Common Ground: Folk Arts, Cultural Heritage, and Equity
Photo: Aziz Peerzada and his 11-year old son Saboor perform
a beautiful set of Punjabi folk songs at the 2016 Brooklyn Arts Council Festival.
On November 23, 2020, I attended a virtual Zoom hearing on the decision by the Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC) to cancel its folk arts program, and to lay off our colleague, folklorist Chris Mule. The artists, folklorists, scholars and community leaders attending spoke with great support and appreciation for Chris’ role at BAC and his work with many artists and communities of Brooklyn. Charlotte A. Cohen, the executive director of BAC demonstrated extensive knowledge and appreciation of the field, and of the relationships that Chris had built over six years in the position. Nevertheless, she said that the decision to cancel the program was was made for purely budgetary reasons.
The County and Regional Folk Arts programs, among which BAC’s was a prominent leader until this year, were inspired by Robert Baron in his long tenure at the New York State Council on the Arts, as a vehicle to encourage research and programming in folk and traditional arts across New York State. These programs, in which many of New York Folklore’s board (myself included), staff and members have worked, is of considerable interest to us, both practically and theoretically, as they have offered a window into local culture across many counties and regions, and have been a means to bring to wider attention folk artists and traditions across the state, many of which would not be as widely known otherwise. During my tenure on the board of NY Folklore, support for these programs has been a central focus. So it is with great sadness that we see the loss of Brooklyn’s program, which served one the most culturally diverse and vibrant regions of New York State. In Chris’ time at BAC, he has also led the statewide NY Living Traditions digital initiative, which has elevated the entire field to wider attention. Our main argument in support the program and ones like it is in order bring equity to arts and culture programming and funding within organizations dedicated to all that is implied in the term “Arts”, they need to be directed by knowledgeable and competent people, who are trained in working across diverse cultures in an ethical and accountable manner. This is an important part of what a public sector folklorist is, and it is what we encourage in each other.
At the BAC hearing, the representatives talked about replacing the folk arts program with one that one focused on “cultural heritage.” In so doing, they are perhaps aligning themselves with a term used internationally, most prominently by UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage program. This term concerns the same thing that we mean by “folk culture” but in the US, the latter term has a far longer and deeper history of research and engagement, as well as a solid footing in the academic and theoretical filed of Folklore.
Late in the two-hour BAC hearing, its program director Desirée Gordon, who is to serve as an interim director of this new cultural heritage effort until funding allows for a new hire, revealed an interesting point about the terms we use. She cited both community scholars and academics who are adverse to the term “folk,” going so far as to imply a racist bias in the term itself, perhaps one rooted in the Anglo European origins of the field of folklore. While it is true that the early field did focus on local cultures in Europe, and that some early American folklorists explored the cultural roots of Euro-Americans, tracing English origins to Appalachian culture, for example, nonetheless, over the past sixty years the field has gone to great lengths to widen its purview to the full range of cultures in the US, and the elevation of diverse voices of both master artists and their community supporters. While it is true that academically trained folklorists are not as diverse a group as the cultures they study and work with, we have sought to diversity our ranks and the perspectives that are at the center of our work.
In this time of reckoning with the racial dynamics of American society and history, perhaps it is inevitable that our field would be seen as yet another manifestation of institutional racism, relegating black and brown cultures to an apparently pejorative lower status that some might interpret the term “folk” to describe. I know, and my colleagues know, that what we call folk is something we hold in the highest esteem. Unfortunately, we may be confronting a wider social perception. Despite our efforts to serve as translators, publicists and advocates for under represented arts and cultures, we may have attracted the wrong kinds of attention to what we do.
Just three months before COVID struck in New York, we at New York Folklore celebrated the 75th anniversary, since our founding as a membership organization to promote an intersection of academic and public sector focus on the diverse traditional cultures of New York State. We will do everything possible to ensure another 75 years of this work, but our first task is going to involve reckoning with both the challenges of surviving this pandemic and coming to terms with the ugly history that lies behind America’s diversity. Without equity, perhaps diversity itself is of little meaning. I am sorry that the leadership of the Brooklyn Arts Council came to their decision before hearing the many voices of the artists and communities who have participated in its programs as well as those of folklorists across the state who have worked long and hard to do justice to the challenges of trying to bring a small measure of cultural equity to a society that otherwise disregards the particular qualities that give our lives some meaning beyond the commercialized and mass mediated versions of ourselves. We will continue this work, despite the obstacles we face. We must seek common ground in the spirit of affirmation for all cultures and welcome allies wherever they may be found.