Living Lore - Introduction

1. Introduction

This project presents an unpublished typescript that Benjamin Albert Botkin drafted circa 1958 titled “Progress: Negroes and Everybody, From Folk Tale to Science Fiction.” The essay counters the popular conservative sentiment of the time that the movement for social equality for black Americans was moving too quickly and should be taken in small increments to avoid social unrest. In his efforts to expound upon current social affairs and social progress as a general theory, Botkin deploys his knowledge of folklore through numerous references to popular culture of the present and past. The essay contains facets of Botkin’s political and theoretical thinking that are progressive for the time, considering the conservative environment of both academia and the nation at large during the McCarthy era.

While there are lines of thought in “Progress” that reach all the way into contemporary thinking on social equality there are also markers of the entrenched history of racism, ideas that would seldom be expressed by progressive writers of today. Of particular note is Botkin’s assertion that ancient slavery ultimately served a progressive purpose. “Could slavery ever, anywhere, be progressive? Of course it was . . . Humanity advanced only when some men, seated comfortably on the backs of slaves, became philosophers, artists, scientists, technicians, administrators.” This view of ancient slavery has a long history—from thinkers like Aristotle to Hegel—and may have wielded more influence in Botkin’s time, but contemporary scholarship on the subject emphasizes the oppressive aspects of slavery. For example, Bernard Williams declares that “if there is something worse than accepting slavery, it consists in defending it” (Williams 111). Dimitris J. Kyrtatas traces a history of ancient slavery that is based in domination of religion and culture rather than as serving a utilitarian purpose. He asserts that slavery was used to inculcate free people with the ideas, morality, and religions of dominant societies (Kyrtatas). The fact that slavery was looked upon in ancient times as a way to forcefully indoctrinate otherwise free peoples runs counter to older narratives describing slavery as a necessary evil for human progress.

Botkin was a prolific scholar of American folklore, who produced much of his influential work during the socially tumultuous times of the McCarthy era of 1947-1956. Botkin’s interests as a scholar centered on American working class identity, and his liberal politics were reflected in his academic work and his approach to theorizing folklore and culture. As a liberal Jewish American arguing against conservative backlash against black civil rights, Botkin was faced with a confluence of identities that were targeted for persecution in the McCarthy era. American attitudes towards Jews were changing during the 1950s, due in part to black and Hispanic veterans returning from World War II who were determined to work against the discrimination they experienced in the military. However, in the struggle for influence over Middle Eastern countries during the Cold War, antisemitism proved to be a valuable tool to the American government, so it was still common (Goldstein 313-4). Botkin’s collected papers housed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Archives and Special Collections span six decades and give a proper representation of his passion for and devotion to the study of folklore.

Botkin faced unwanted attention from the federal government because of his liberal socialist politics that were reflected in his work. For more than a decade, Botkin was surveilled by the FBI under suspicion of being a member of the Communist Party. The government’s interest in Botkin came to a climax when FBI agents questioned him without warning at his residence in January of 1954. This aggressive step was coupled with the environment of fear that had arisen from the McCarthy era, a combination that frightened and subdued many people, and forced thousands out of their jobs on political grounds (Schrecker “Anxious in Academe,” 7). It was in the best interest of organizations to self-censure, so outspoken liberal members would often face reprimands or ostracization.

The nation's college presidents and film moguls did not think that Communist professors and screenwriters posed any threat to the nation's security, but they did worry that retaining such people might draw the wrath of the right . . . In every sector of American society, liberal institutions and individuals surrendered people's rights. (Schrecker 2004, 1069-70)

Shortly after his experience with the FBI, Botkin delayed in publishing any book, and after publishing the ones he had already begun work on he retreated from the public sphere, publishing only academic journal articles and book reviews. I contend that the climate of fear and intimidation purveyed by McCarthyism—which became a personal reality to Botkin upon his interview—discouraged Botkin from producing work that promoted his progressive ideals. Whether it was out of fear or a growing disenchantment, Botkin began to recede from publishing his work.

The essay is presented with the intention of demonstrating the progressive ideas that can potentially be silenced by conservative coercion. It is uncertain why “Progress” was never published, but there is evidence supporting the idea that Botkin withdrew from publishing his work because of either a fear or apathy instilled in him by McCarthy era intimidation of liberals. There is evidence that Botkin felt intimidated by the hostilities of the federal government towards liberal socialists and communists, but one can only speculate how this would have affected his drive to engage in professional and political endeavors. In his correspondence and the essay, Botkin expresses a sense of defeat and apathy regarding the efficacy of democratic political engagement that must have affected his interest in political and professional engagement.

