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The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
presents the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series

Folklore's Champion:
Ben Botkin

presented by Roger Abrahams

Botkin Lecture Flyer for Roger Abrahams 2007

It seems just that we should honor both Ben Botkin and Archie Green on this occasion, as the American Folklife Center sings the praises of its own champions, two gentle and demanding public intellectuals and activists without whom we would not be at the Library today. Ben organized the collecting, archiving and publishing of America’s stories, a project that continues with the many American Memory projects. Archie, who fanned the flames of discontent in Washington for many years and committed to bringing this Center into existence, was the inheritor of the Botkin spirit.

Of Benjamin A. Botkin’s many achievements, the one with the greatest impact has been the ex-slave narrative collection. The project began before his term as head of the Folklore division of the Federal Writers’ Project of the WPA in 1938. But Botkin and the director of the Federal Writers Project, Henry Alsberg, enriched and energized this project, in moves that today seem miraculous. Working on the collection of “folksay” from state to state, river to river, region to region, Ben labored with his usual vigor and perspicuity, creating a set of manuals that haven’t received the notice they deserve. Anyone studying antebellum life “from the bottom up” is deeply in debt to the leaders of the project, the collectors, and the WPA staff that gave order to the manuscripts. The first of the cullings made available to the reading public was Ben’s book Lay My Burden Down; a Folk History of Slavery (1945). That book has been followed by dozens of others, and still represents the greatest repository of African American folklore and folklife available.
Botkin was a remarkable man of letters, a quiet man of strong convictions and a clear understanding of the many American cultures, a writer fascinated by stories, songs, and games. With his colleagues Henry Alsberg, Sterling Brown and Morton Royce, he devised ways of collecting and recording these riches. Ben saw in the semantic opposition of oral and written narratives a spurious, class-based distinction that conflicted with the liberal democratic view of expressive culture. His own coinage of the term “folksay,” to get around the parochial definitional arguments being waged about folklore as a body of data, and as a discipline, was an important precursor to our term, “folklife.” As he put it: “The key to living lore was the relating of the foreground, lore, to its background in life.” The center of the project, as he saw it, was the documenting of working Americans: “Out of the conditions of the job,” he argued, “comes the humor of the work,in the jargon of the job...” Everyone should have equal storytelling rights, and he was just the one to dramatize the point, first in his book about the slave narratives, and then in the series of treasuries of American folklore, by which he became famous in his time.

When Botkin was called to Washington, he inherited a number of projects begun by John Lomax, including the collection of slave reminiscences. The flood of reports streaming in from the fieldworkers made it necessary to have someone in D.C. to organize the material. Judging by the manual prepared for those carrying out the fieldwork with the ex-slaves, Lomax hardly went beyond his own songcatching interests. When Botkin took over the project, he and Alsberg developed manuals that revealed a larger vision, one that went past the obvious laments for the enslavement of so many Africans, underscoring the many ways in which the slaves had carved out a life for themselves even before emancipation.

The stories collected from former slaves testified to the vigorous personal resistance waged by valiant and often eloquent individuals in the face of enslavement and privation. But the field of African American studies seems poised to go beyond the arguments from deprivation and victimhood. During the Civil Rights era, points of slave resistance came to the fore, through studies of the runaways and the maroons. An even newer and richer perspective is now being offered which builds on the historical record of everyday slave life, and which resists a victimage interpretation. A record that begins and ends with complaint does not do justice to the many strategies developed under slavery to maintain African celebratory and religious practices. More and more, we can envisage a transatlantic African American set of practices that give a richer and fuller picture of the Middle Passage and its aftermath. This too seems worth celebrating.

Roger D. Abrahams

Roger D. Abrahams is Hum Rosen Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author and editor of many books, including After Africa (with John Szwed), African Folktales:Traditional Stories of the Black World, Singing the Master:The Emergence of African-American Culture in the Plantation South, African-American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World, Everyday Life: A Poetics of Vernacular Practices,and Man-of-Words in the West Indies.

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The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to “preserve and present American Folklife” through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of Folk Culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please Visit our web site at

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