s toys, clay and wood sculpture, gravestone making, yard sculpture, syrup and sorghum grinding. To the extent possible, I photographed all of these practices.
The deeper we got into the Project, the greater the historical significance it assumed. Time was literally the adversary of the culture and the people we were documenting. In the Project’s first two years, six craftspeople we have worked with have passed. And on Memorial Day, 1977, Julius Mason, a blacksmith from Roxie and a dear friend and constant source of wisdom and encouragement, passed.
Now, you have to look long and hard to find traditional folklife practices. Most people who know how to make baskets are becoming arthritic, or getting cataracts, or having trouble finding white oak needed to make the baskets. Where there were once blacksmiths serving every community, now there is hardly one active in every other county. Whittling and wood carving scarcely exist, and people who once made hand-sewn quilts now use machines. The time once spent in oral traditions is now consumed with television watching. The ability to craft most things that one needed, and of passing that skill on to the next generation, has lost its status and respect, especially among the young. Thus, when the existing craftspeople die, with them will go many of these practices. Understanding that dynamic was the main reason we started and continued the Mississippi Folklife Project.
We are presently in the Project’s exhibition phase. A major exhibit of photographs and selected artifacts from the Freeman Collection of the Project runs from Sept. 6 to Oct. 16, 1977, at the Mississippi State Historical Museum in Jackson. Entitled “FOLKROOTS: Images of Mississippi Black Folklife (1974-76),” it is the first photographic exhibit by a black photographer mounted by the Museum. From Jackson, the exhibit goes to Alcorn State University in Lorman, Miss., then to the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society in Detroit, and to Indiana University, and then on an extensive national tour.
Roland Freeman is a Washington-based photographer whose work has been exhibited widely in this country and printed in numerous publications throughout the world.