2. Biography

Botkin was born February 7, 1901, in Boston, Massachusetts to Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. He graduated from Harvard University in 1920 magna cum laude with a B.A. in English, and received his M.A. in English from Columbia University in 1921 and became an English instructor at University of Oklahoma later that year (Hirsch). He pursued his Ph.D. under William Duncan Strong and the folklorist Louise Pound at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, receiving it in 1931 (Hirsch 13). In 1938 Botkin became the national folklore editor and chairman of the Federal Writers’ Project, a position he maintained until 1941. After this, Botkin was head of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress from 1942 to 1944 and was also the president of the American Folklore Society. He married his wife Gertrude Fritz in 1925. They had two children together, Daniel Botkin and Dorothy Botkin (later Dorothy Rosenthal). Botkin died in Croton-on-Hudson, New York on July 30, 1975 (Rodgers and Hirsch 2).

3. The Collection and the Project

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections houses the Benjamin A. Botkin Collection of Applied American Folklore, which is where the original “Progress” typescript can be found. The typescript has been transcribed, encoded, and reproduced via facsimiles with the permission of the UNL Archives and Special Collections. The Botkin collection is comprised of two major components: his personal library containing over 8,000 books and 423 linear feet of paper documents (Rodgers and Hirsch 13). The documents attest to Botkin’s extensive scholarly career. Alongside the numerous book and article manuscripts, his personal and business correspondences give extra insight into his work on folklore. The paper documents include field notes from his work at the Federal Writers’ Project, his personal research notes, manuscripts and drafts of his publications and speeches, and personal and business correspondence.

The correspondence spans a period from 1909 to 1976, past Botkin’s death. The collection contains thousands of letters donated by the Botkin family, and includes letters authored by various members of the Botkin family addressed to people other than Botkin (Botkin Collection). Botkin’s business correspondence includes letters to and from prominent individuals such as Woody Guthrie, Charles Seeger, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Pete Seeger, Norman Rockwell, Langston Hughes, Ira and George Gershwin, and Mari Sandoz.

The manuscript documents cover the majority of Botkin’s professional life, dating as far back as the 1920s and continuing to the year before his death. Manuscript files for his numerous published books contain draft notes, field notes, and often multiple draft revisions. The collection also contains manuscripts for a number of unpublished works, both books of folklore collections and academic articles. At least three of Botkin’s book manuscripts contained in the collection have never been published, People at Play (c. 1964), Negro Folklore (c. 1965), and Myths and Symbols (c. 1968).

The Botkin Collection at UNL is the most comprehensive resource available to access Botkin’s work and correspondence. The Library of Congress houses some letters from people who corresponded with Botkin, including the Gershwins, Woody Guthrie, and Alan Lomax, but does not possess any of Botkin’s letters (Finding Aids). Similarly, the National Archives contains no material pertaining directly to Botkin (National Archives). Excerpts from select letters of Botkin’s have been quoted in various articles and books. The unpublished manuscripts have even less representation in the public sphere. It would seem that none of the manuscripts that went unpublished during Botkin’s lifetime have been edited and published. With the digital technologies now available, these materials can be made widely available to interested persons and scholars for further research and treatment.

The content of the UNL Botkin Collection is far reaching and expansive. While the current project is limited in scope, there is great potential for further work in digitizing and publishing the contents of the Botkin Collection. Certain selections from Botkin’s correspondence have been microfilmed, but this can prove difficult to access. The majority of the unpublished book manuscripts come from work Botkin was doing during the height of the Civil Rights Movement during the early 1960s. While not all of this work deals directly with issues of social progress, it may prove interesting to scholars considering both the historical context and Botkin’s political and scholarly ideas.

High quality digital facsimiles of the “Progress” essay have been created for this project and provided for reference alongside the encoded transcription. The essay has been transcribed and encoded using the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) XML schema version P5. This digitization process focuses on the ease of usability and readability for users, creating the first widely accessible resource for a work of Botkin’s that provides a unique and undiluted view into his political and philosophical viewpoints.

