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Roger D. Abrahams

Roger D. Abrahams

by Gillian Richards-Greaves

Roger D. Abrahams is an anthropologist, folklorist, folklore theorist, former president of the American Folklore Society, and much more. He is the second of three children born to Robert D. Abrahams and Florence Kohn Abrahams on June 12, 1933, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1951 Abrahams graduated from Cheltenham High School in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and later attended Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where he obtained a B.A. with Honors in English in 1955. Four years later, in 1959 Abrahams graduated from Columbia University in New York with an M.A. with Honors in Literature and Folklore; two years after obtaining his Master’s degree, Roger D. Abrahams obtained his third degree, a Ph.D. also in Literature and Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania.

Obtaining a doctoral degree was a pivotal moment in Abrahams’ academic career, since it was from 1961 that Abrahams’ academic and professional career propelled forward. For three years, from 1960 until 1963 Abrahams served as instructor in the Department of English at The University of Texas, and later, as an assistant professor (1963-1966) and associate professor (1966-1969) in the same department. In addition to occupying a teaching position Abrahams also served as the University’s Associate Director for the Center for Intercultural Studies in Folklore and Oral History, from 1968 to 1970. By 1969 Roger Abrahams had become a full professor and occupied positions in the departments of English and Anthropology, in addition to being named Director of African and Afro-American Research Institute, a position he held for ten years.

In 1974, fourteen years after serving as instructor in the department of English at the University of Texas, Abrahams was inaugurated as the department’s chairman, a position he held five years. As 1979 drew to a close, Abrahams yet again occupied an influential teaching position, serving as the Alexander H. Kenan Professor of Humanities and Anthropology at Scripps and Pitzer Colleges in San Antonio, California; he remained in this position until 1985 when he returned to his home state to serve as professor of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania. By 1989 Abrahams was named the Hum Rosen Professor of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania, a position he occupied until 2002. Overlapping his aforementioned academic appointment was the position Abrahams occupied as Director for the Center for Folklore and Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania, which he founded in June of 1999, and where he served until 2002.

In addition to influential and pivotal academic positions that he has occupied since 1960, Abrahams continues his academic development via various in-service trainings; he has also donated his academic expertise by serving as guest lecturer, visiting faculty, and delegate or participant in almost seventy seminars, conferences, colloquia, and symposia around the world. Between 1975 and 1982 Abrahams served as panelist for the National Endowment of the Humanities’ Special Project in Education and the National Endowment for the Arts’ Artist-in-the-Schools programs; he also served as an external examiner for Memorial University of Newfoundland in 1980.

In addition, Abrahams has served as guest lecturer to twenty-seven colleges and universities, which include, but are not limited to University of Illinois, University of Delaware, University of New York, UCLA, University of Florida, Fisk- and Princeton Universities. Some visiting faculty positions that Abrahams held include among others, appointments to The Folklore Institute Indiana University, which he conducted in the summers of 1967 and 1975, and to Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium in 1987. His in-service training include summers at the Texas education Agency (1968), Port Arthur Independent School District and Texas Region VI (Huntsville) Service Center (1970), to cite a few. He also functioned in the capacity of consultant to Texas Educational Agency, Roanoke College, Mt. Senario College, University of Louisville, and the Committee on International Exchange of Persons (Fulbright-Hays Program) among others.

Roger Abrahams has also served as editor for the reprint series of “The Ethnography of Performance,” published by Warmer Modular Publications, and Folklore Series editor for the University of Illinois Press. In addition, he has also served in various capacities on numerous editorial boards such as on the Board of Advisors for the Encyclopedia of American Ethnicity, published by Harvard University Press; the Advisory Board for Wayne State Publications in Folklore; and board member and later Chair of University of University of Pennsylvania Press. Abrahams also serves as manuscript consultant for more than twenty presses, including Indiana University Press, Prentice-Hall, University of California Press, and Rutgers University Press in New York.

As lengthy as Abrahams’ academic and public service record is, it still is incomparable to his list of publications through which he is world renowned. To date, Roger D. Abrahams has published twenty-one books and monographs, sixty book chapters and introductions, sixty-four scholarly articles, and ten review articles. He has also published eight magazine articles, six encyclopedia and handbook entries and twenty-five “notes” sections in various publications; there are also fifty-five reviews of his work that were published by other authors.

Blues for New Orleans: Mardi Gras and America’s Creole Soul, which Abrahams coauthored with Nick Spitzer, John Szwed and Bob Thomson, and Essays in Black and White, a compilation of essays, two-thirds of which is reprints of articles from the 60s and 70s, and other documentation from his files from that period, are Abrahams’ two most recent publications, completed just this year, 2006. Abrahams is currently working on a book on White/Indian encounters in Early America that documents the bi-directional processes involved in acculturation, which were informed via treaties, trade of food and clothing, council fires, and the like.

The volume of Abrahams’ publications is reflective of the vastness of the scope of his research interests that propels and guides his fieldwork. His areas of interest include, but are not limited to folksongs and ballads from various cultures, numerous forms of African-American folklore, West Indian folklore, riddle study, proverbs, children’s folklore, jump-rope and counting rhymes, folklore theory and, most recently, festival and ritual. Although numerous ethnographers have conducted extensive research on the aforementioned topics, Abrahams’ research is exemplary because he was one of the first researchers to engage nuanced intelligent discussions on the folkways of the African Diaspora in the Americas.

