Gerald L. Davis

Photo courtesy of Debora Kodish

African American Folklorist

Gerald L. Davis


Dr. Gerald Davis was a leading scholar of African American folklife who contributed to the academic and public arenas, a documentary filmmaker, and a mentor. Born in New York City in 1941, Gerald Davis earned his BA in English/speech and drama from Fisk University, his MA in folklore from University of California-Berkeley in 1973, where he studied with Alan Dundes, and his PhD in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania in 1978. Prior to entering folklore, Jerry Davis served African American and African communities working in community organizing and development for such organizations as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the Poor People’s Campaign and Chicago Fair Housing Campaign and for the Ministry of Community Development and National Culture in Tanzania in the 1960s. These experiences ignited his life’s passion for researching African-derived expressive culture.

In the early 1970s, he was hired as the Associate Director of Folklife Programs where he initiated the African Diaspora Research Program and developed and curated portions of the Festival of American Folklife. He next began his academic teaching career at Rutgers University in Africana Studies, receiving tenure in 1985 and becoming chair in 1990. His mentorship of students included being a co-founder of the Association of African and African American Folklorists, serving as an advisor to the Philadelphia Folklore Project, and being a panelist for numerous state and national grant panel reviews. He was also elected as a Fellow of AFS in 1994. Among the numerous awards he attained were National Endowment for the Humanities Media Grant, NRC/Ford Foundation Senior Postdoctoral Fellowship, and National Institute of Mental Health Fellowship. Through several of these opportunities, he discovered a love for New Mexico and the Southwest while at the Anthropological Film Center, and in 1995 he joined the American Studies Department of the University of New Mexico, where he remained until his death.

Dr. Davis wrote numerous articles addressing African American folklife and material culture, theory for African American folklore, and use of media in fieldwork. However, he was best known for his acclaimed performative analyses of African American sermons and preaching, in his award-winning film and his heralded book:

The Performed Word (1980 film)

I Got the Word in Me and I Can Sing It, Don’t You Know (1985)

Phyllis May-Machunda

Davis, Gerald L. 1972. “Meet Sonny Diggs, a Baltimore Arabber”. Program of the Festival of American Folklife. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.  

Davis, Gerald L. 1972. “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).  

Davis, Gerald L. 1972. “It’s Come a Long Way: A Comment on Contemporary Folkloric Fieldwork.” Program of the Festival of American Folklife. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.  

Davis, Gerald L. 1977. “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.  

Davis, Gerald L. 1978. “Some Methodological Considerations in the Study of African-American Folklife.” Black Scholar. [special issue on African American folklore]  

Davis, Gerald L. 1979. “Theatrical Design as a Framework for African-American Characterization in Contemporary Theater.” Journal of the Richard Allen Center. NY, 1979.  

Davis, Gerald L. 1979. “The Politics of African-American Ethnic Identification.” In Ethnic Folklore in America, ed. Robert Teske. Detroit: Wayne State University.  

Davis, Gerald L. 1980. The Performed Word. 60-minute film. Producer. Red Taurus films. (Executive Producer and Founder of Red Taurus Films).  

Davis, Gerald L. 1985. “‘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.  

Davis, Gerald L. 1985. I Got the Word in Me and I Can Sing It, Don’t You Know. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. (2nd prize, Chicago Folklore competition) 

Davis, Gerald L. 1988. “Introduction.” Home and Yard: Black Folklife Expressions in Los Angeles. Los Angeles: California Afro-American Museum.  

Davis, Gerald L. 1991. “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.  

Davis, Gerald L. 1992. “Truths of ODUNDE.” Works in Progress. Magazine of the Philadelphia Folklore Project . 5:2 (1992) pp. 2-3.  

Davis, Gerald L. 1992. “‘So Correct for the Photograph’: Fixing’ the Ineffable, Ineluctable African-American.” Public Folklore, ed. Nicholas Spitzer and Robert Baron. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, pp. 105-118.  

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

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

Davis, Gerald L. 1994. “‘To Be or Not to Be. . .?’ Notes on the Art of Filming African American Real Life.” 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.  

Davis, Gerald L. 1996. “‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow. . .’ Judy Garland in Never-Never Land.” Journal of American Folklore. 109:432 (Spring 1996) 1-14.