New & Now: Cultural Contributions

by Charles E. Reineke

'It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people," wrote W.E.B. DuBois in his seminal 1903 study, The Souls of Black Folk.

The particular "it" of DuBois's passage was spiritual music, what he called the "sorrow songs" of emancipated slaves and their ancestors in bondage. But his comment might well stand for the whole of African-American folk tradition.

Generations of slaves arrived in North America and the Caribbean with little else but their rich customs and diverse forms of cultural expression. These persisted for centuries, in spite of brutal attempts to suppress them, eventually evolving into complex new art forms -- art forms now celebrated, and imitated, the world over. Yet today the influence of African-American folklore on art, music, film, literature and religion remains largely unacknowledged, says Anand Prahlad, a professor of English at MU and editor of the new three-volume Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore.

"There is a real public void when it comes to knowledge of African-American culture in our society," Prahlad says. "America's cultural identity is so defined by elements of African-American folklore, yet Americans are ignorant about the roots of those elements."

Prahlad, who began his academic career as a public school teacher in Oakland, Calif., believes the new encyclopedia will help educators begin to fill the void. "Having this book on the shelf would help any librarian, student or teacher when faced with questions that deal with African-American cultural contributions to America and the Caribbean," he says.

The critics agree. "Editor Prahlad gathered the work of an impressive cast of 140-plus international scholars and researchers for this three-volume compendium of more than 700 essays. ...Recommended," Library Journal said in April. "This first comprehensive general reference work on African-American folklore is highly recommended," echoed the Reference Books Bulletin section of Booklist.

"My commitment is to make an impact on kindergarten through 12th-grade curriculum as well as on academics at the college and university levels so that African-American history and culture become common knowledge -- a routine part of what children learn in school," says Prahlad. Such an awareness, he adds, would also benefit adults, both professional scholars interested in digging deeper into our expressive antecedents and, as Prahlad puts it, "any American who wants a better understanding of his or her own cultural identity."

At MU's Electron Microscopy Core facility, a suite of rooms buried in the bowels of a non-descript East Campus research facility, strange new worlds emerge from unlikely places. Plant pollens become orbs spinning above an alien landscape, a human hair the rocky span above a depthless void, and flying insects the monstrous stuff of tortured sleep.

Invented in the 1930s, electron microscopes overcame the limitations of light microscopes by using a beam of electrons to produce images of prepared samples. Then, as now, they work by either transmission, passing electrons through a prepared specimen, or scanning, using a grid pattern to pass electrons over the specimen's surface. Both render, in stunning detail, the hidden features of virtually any substance imaginable. These images were provided by Randy Tindall, a senior electron microscopy specialist at the MU facility. They were colorized, in consultation with the microscopists who made them, by Illumination's art director Blake Dinsdale.