4. Editorial Policy

The editing of Botkin’s “Progress” essay has been undertaken with primary consideration being given to the ease of readability and accurate representation of the typescript. Obvious spelling or typing mistakes have been corrected and marked up in the XML document. Original spellings have been suppressed from the XML output, so that the readable website version of the essay includes only the corrected spellings. Additions and deletions that Botkin made in the typescript have been marked up in the XML document, with only additions being displayed in the readable version. Additionally, there are two pages missing from the archived typescript, pages seven and nine, which have been noted in the XML document as gaps, and have been rendered in the readable version as “[missing page].”

5. Botkin’s Folklore

As an academic, Botkin was a pioneer of new views on folklore scholarship that challenged many of his contemporaries. Botkin garnered a significant number of followers who drew inspiration from his work, but the dominant opinions in academia during his lifetime were against his work. Fellow folklorist Richard Dorson, one of Botkin’s most vocal critics, denounced work like Botkin’s, which he termed “fakelore” in 1950 (Jones). Dorson was committed to viewing the work of scholars as being purely investigative and preservative, he was reluctant to venture into any form of scholarly activism. He did not view it as a responsibility of folklore scholars to employ their findings in any way “to give advice on how to make the world better, or happier, or freer” (Dorson 40). Additionally, Dorson was skeptical of applied folklore because of the history of abuse and misuse of folklore, such as “Nazi Germany’s exploitation of the Aryan myth;” and because of the potential for commercial exploitation he saw in packaging scholarship for mass consumption (Jones 10). One may wonder if Dorson was also partly motivated to criticize Botkin because of the pressure exerted upon various groups by federal agencies to ostracize members who supported socialist or communist activism.

Botkin’s approach to folklore emphasized its fluid nature, ever-changing with the people who create it and imbricated with their daily lives. The social environment in which participants create and consume folklore is continually shifting, and the common cultural narratives and customs in circulation are responsive to the milieu. Botkin is considered the father of “public folklore” or “applied folklore,” folklore that is done outside universities and colleges and is less concerned with taxonomizing and theorizing than with collecting, disseminating, and acting upon folklore. Botkin and like-minded folklorists believed that American folklore played a vital role in promoting a democratic culture by being grounded in shared experience and the transmission of that experience. In the forward to A Treasury of American Folklore, Botkin states:

in one respect it is necessary to distinguish between folklore as we find it and folklore as we believe it ought to be. Folklore as we find it perpetuates human ignorance, perversity, and depravity along with human wisdom and goodness. Historically we cannot deny or condone this baser side of folklore—and yet we may understand and condemn it as we condemn other manifestations of human error.

Botkin’s notion that folklore communicates and instills social values, traditions, and goals was derided by some of his peers at the time, but is widely accepted amongst folklorists today. Botkin believed that democracy is strengthened by valuing the diversity of voices that participate in it. Botkin’s most vocal critic, Richard Dorson, strove to confine the roles and responsibilities of folklore scholars. Dorson’s conservative view of folklore scholarship and his criticism of Botkin’s work remained widely accepted amongst academics up until recently (Hirsch, “The ‘Ben Botkin Bulldozer’” 57).

Botkin termed his theory “applied folklore” and described it as “folklore for understanding and creating understanding” (Jackson 3). While many of his academic peers considered the study of folklore to be concerned with preserving the past and bemoaned the modernization of customs, Botkin believed that folklore was part of a dynamic relationship between the past, the present, and the future. Botkin emphasized the idea that a proper consideration of folklore must take seriously the fact that both the folk and the lore are not static entities and should not be desired to be so. His radical views drew both favor and criticism. “Few folklorists in the past decade have had as many storms rage about them as [he]; his work has been both violently attacked and staunchly defended” (Stekert 335). Of his approach to folklore, Botkin said:

In a changing society with concomitant rapid growth and mixture of disciplines, a folklore study of socio-historical myths and symbols should help us to reassess old and new values and to understand the present in the light of the past and vice versa by providing a new approach to the positive or negative role of myth and symbols in unifying or separating people and promoting social progress or reaction. (Jackson 5)

As Botkin further developed his approach to folklore, he began to turn away from the traditional study of rural people and traditions and looked instead towards urban inhabitants and laborers. Botkin’s turn from rural to urban exemplifies his belief that folklore happens in the present and evolves with the folk. Goals of advancing society towards understanding, mutual appreciation, and co-existence were always combined with his approach to studying and presenting folklore. Botkin was not concerned with transcending difference but rather regarding it as a positive aspect of society. He “tried to formulate an approach to the study of American folklore that took into account the nation's different regions, races, and classes; showed the interrelationship between folk, popular, and high culture.” Botkin looked towards his present time seeking some kind of unified American identity grounded in plurality. This kind of American identity stood in opposition to the ability of the dominant groups to maintain power, however. The established hierarchy of power depended upon the fragmentation of the folk. The dominant groups depended upon marking certain groups and individuals as Others and subordinating them; it sought to segregate the nation by delineating boundaries of race, class, and ethnicity (Hirsch).

