Title: Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom
Author: Lawrence Levine
Year: 1977
Categories: Slavery, Culture, Race, Bottom-Up History, Folk Culture, Music, Jokes
Place: United States
Time Period: 1800-1940

Argument Synopsis
Lawrence Levine attempts to reveal Afro-American culture during the antebellum and postbellum periods through looking at folk traditions: songs, folktales, proverbs, aphorisms, jokes, verbal games, music. In doing so he argues for the functionality of culture, that all of these elements served specific functions within the black community. Levine frames black culture in a positive light - although he doesn't minimize the negative aspects (such as misogyny or violence), he constantly strives to describe how they served a more positive purpose (psychological, teaching, community-building, etc.) 

Under slavery, Levine goes against historiography that emphasizes cultural devastation and instead articulates the persistence of a distinctive Afro-American culture that retained many more African elements than some have thought. He argues that this "slave cosmology" was particularly steeped in sacrality, but a particularly syncretic kind that knit together African and Western European elements. Meanwhile, more secular folklore tended to focus on direct moral messages with lessons for their listeners. Of these, trickster tales emerged as the most popular subset and a group that explicitly connected African culture to Afro-American slaves. Within these, Levine is careful to point out their realism (particularly the often-amorality or cruelty of protagonists) as a reflection of the irrational world they lived in.

Levine argues that emancipation brought significant changes to Afro-American culture, particularly its growing acculturation with white culture. Without slavery, the clear boundaries between white and black tended to grow fuzzy as blacks experienced much more mobility and exposure. Additionally, emancipation brought a slow decline of the sacred and a corresponding rise of secular traditions. This secular emphasis often crystallized in a rise in individualism. For instance, although black music often retained communal elements (similarly to under slavery), the rise of the individual blues singer singing about personal problems without as much audience interaction. This individualist ethos also crystalized in folktales that emphasized increasingly larger-than-life heroes that took on much more exaggerated attributes than those under slavery, and often replaced the manipulative trickster with a more direct confrontation of white power - from legends like John Henry to real-life heroes such as the boxer Joe Louis. 

Key Themes and Concepts
- Persistence of African culture during slavery
- Against cultural destruction scholarship in slavery - creation of a world apart
- Emancipation brings Afro-American culture closer to American culture, decline of spiritual and rise of secular
- Rise of individualism rather than communalism after emancipation
- Functionality of culture to serve specific needs

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U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries by Cameron Blevins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.