John Gwaltney

Photographer unknown; photo sourced from

African American, Ethnography, Anthropology

John Gwaltney


John Langston Gwaltney was a native anthropologist and folklorist whose scholarship chronicled the everyday lives of marginalized communities.

Gwaltney was born in 1928 in Orange, New Jersey, as one of five children, to John Stanley Gwaltney, a merchant seaman, and Mabel Harper Gwaltney, a homemaker. Becoming blind as an infant, young Gwaltney’s mother urged him to pursue arts, including piano and wood carving, preparing him to succeed despite his visual impairment. As a steadfast advocate for her son, Mabel sought the help of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who helped get Gwaltney placed in a special program for blind children near his home. Later, Gwaltney became the first blind student to attend his local high school. 

Gwaltney earned a BA in history (1952) at Upsala College in East Orange, NJ. After graduation, Gwaltney earned his MA in political science (1957) at the New School for Social Research in New York City. After a short stint teaching high school at the Henry George School of Social Sciences where he sharpened his teaching skills, Gwaltney pursued his doctorate in anthropology at Columbia University. Inspired by his father’s stories of world travel, Gwaltney sought to explore the world himself. One of his key advisors at Columbia, anthropologist Margaret Mead, encouraged him to pursue his dissertation research in San Pedro Yolox, Mexico and in 1967, Gwaltney obtained his PhD. He turned his award winning dissertation into his first book, The Thrice Shy: Cultural Accommodation to Blindness, and Other Disasters in a Mexican Community (1970), a groundbreaking humanistic ethnography based in the insights of a blind person, that meticulously contextualized the ways that blindness caused by a parasite operated in the life of the San Pedro Yolox community.

Gwaltney’s most influential book, Drylongso: A Self Portrait of Black America (1980), is a collection of 41 interviews with everyday men and women who made up Black America, or “core Black people,” as he called them. His purpose, as a native ethnographer, was to demonstrate the humanity of Black culture beyond white scholars’ interpretations. This book emerged out of his long-held view that was held by many in African American communities, that mainstream anthropology has traditionally misrepresented those communities and has failed to prepare Euro American ethnographers to accurately represent Black American cultures.

From 1967-1971, Dr. Gwaltney taught anthropology at the State University of New York College at Cortland. In 1971, he moved to Maxwell Graduate School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University and continued to teach there until his retirement in 1989. 

Dr. Gwaltney’s notable publications include: 

Thrice Shy: Cultural Accommodation to Blindness and Other Disasters in a Mexican Community (1970)

Drylongso: A Self Portrait of Black America (1980)

The Dissenters: Voices from Contemporary America (1986)

Langston Collin Wilkins

(coming soon)