Botkin believed instead that:

Our many folk cultures are not behind us at all but right under us. Below the surface of the dominant pattern are the popular life and fantasy of our cultural minorities and other nondominant groups—nondominant but not recessive, not static but dynamic and transitional, on their way up. (Hirsch 18)

He began conceiving his applied folklore approach early on in his career but it was not put into print until the early 1950s. It was during this time of heightened political and ideological tension that Botkin’s remarkably populist and communal theory was introduced into academic thought.

Botkin laid out the framework for his approach to folklore in his 1953 article “Applied Folklore: Creating Understanding through Folklore.” Remarking on the article, Jerrold Hirsch and Lawrence Rodgers write that

despite having earned his own [FBI] file, Botkin was intent on promoting just the kind of intercultural understanding at home and sympathy among nations that made him vulnerable to conservative paranoia. He remains committed to promoting applied folklore as a crucial means for creating a sense of community for a pluralistic society. (Rodgers and Hirsch 220)

In this article, Botkin describes a folklore practice that can be utilized to build an international community grounded in understanding differences and fostering mutual respect. In the object of his study—folklore—Botkin sees the potential that “folk material can be used for [the] development of international consciousness and the promotion of international understanding” (Botkin 221).

Botkin furthermore asserted that the academic practice of folklore should be interdisciplinary rather than self-contained. Botkin believed that the folklorist must consider lore alongside the historical and material contexts in which it was created, lest the studier of folklore impress an undue amount of their own subjectivity upon the lore. In this sense, “the folk-sayer—the folk genius as creator or transmitter—plays an all-important role.” Botkin described his term folk-say as “what the folk have to say not only for but about themselves, in their own way and in their own words” (Botkin 223). In this manner, Botkin was trying to establish a practice of folklore that was more egalitarian than other conservative folklorists at the time. Dorson and like-minded folklorists were effectively trying to consolidate their power and authority over the object of their study. Their camp asserted the idea of a “pure” folklore scholar, who studied folklore in itself.

Botkin’s perception of the goals and possibilities of applied folklore can be well summed up with his statement:

The ultimate aim of applied folklore is the restoration to American life of the sense of community—a sense of thinking, feeling, and acting along similar, though not the same, lines—that is in danger of being lost today. Thus applied folklore goes beyond cultural history to cultural strategy, to the end of creating a favorable environment for the liberation of our creative energies and the flourishing of the folk arts among other social, cooperative activities. (Botkin 224-5)

6. Botkin and the FBI

In the evening of January 26, 1954, FBI agents came to the door of 45 Lexington Avenue in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Botkin, in his family residence, was “taken by surprise at a time when no other person was present” and questioned about allegations of his membership in the Communist Party. Botkin was described as having “exhibited courtesy to interviewing agents and assumed an attitude of cooperation,” and was firm but unspecific in his denials when questioned about whether he was aware one of his acquaintances was a known Party member, or whether he was himself involved in the Communist Party.

An FBI memo dated April 5, 1954, stated:

Botkin mentioned repeatedly that, at one time in his life, he believed he was a ‘free agent’ and could say or do as he pleased. He stated that recently he has realized that he does not live in a world of his own and that he must live within a community of neighbors and conform to the pattern of that community. He stated that it is for this reason that he has no desire to belong to any organization which could be considered subversive or to associate with any person whose interests are disloyal to this country.

Botkin's surveillance by the FBI certainly seems to have taken a toll on him both personally and professionally. Later in her life, his daughter Dorothy noted that the fear provoked by the surprise interview in 1954 seems to be the most plausible explanation for changes in his personality that she noted around that time. She remarked that he retreated into himself and abandoned a theoretical book on American myths and symbols that he was working on (Davis 14).