In the early sixties and seventies, speech patterns utilized by African-Americans were often viewed by mainstream America (including ethnographers) as a deficiency, a result of their inherent inferiority; however, in examining speech practices such as “Playing the dozens,” in the Journal of American Folklore 196275:209-20), and other and many other forms of African-American folklore, Abrahams represented the Black speech, and by extension, Black people in a different, more favorable light. More importantly, his research among the African Diaspora resulted in discussions on African retentions, amidst seething debates on the cultural bankruptcy of the African Diaspora as a result of the institution of slavery.

It is virtually impossible to discuss African-American- or Caribbean culture without encountering the name Roger D. Abrahams. More than 80% of the all of his books and monographs are dedicated to African- and African Diaspora folkloric concepts and ideas; texts such as African-American Folk CultureAfter Africa and The Man-of-Words in the West Indies: Performance and Emergence of Creole Culture, which still continues to be a central text on creativity in British West Indian speech patterns. In this text the author utilizes folkloristic theory, ethnography of communication, sociolinguistics, symbolic interactionism and symbolic anthropology in analyzing performance quality, based standards that are rooted in African retentions. Although the research for Man-of-Words was conducted in the 1970s in St. Kitts, Nevis, Tobago and St. Vincent, the notion of eloquence in the performance of speech forms is central to many West Indian countries; it is this specific-yet-general approach to cultural representation that allows for widespread acceptance of Abrahams’ work.

Even his children’s songs, rhymes, and stories present a nuanced discussion on Blackness that takes into account the centrality of colonialism to that discussion. By examining how race, and especially Africanisms, pervaded the sociolinguistic and interactional systems of the African Diaspora, Abrahams was able to design, or rather, propose alternative pedagogical methods, which would yield bountiful academic fruit (1972:215-240).


Roger D. Abrahams’ work and life were influenced by numerous stalwarts in anthropology and folklore, who were both his mentors and contemporaries; MacEdward Leach and Tristram Coffin, for example, not only signed his dissertation but continue to be his close friends. According to Abrahams, he and Kenneth Goldstein, a cohort during his doctoral endeavors, taught each other much of the Anglophonic folklore bibliography used in their publications.

Abrahams has also received guidance and support in his work on African-American culture from Melville Herskovits, Sidney Mintz, JD Elder, Dan Crowley, Gene Genovese, and a number of other social and cultural historians. Also, by serving as president of the Journal of American Folklore in 1979 Abrahams was strategically positioned to be directly and indirectly influenced by such icons in anthropology and folklore as Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, and to influence others like as Elaine Lawless, Burt Feintuch, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, and Bruce Jackson.

As he has been mentored by brilliant minds, Abrahams in turn mentored such influential academics as Bev Stoeltje and John McDowell at Indiana University, in addition to Nick Spitzer, Frank Proschan, Tom Green, John O.West, Meg Brady, Dave Stanley and Debora Kodish. Some of his mentees from the University of Pennsylvania include, but are not limited to Dorry Noyes, Frank Korom, Peter Tokofsky, and Emily Socolov; Tom Dubois. Steve Winnick. Steve Steumple, Ray Allen, Glenn Hinson, Hayley Thomas, Jonathan Lohman.

Roger D. Abrahams is currently the Hum Rosen Professor (Emeritus) of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania. Although he retired from academia in the spring of 2002, he occasionally teaches graduate-level courses in the university’s Folklore and Folklife Program. Although he still continues to publish, and has supervised more than fifty dissertations, Abrahams has already made an indelible mark on the disciplines of anthropology and folklore, and on the social sciences at large. He has presented us with a wealth of information that will for generations to come, serve as a foundation, a wellspring for additional innovate research. He was willing to listen to what some classified as cacophony, to value what other regard as refuse, and in the process, presented us a new world from one we already knew. Someone said, “Give me my flowers, while I can appreciate them,” and I hope that this essay symbolizes but a petal in the bouquet of a million roses to be bestowed on a deserving, persistent academic like Roger D. Abrahams.



Abrahams, Roger D. 2006. Curriculum Vitae.

___. 1962. “Playing the dozens,” in Journal of American Folklore 75:209-20.

___. 1972. “Stereotyping and Beyond” in Language and cultural Diversity in

American Educations, eds. Roger D. Abrahams and Rudolph C. Troike, Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, pp. 19-29.


http://www.alan-lomax.com/about.html (accessed May 3, 2006).


Abrahams-Photo.jpg (accessed May 2, 2006).



May 2, 2006).


http://www.upenn.edu/almanac/v46/n01/folklore.html (accessed May 2, 2006).

2006. Email correspondences between Roger D. Abrahams and Gillian Richards-Greaves.

http://www.sas.upenn.edu/folklore/center/PastDirectors.html;http://www.upenn.edu/almanac/v46/n01/folklore.html, (accessed May 2, 2006).


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