by Bessida Cauthorne White
Although Daryl Cumber Dance always loved folklore and folk tales, professionally she was a college literature teacher.
All of that would change when she went to the University of Virginia in 1969 to work on her doctorate. Daryl noticed that the subjects of wit and humor in African American literature had not received the scholarly treatment that she thought they deserved.
She submitted that subject for her dissertation and it was approved. As she delved into the material, she started to realize how much literature is influenced by folklore. At one point she even went home to Charles City County to collect people’s stories.
Noted scholar Houston Baker came to the University of Virginia and became her second reader. Upon reading her work he told her that she just had to expand and publish the first chapter of her dissertation. That chapter became her book, Shuckin’ and Jivin’: Folklore from Contemporary Black Americans.
Dr. Dance will give a talk entitled “African American Humor: Striving and Surviving” at 3 p.m. Sunday, February 19, at the Historic Courthouse, 877 General Puller Highway, Saluda. The program is presented by the Middlesex County Museum in celebration of Black History Month.
One thing has always led Dr. Dance to another. The study of African American folklore led her to focus on humor. A presentation on African American literature at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica led her to explore the literature and folklore of the Caribbean. She subsequently authored several books on the topic.
Dr. Dance notes the African origins are apparent in the literature and folklore of different parts of the African diaspora. She finds that there are more similarities than differences in the several cultures. Animal stories are universal, “Br’er Rabbit” in one culture may be “Anansi the Spider” in another, but they are one and the same. Dr. Dance says that the many influences on her work include the writers Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison.
Her latest book explores the folk traditions of Antigua. In Search of Annie Drew: Jamaica Kincaid’s Mother and Muse, was published in 2016 by the University of Virginia Press. The book explores the complex relationship between writer Kincaid and her mother and reveals the role that Kincaid’s mother played in shaping Kincaid’s identity as a writer.
Each book has been very special and rewarding to her, said Dr. Dance. However, if she had to pick a work that was the most fun, she says it would be Honey, Hush! An Anthology of African American Women’s Humor.