The abandonment of the Myths and Symbols book is rather remarkable. Botkin had been deeply passionate about his work up until the point of stopping work on this book. He considered this book to be a culmination of all his previous work, drawing upon it and helping to tie it together. In his letters to family members, he mentions a waning interest in finishing his magnum opus. “I try to balance work with leisure, but the work suffers for these and other reasons—July being what it is and my having too many irons in the fire resulting in their cooling off, if anything can cool off while we swelter, and while the cooling off cools ambition” (Botkin 1971). In the same letter, he mentions that his publisher, Macmillan, has been prodding him to finish work on the Myths and Symbols book, so it was not for lack of publishing opportunity that this piece did not see fruition.

The informant mentioned in the FBI files stated that Botkin had “a great fear . . . that the stigma of Communism might attach to himself and his family . . . [and] that his only desire [was] to lead a quiet life removed from all local or national affairs having political significance.” This attitude marks a great departure from the previous inclinations that Botkin expressed up to this date in his long work with folklore. Earlier Botkin had poured himself into his work and was determined to draw out the political implications of his approach to studying and presenting folklore.

There are numerous relevant contexts for the political intimidation of Botkin and of the change it brought in his outlook.  One key event occurred on June 19, 1953, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed after being found guilty of conspiring with the Soviet Union. While persecution of Communist Party members and sympathizers had been going on already, this drastic measure was surely imprinted on the nation’s consciousness as a moment that stood out amongst the tumultuous events of the time. The Rosenbergs were executed at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York, a city near Hudson-on-Croton, that Botkin mentions frequenting in his personal correspondence. Gertrude and he would “go for drives around [the] dam and Ossining area” (1954-08-21). Sing Sing Prison was under 40 miles from Botkin’s home on 45 Lexington Avenue, just about an hour drive away.

There is little doubt that Botkin was stirred by the events of the Rosenbergs’ trial and execution. The Botkins had much in common with the Rosenbergs: both were Jewish families living in New York, both with liberal politics. Botkin’s politics toed the line between his avowed democratic socialism and classical Communism. His social circles contained known Communist Party members and he was accused of being a member of different political groups considered by the American government to be sympathetic to Communism. Groups that were pro-labor, anti-racism, anti-fascism, and anti-war were listed among those associated with the Communist Party (Davis 6). Additionally, Botkin was good friends with Charles and Ruth Seeger, and the Botkin and Seeger families spent much time together (Rosenthal and Botkin). Charles Seeger’s son, Pete Seeger, was a notable folk singer and political activist who gained the attention of the FBI for his public support of leftist ideology (Folk Singers). It would be surprising if the accounts of the execution of the Rosenberg couple did not resonate deeply with Botkin and make him reflect on his life and that of his own wife. Newspapers were filled with accounts at the same time gruesome and sentimental of Julius’ trip to the electric chair and Ethel’s botched execution—the extra shocks required and the smoke that rose from her corpse. One reporter wrote, “she did not know as she sat there that her husband already was dead” (Woliston 1953). Botkin never explicitly mentions the Rosenbergs around the time of their death in his letters to friends and family, but a mention of their execution does appear in a short note in one of his personal journals.

7. “Progress” Authorship and Origin

Within the UNL archives, the typescript for the “Progress” essay appears alongside various documents for a treasury that Botkin was working on titled Negro Folklore. Although the different documents are grouped together in the same box, it is unclear that there is any connection between them, other than their shared focus on black Americans. The Negro Folklore typescript appears to be something that Botkin was working on around 1967-68, and he was perhaps gathering material for the book much earlier than this work on the manuscript. From his notes and correspondence, it appears that Botkin was working on this treasury with fellow folklorist Sterling Brown.

The nature of “Progress” forces one to temper any claim of absolute certainty of authorship. The essay is typewritten, so a comparison with Botkin’s handwriting cannot provide evidence, and it is also unsigned, including simply a header title. However, the formatting of the document, and its physical qualities, do appear similar to other documents produced by Botkin. Nearly all of his typewritten manuscripts, as well as his transcriptions of correspondence, were typed on onionskin paper like that of the essay. The pages of the essay are numbered in the upper-right corner, consistent with his other manuscripts. Typing mistakes are overwritten on, rather than erased, which is how Botkin handled mistakes in his other typewritten documents. Additionally, the fact that Botkin was working on a project with a fellow folklorist concerning black Americans at presumably the same time presents the possibility that the essay could have been co-authored, or even authored by Sterling Brown and sent to Botkin for proofing and comments. These possibilities are rather unlikely, but must be acknowledged.

