cover image Singing the Master

Singing the Master

Roger D. Abrahams. Pantheon Books, $25 (341pp) ISBN 978-0-394-55591-1

The corn-shucking ceremony, a slaves' holiday that began in the pre-Civil War American South, is the focus of this illuminating study, which opens a window on the origins of African American culture. To the white planters, this stylized entertainment full of songs and dances was an exotic spectacle, a confirmation of their sense that the black performers were part of the plantation family writ large. But to the slaves, the holiday was a platform to assert their sense of community, an opportunity for veiled social commentary. Using firsthand accounts and ex-slaves' oral histories, Abrahams, a folklore professor at the University of Pennsylvania, demonstrates how African American cultural forms emerged in the midst of oppression. He makes a compelling case that the entertainment styles of corn-shucking, Saturday-night dances and other permitted entertainments were imitated by whites in vaudeville and minstrel shows, and percolated into black prayer meetings, praise-singing poetry, religious services and rap concerts. (May)