The African American Folklorist: Langston Collin Wilkins
Houston native Langston Collin Wilkins, Ph.D. is a folklorist, ethnomusicologist, and writer.
Currently, Wilkins serves as Washington State’s state folklorist and is Director of the Center for Washington Cultural Traditions, a program of Humanities Washington and the Washington State Arts Commission.
Wilkins’ commitment to the preservation, documentation, and the raising of awareness regarding African American music, tradition, cultures, and communities culminate in his making significant contributions to the black folk narrative, black folklife, and the many expressions birthed in the urban and rural landscape of African American life.
Along with Wilkins' work with Washington State’s Center for Washington Cultural Traditions, he also launched Street Folk, which is a curated gallery of African American and inner-city artistry and history.
With a Ph.D. in Folklore & Ethnomusicology from Indiana University, Wilkins' interests have included urban folklife, African American folklife, and hip hop culture. I had the opportunity to sit with LangstonCollin Wilkinsand discuss his work.
Below is an excerpt of the episode:
Langston Collin Wilkins: I became, I guess officially engaged with the field of folklore in graduate school at Indiana University. I went to graduate school to just study hip hop, really, you know, so I wanted to do but, you know, as I went on, I learned about the field of folklore.
Lamont Jack Pearley: From the many black folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and ethnographers I've spoken with, we all have one thing in common. We discovered the discipline in search of ways to raise awareness of any particular part of the culture and traditions that make the black narrative. Dr. Langston Collin Wilkins officially became a folklorist, while in Indiana during graduate school. Wilkin says, while growing up in Houston, his father was a cultural worker.
Langston Collin Wilkins: He, I think, was a folklorist but didn't consider himself one. So he was in the community doing, you know, community research, cultivating Creative Arts in the area, and doing things like that. So I kind of was introduced right with this concept of preserving and presenting, you know, cultural arts from a very early age.
Lamont Jack Pearley: Wilkins, informal and formal introduction to the discipline of folklore has led to accomplishments in both the public and academic spaces. As a folklorist of color, he says it's difficult not to work in both capacities.
Langston Collin Wilkins: All the black folklorists, I know, are people of the community. And no matter where they are doing their work, right, they continue to be tied to the community, right? Because what they try to do is not just preserve these outside traditions, they try to preserve their own history and culture too.
Lamont Jack Pearley: According to Wilkins, the term folklore for some has a dirty connotation. He says that if you understand the discipline, it will be evident that it is not a term that describes a study of lesser people. How do you omit that misnomer? Wilkins explains that.
Langston Collin Wilkins: I think there were a lot of harm done by some of the folklore forefathers, [and] foremothers. And even, you know, this is true up until probably very recently, I'm not sure. But yeah, I mean, terms like primitive, lesser other, these are terms that only work to reinforce this harmful, this racist society that we've had to function in, you know. I mean, it's symbolic racism, right there. It is language racism. At the same time, I'm not sure these other fields are any more or have been any more welcoming.
Lamont Jack Pearley: That being said, Langston also gives solutions to engage African Americans of all ages, that the discipline is a viable career path, as well as a tool for preservation.
Langston Collin Wilkins: Honestly, the first part of this [is] it's on us as black folklorists, right. To continue to highlight and celebrate what we do. To show that, ‘hey, there are pathways, there are career pathways for folks who want to be a part of this folklore thing.’
Lamont Jack Pearley: Wilkins is currently the state folklorist for Washington State, and we'll be teaching African American folklore here at Western Kentucky University this coming spring.
For the entire interview, check out theafricanamericanfolklorist.com