The evidence that the “Progress” manuscript is authored by Botkin outweighs the evidence that it is not. Botkin was a meticulous collector, a quality that is displayed in the extensive collection of his work available at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It would be uncharacteristic for him to keep another scholar’s work mixed in with his own without demarcating it somehow. Further, even though the manuscript is typewritten there are handwritten notes on page 10 that appear very similar to Botkin’s characteristic handwriting. The manuscript also is in a voice marked with wit and hints of self-deprecatory humor that is characteristic of Botkin’s less formal writing—such as that present in his correspondence with friends and family. There are also several passages of the essay that seem to imply that the author is white and not African-American, which would rule out Sterling Brown as a possible author.

Based on various events that Botkin mentions in the essay the date of its drafting can be concluded to be somewhere between June 1958 and early January 1959. On page three, he cites a quotation from May of 1958, the following page cites the Scientific American issue from June 1958. Page sixteen mentions voting statistics from 1958. The following page gives the best hint of the upper bounds for the date of the essay: Botkin mentions Alaska and Hawaii have not received statehood yet. Alaska received statehood on January 3 of 1959, before Hawaii. As such, the essay must have been drafted between June 1958 and January 3, 1959.

8. “Progress”

Benjamin Botkin’s prescient essay “Progress: Negroes and Everybody, From Folk Tale to Science Fiction” is situated in an academic line of inquiry that started to gain traction over a decade after his writing the piece. Botkin’s primary line of argument is an attack on the notion that African Americans achieved equal status and treatment with the passage of Civil Rights era legislation. He acknowledges the great advances that African Americans have fought for and gained in terms of legal status—beginning with Emancipation and continuing to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—but his focus is turned towards the societal and structural inequalities facing African Americans that are still pervasive to this day. Botkin argues that it is these inequalities and injustices that are actually most harmful, and that they often go unnoticed. The essay reveals that some of Botkin’s thoughts on this subject aligned with thinking that would become dominant in academic circles only decades later. In particular, he expresses ideas that fall under Derrick Bell’s theory of interest convergence and also Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s theorization of the Long Civil Rights Movement.

In a 2005 article, Hall argued for a reframing of the Civil Rights Movement. She begins by outlining the dominant narrative concerning the Civil Rights Movement. This narrative contends that the movement began in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education case and came to a climax with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Hall argues that the goals and activities of civil rights supporters can be traced farther back to the liberal environment of the 1930s, and extends into the present day. This view of the movement stands in opposition to the previously dominant view of the Civil Rights Era as a neatly contained period that established goals and achieved those goals with the passage of the 1964 and 1965 bills.

Following the passage of these bills, the conservative right underwent a transformation; they discarded the traditional notion of racism and instead adopted the idea of color-blindness—“if stark group inequalities persisted, black attitudes, behavior, and family structures were to blame” (Hall 1237). Conservatives accepted that legal structures were to blame for racial inequality before the Civil Rights Movement, but after black Americans gained legal legitimacy the blame for any further inequality was shifted onto the individuals subjected to societal oppression. This new conservative attitude believed the goal of the Civil Rights Movement was to address individual wrongdoings, interpersonal discrimination and intolerance, rather than to work against the systemic issues of oppression and injustice. These “narratives spun by the new conservatives maintain a strong hold on the public imagination, in part because they have been repeated so often and broadcast so widely, and in part because they avoid uncomfortable questions about the relationship between cumulative white advantage and present social ills” (Hall 1262).

Botkin displays a similar notion in noting that “no progress is in a straight line, gradual, advancing evenly on all fronts.” He also denies the notion that the legislation of the 1960s fully realized the goals of the civil rights activists, even though this was a fairly popular opinion amongst the general public. He writes, “nearly everyone seems to assume, vaguely, that American Negroes have been advancing, gradually, through nearly a century since Emancipation, and that today their progress is rapid. But these beliefs . . . just ain't so. Negro progress has not been gradual and today is not rapid.” This may seem unexpected, as Botkin is writing this at a time when leftist activism was surging on an international scale (Jobs). However, one can imagine that his personal experiences of the abilities available to the dominant powers may have moderated his confidence in resistance activism.

