[lg policy] A Language Explorer Who Heard Echoes of Africa
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Sat Sep 4 19:35:39 UTC 2010
A Language Explorer Who Heard Echoes of Africa
Evelyn Hockstein for The New York Times
By HOLLAND COTTER
Published: September 2, 2010
Lorenzo Dow Turner Papers, Anacostia Community Museum Archives,
Turner looked for African-Muslim elements among the Gullah.
It had help from one of each for the exhibition “Word, Shout, Song:
Lorenzo Dow Turner, Connecting Communities Through Language.”
The stranger was Lois Turner Williams, who in 2003 sent the museum 35
cartons packed with photographs, field notes, tape recordings and
artifacts that had belonged to her husband, the African-American
scholar and linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner. After his death in 1972 she
had stored everything in her Chicago home. Now she was ready to pass
Turner was one of the earliest scholars to suggest that traces of
African languages and customs, brought across the Atlantic by slaves,
survived in modern African-American culture. For 40 years he worked
steadily and traveled widely to validate that proposition. The
contents of the cartons added up to an archival history of an
exceptionally active and focused life.
How to turn the archive into an exhibition? Enter a friend, a
Brazilian-born museum volunteer named Alcione Amos. Her own research
as an independent scholar was on the links between African-American
and American Indian histories, and Turner was one of her intellectual
models, making her, even with limited museum experience, a logical
person to undertake the show.
She’s done a fine job. What might have been a dusty documentary
exercise is instead a well-paced drama of ideas, one that goes beyond
biography but still keeps Turner at the center. The show is short on
art in the traditional sense, but Ms. Amos presents Turner’s career as
a piece of art, a kind of ideal performance, judiciously shaped,
assiduously polished, cleanly rounded off.
The opening gallery sets up the personal back story for the ideas to
come, with family photographs, group pictures from Turner’s school
years and snapshots of some of his own future students, among them
Zora Neale Hurston.
He was born in North Carolina in 1890. When he was 6, his father, a
teacher, abruptly left home under a threat of racist violence. Raised
by his mother, supporting himself as a waiter, he acquired a
first-rate education, earning an undergraduate degree from Howard
University, a master’s degree in languages from Harvard and, in 1926,
a doctorate from the University of Chicago, with a dissertation titled
“Anti-Slavery Sentiment in American Literature Prior to 1865.”
Teaching appointments soon followed. The first was at Howard and the
second at Fisk University in Nashville, where he helped set up the
country’s first African Studies Program. The third and longest tenure
was at Roosevelt College (now University) in Chicago, where he had the
distinction of being the first African-American professor in the
United States to be hired by a white college.
The subject of what would be his primary research had already come to
him, early and accidentally. In 1928, during a summer-school teaching
gig at South Carolina State College, he overheard two students
speaking a dialect he couldn’t understand. When he asked around, he
was told they were just using poor English. But he thought otherwise.
He traced the dialect to a community of African-Americans called the
Gullah, who lived in relative isolation on the Sea Islands off the
coast of South Carolina and Georgia. He suspected that what was spoken
there was a Creole language with very old African elements. He was
eager to know more, and his life’s work began.
In 1930 he started making trips to the islands to record Gullah
speech. The only recording equipment then was a machine with the heft
of a small mainframe. It must have been very difficult to lug it back
and forth on small boats. But he made the recordings, and you can hear
some of them: Gullah voices from 80 years ago, distant but clear.
Turner knew that to explore Gullah’s African component seriously he
would have to learn African languages. So in 1936 he enrolled at the
School of Oriental and African Languages at the University of London
and learned several. In 1938, after he’d found reason to think that
some Gullah were descended from Muslim slaves, he studied Arabic.
By this point he had already examined an intriguing manuscript written
in Arabic script. It was thought to have belonged to a slave named
Bilali Mohamed, who came from Guinea in West Africa to the Caribbean,
then to a plantation on one of the Georgia islands. The manuscript,
which is on loan to the Anacostia from the University of Georgia
Libraries, isn’t exotic in content; it’s a transcription of a tract of
jurisprudence. But its very existence led Turner to dig deep for
African-Muslim elements in Gullah culture, and he found some, in both
language and religious rituals like the Gullah circling dance called
the ring shout.
In 1940 he expanded his research to Brazil, which had had a large
influx of African slaves. Equipped with a less cumbersome voice
recorder — it’s in the show, along with his language-customized
typewriter — he positioned himself in the northeastern region of
Bahia, where an African-inflected culture was particularly evident and
He was fascinated by the Afro-Brazilian religion called Candomblé and
took memorable photographs of one of its priestesses, Mãe Menininha do
Gantois. And he was gratified to find that when he played his Gullah
recordings for Candomblé practitioners, they recognized phrases from
In 1949, having verified to his satisfaction that pre-slavery Africa
lived on in the Americas, Turner published “Africanisms in the Gullah
Dialect,” a book that would help pave the way for the field of
African-American studies in the 1960s. Then he made one more major
trip, to Africa itself.
He went on a Fulbright grant in 1951. In Nigeria, Benin, Togo and
Sierra Leone, he talked to people, attended dance performances,
listened to music and collected both costumes and a mini-orchestra of
percussion instruments. He recorded Africans from various language
groups and played his Gullah and Brazilian tapes for them, watching
for listeners to register recognition of words.
Back in America, he lectured and taught almost to the end, and his
influence continued. A contemporary video at the Anacostia offers a
real-life performed version of the cultural bonds he had searched out.
In the 1990s, an anthropologist named Joseph Opala associated a song
sung by a Gullah woman on a 1932 Turner recording with a Mende funeral
hymn performed by women in Sierra Leone.
Mr. Opala then located the Gullah singer’s daughter, who knew the
song, and flew her to Africa, where she and a Mende woman singing the
funeral hymn joined in a duet. In the video we see them discovering
that different songs are identical and embracing like sisters.
And there’s a distinctly Turneresque exhibition, “Grass Roots: African
Origins of an American Art,” at the National Museum of African Art
here. It details the history of a tradition of coiled basketry that
originated in West Africa and was carried by slaves to the American
South, where variations were produced, including the sweet grass
baskets that have long been a Gullah specialty: objects once made for
use, later collected as art, and always containers of cultural memory.
Ms. Amos’s exhibition is also a container of memory, personal,
cultural and intellectual. And it is something else, simpler and more
abstract: a moral lesson, an edifying tale about the art of humane
attentiveness and of looking at the overlooked.
“Word, Shout, Song: Lorenzo Dow Turner, Connecting Communities Through
Language” remains through March 27 at Anacostia Community Museum,
Smithsonian Institution, 1901 Fort Place SE, Washington;
anacostia.si.edu. Shuttle buses run from the National Mall to the
Anacostia Museum through Labor Day. “Grass Roots: African Origins of
an American Art” remains through Nov. 28 at the National Museum of
African Art, 950 Independence Avenue SW, Washington; africa.si.edu.
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