Gerald Davis | Filmmakers on Folkstreams

Gerald Davis

From the Philadelphia Folklore Project (

Gerald Davis (June 21, 1941 - October 22, 1997)

Gerald Davis was born in New York City on June 21, 1941 and attended public schools in New York, Kentucky and Tennessee. He received his BA in English/Speech and Drama from Fisk University in 1963. He received his MA (1973) and Ph.D. (1978) degrees in Folklore from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Davis's earliest professional work was as an activist in community organizing and community development in African American and African communities. He worked with a number of major efforts, as the Oakland Urban Affairs Representative at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) from 1966-1969, on the Administrative staff for the Poor Peoples' Campaign with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1968, on the Chicago Fair Housing Campaign (also with SCLC), in 1966, and for the Ministry of Community Development and National Culture in Tanzania, from 1963-1965 where he worked as a Volunteer International Service Assignments (VISA) through the AFSC. His first trip to Africa may have been in 1962, when he traveled to Nigeria and Ivory Coast in 1962 as a college student participant in the Crossroads Africa program. His friend, folklorist John Roberts, credits these African experiences with engaging Jerry's passion for culture. By the early 1970s he had embarked on what would be his life's work: the study of African American expressive culture.

He was the Associate Director of Folklife Programs of the Smithsonian Insitution in the early 1970s. While at the Smithsonian, he was responsible for the African Diaspora Research Program and the Festival of American Folklife. In 1980, he received a National Endowment for the Humanities Media grant to produce The Performed Word, a one-hour film on African American church and secular performance.

He began his teaching and research career at Rutgers University in the Africana Studies Department, receiving tenure in 1985, and becoming Chairperson in 1990. In 1988-89, he was awarded a NRC/Ford Foundation Senior Post Doctoral Fellowship to conduct research in New Mexico on Esteban, a 16th century Moor from Morocco and an early explorer in the Southwest, who was remembered in local folklore. He also began his relationship with the American Studies Department at University of New Mexico (UNM) at that time. He returned to New Mexico in the spring on 1994, holding a Visiting Distinguished Professorship in American Studies. His love of New Mexico and his close relationship with UNM culminated in his appointment as a full professor of American Studies there in 1996.

At UNM, he taught courses in race and masculinity studies, including a popular course in African American film. He was elected a Fellow in the American Folklore Society in 1994, and was the co-founder of the Association of African and African American folklorists. He was an Associate Editor of the Journal of American Folklore and a Board Member of the New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities.

He left unfinished his work in progress on African American male "resocialization/re-gendering" challenging patriarchal theory constructions, a history of science book-length study of an African American pioneer folklorist, "Thomas W. Talley: Early Twentieth Century Use of Ethno-Historical Theory and Method in the Study of African American Narrative," and a field study and book project, "A Moor in the 16th Century American Southwest: Esteban Remembered in Southwest Pueblo Oral Tradition."

He was a leading scholar in African American folklife, a widely loved teacher, and a man who brought all of himself - great passion, principles, and a sense of justice and equity - to his work.

(adapted from an obituary from the University of New Mexico).

Also see John Roberts, "Gerald L. Davis (1941-97), Journal of American Folklore 112:443 (Winter 1999), 81-83.


"'Somewhere Over the Rainbow. . .'" Judy Garland in Never-Never Land," Journal of American Folklore 109:432 (Spring 1996) 1-14.

"'To Be or Not to Be. . .?' Notes on the Art of Filming African American Real Life," in In Touch with the Spirit: Black Religious and Musical Expression in American Cinema, ed. Phyllis R. Klotman and Gloria J. Gibson-Hudson. Bloomington, Ind.: Black Film Center/Archive, Department of African American Studies, 1994, pp. 11-18.

"'Will the Circle Be Unbroken?' African American Community Celebrations and the Reification of Cultural Structures," in Jubilation! African American Celebrations in the Southeast, ed. William H. Wiggins, Jr., and Douglas DeNatale. Columbia, SC: McKissick Museum, 1993, pp. 51-59.

"Elijah Pierce, Woodcarver: Doves and Pain in Life Fulfilled," in Elijah Pierce: Woodcarver. Ed. Norma Roberts. Columbus, OH: Columbus Museum of Art, 1992, pp. 13-25

"'So Correct for the Photograph': Fixing' the Ineffable, Ineluctable African-American," in Public Folklore, ed. Nicholas Spitzer and Robert Baron. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, pp. 105-118.

"Truths of ODUNDE," Works in Progress. Magazine of the Philadelphia Folklore Project 5:2 (1992) pp. 2-3.

"What are African American Folk Arts? The Importance of Presenting, Preserving, and Promoting African American Aesthetic Traditions," in The Arts of Black Folk. NY: The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, 1991, pp. 20-27.

"I Got the Word in Me and I Can Sing It You Know:" A Study of the Performed African American Sermon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985 (2nd prize, Chicago Folklore competition).

"'Trusting the Culture': A Commentary on the Translation of African American Cultural Systems to Media Imaging Technology," in Black American Culture and Scholarship: Contemporary Issues, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1985, pp. 99-105.

"African-American Coil Basketry in Charleston County, South Carolina: Affective Characteristics of an Artistic Craft in a Social Context," in American Folklife, ed. Don Yoder. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972. (Reprinted in Afro-American Folk Arts and Crafts, ed. William Ferris. Boston: G.K. Hall Co., 1983)

The Performed Word. 60-minute film. Producer. Red Taurus films, 1981. (Executive Producer and Founder of Red Taurus Films).

"The Politics of African-American Ethnic Identification," in Ethnic Folklore in America, ed. Robert Teske. Detroit: Wayne State University, 1979, pp.

"Some Methodological Considerations in the Study of African-American Folklife," Black Scholar [special issue on African American folklore 1978?]

"Theatrical Design as a Framework for African-American Characterization in Contemporary Theater," Journal of the Richard Allen Center. NY, 1979.

"Towards a Performance Definition of African-American Expressive Culture," in Proceedings of the First Congress of African Culture in the Americas, ed. Manual Z. Olivea. Bogota, Columbia: Centro de Estudios Afro-Colombianos, 1977.

"It's Come a Long Way: A Comment on Contemporary Folkloric Fieldwork," 1972 Program of the Festival of American Folklife. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1972.

"Meet Sonny Diggs, a Baltimore Arabber," 1972 Program of the Festival of American Folklife. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1972.

"Introduction" to Home and Yard: Black Folklife Expressions in Los Angeles. Los Angeles: California Afro-American Museum, 1988

Book Reviews (incomplete)

Review of The Life: The Lore and Folk Poetry of the Black Hustler. Dennis Wepman et al. 1976. In New Jersey Folklore

Review of Afro-American Folk Culture. A Bibliography. John F. Szwed and Roger D. Abrahams, 1978. In New Jersey Folklore

Review of Shuckin' and Jivin': Contemporary Afro-American Folklore. Darryl Dance, 1978. In Umoja: A Journal of African American Letters

Review of Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal Mining. Archie Green, 1972. In The Washington Post, Saturday, July 1, 1972.