Furthermore, Botkin’s focus in his essay is not on the legal rights granted to black Americans, but rather on the social and systemic inequalities that still persist. He lists numerous examples from popular culture and the media that continue to perpetuate negative stereotypes towards black Americans, and writes that they “very seldom, still, appear before the national eye where it counts—in the most popular arts like advertising, television, movies, comics, and magazine fiction—except as clowns or servants.” Botkin states this has a multifaceted effect on the American population. Firstly, it perpetuates those negative stereotypes, it conditions other Americans to mock, ridicule, and distrust black Americans. Secondly, it dehumanizes and demoralizes black Americans, standing in the way of Botkin’s notion of human progress—which “may be defined as movement to social states in which more people have more courage and power of all kinds.”

His conception of progress is aligned with Hall’s as well. Botkin does not regard progress as the “idea” of equality or legal legitimacy: he is aware that legality does not always translate to reality. He is concerned with the systems and beliefs in place that produce inequality, things that are extralegal. These are practices and beliefs like those that Botkin points to in his essay when he writes of The Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, in which a devoted slave is offered her freedom only to turn it down because she is contented and happy with her master.

Derrick Bell pioneered a theory regarding racial progress that has been extremely influential among critical race theory scholars. Bell put forth his theory of interest convergence in 1980, twelve years after Botkin’s “Progress” essay. Bell argues that the advances achieved by minorities have occurred not solely because of any altruistic or moral epiphanies, but rather in large part because those advancements coincided with the self-interests of the dominant classes. He notes that arguments in favor of desegregation put forward by both the NAACP and the federal government remarked upon how the decision would “provide immediate credibility to America’s struggle with communist countries to win the hearts and minds of emerging third world peoples” (Bell 524). To these third world countries, largely constituted of people of color, the mistreatment of black Americans did not make American democracy look any more appealing. It was the opportunity to advance the public image of US democracy that appealed to elite white legislators.

The interest convergence view of the Civil Rights Movement was reinforced and expanded upon by Mary L. Dudziak in her book Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Dudziak goes to great lengths tracing the evidence that civil rights advances were dependent upon interest convergence through her detailed examination of numerous federal documents, press releases, and other first-hand sources. Richard Delgado takes this line of thought even further by asserting that there was an implicit deal struck between America’s elite policy makers and black Americans. Through coercion and violence, the American government made it evident that civil rights advocates must go along with the American agenda and disavow socialism and communism (Delgado 386). Delgado gives as one example the entertainer Josephine Baker, who used the platform of her international fame to speak out against American racism. Baker was targeted by the U.S. Information Agency and State Department, which “took steps to discredit her and persuade local promoters to cancel her appearances . . . [which] virtually destroyed her career” (Delgado 378). The consequences of stepping out of line with this implicit deal were made clearer by the government’s response to black radicals in the late sixties. When Black Panther Party members “began reading and teaching Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Marx, Mao, and Lenin, this confirmed the government’s belief that the Party had to be stopped” (381). The Black Panther Party was subjected to a campaign of defamation in the media and physical raids resulting in numerous arrests and the deaths of Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark (382). If taking away your livelihood is not persuasive enough, the government is contented to take away your life.

Botkin expresses sentiments similar to Derrick Bell’s in the “Progress” essay. He acknowledges the impact that international relations and Cold War politics must have had on the Brown v. Board of Education decision, writing that:

In a cold-war world where the majority of mankind, which is dark of skin, is raising considerable hell, there are strong impulses both to accept and reject American Negroes. World politics must have influenced the Supreme Court, if only subconsciously, when it decided in 1953 that white and colored children ought to go to school together.

This kind of cautious and cynical thinking is present throughout “Progress,” but is intertwined with Botkin’s optimistic idealism. His essay reads as though he is trying to come to terms with the competing positions of his ideals and the facts of the world. He is at one moment praising the great potential of humanity and the next moment bemoaning the quagmire of racism and inequality that is still so deeply ingrained in us.

This internal struggle is apparent in the rather odd paragraph that Botkin concludes his essay with. He at first points to the inherent potential that humanity’s recent technological advances can afford the world, continuing his previous line of thought that “now, today, for the very first time in history we have the power . . . to abolish hunger and ignorance.” He declares in his closing paragraph that “a new and higher Renaissance is almost within our grasp. Mankind is on the brink of becoming human.” Botkin does not end on this optimistic point, though. The last sentences of the essay take an ironic turn with an imagined depiction of a utopic theater, in which, after the show, audience members “salivate happily in the dark, holding hands” as they eat the food presented to them in abundance and gratis. It is here that Botkin seems to be problematizing his own idealistic hopes for humanity. He evokes a sense of contentment and compassion that may only be attainable in a possible afterlife, as the theatergoers revel in their company and sustenance to the music of “angels’ harps.”

We are left wondering if Botkin really believes in his sarcastic criticism of Arnold J. Toynbee’s cyclical view of history in the preceding pages. Toynbee, as Botkin puts it, believes “we, poor humanity, may go round and round or up and down but for one reason or another, nowhere. We do not progress . . . ‘the human condition’ . . . was always with us and always will be . . . things were always the same. We were and are licked.” It is unclear what statements we should take at face-value. Should we believe Botkin’s sarcastic comments towards the cynical views of the human condition as static and unchanging are representative of his ideas, or should we instead look at his earnest pleas for building a healthy and cooperative world community? If the entire context is taken into account, one may propose that the essay is an expression of Botkin’s lament for the impotence of his political hopes, a recognition that his agenda does not fit the paradigm of his time, and that it can be met with violent retaliation.

9. Conclusion

The publication of Botkin’s “Progress” essay is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it can prove interesting to contemporary folklore scholars as a look into a facet of Botkin’s writing that is very different from much of his published work. The essay provides readers with insight into Botkin’s ideas about race, politics, and humanity during the Civil Rights Movement era, stated in a frank manner. As author of “the most popular book ever published on American folklore,” this kind of insight can be valuable to future scholars who look to Botkin and folklorists like him in their research (America’s Folklorist 57). Secondly, the essay is an example of the dissenting beliefs concerning civil rights and equality that were often unheard during this period. Many ideas reflected in Botkin’s essay have only recently become generally accepted among scholars. Further identifying the lineage of this line of thought can serve to legitimize it in our time, while it also strengthens Botkin’s reputation as an insightful and diligent researcher. Finally, “Progress” and the context surrounding it can serve as a reminder for contemporary progressive activists. Botkin’s disillusionment in democratic political activity is perhaps more relevant now than ever, as we are faced with a number of different global crises and a popular sentiment of nearly willful ignorance towards them. This essay can stand as a reminder of the progress that has been made since its writing, and also a warning to hold on to our values and goals tenaciously and vigilantly.

During the McCarthy era, vague and broad accusations of communist sympathy were passed upon scholars with even the slightest possibility of left-leaning scholarship. The case of Owen Lattimore, a scholar of China and central Asia, provides a particularly drastic example of how government McCarthyists tried to establish convictions through oblique reasoning. Lattimore was charged with perjury “for denying that his writings followed the Soviet line” (Schrecker 2004, 1058). Parallel to contemporary times, “a similar process is taking place today as the Bush administration, lacking evidence of terrorism, relies on the selective enforcement of immigration regulations or else seeks to detain people as ‘material witnesses’” (1059). In the last year, we have seen a turn where vague warnings of terrorism have been used to enact policy like Donald Trump’s travel ban instituted on a number of predominantly Muslim countries; this in spite of the fact that “since the US Refugee Act of 1980 was established, no refugee has been implicated in a major fatal terrorist attack in the USA” (Spiegel). The travel ban has been criticized as incredibly detrimental to international collaboration in scholarship and international student populations.                                     

Benjamin Botkin’s experience with government surveillance and intimidation is relevant to the post-9/11 world we live in. Whereas Botkin’s era was concerned with the fear of communism, this has been supplanted in our time by the spectre of terrorism. The past must be examined if we are to learn from our mistakes and not risk repeating them. We can continue Botkin’s mission of understanding “the present in the light of the past and vice versa” (Jackson 5). In the past, there lies the fact that thousands of US citizens faced persecution for their political views and liberal voices were stifled by conservatives and liberals alike in fear of McCarthyist accusations. “Today, as we confront the post-9/11 assault on individual rights, it is clear that what happened in the 1940s and 1950s was no aberration but the all too common reaction of a nation that seeks to protect itself by turning against its supposed enemies at home” (Schrecker 2004, 1042). A better understanding of stories like Botkin’s can help us recognize and work against forces that suppress movement towards solidarity and community.

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