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Psyche Williams-Forson is professor and chair of American studies and an affiliate professor of women's studies and African American studies at the University of Maryland.
Music played an important role in the
lives of many 19th century American families, when having a piano in the
parlor was seen as a symbol of middle class refinement and
respectability that went hand in hand with genteel womanhood and
African Americans were no exception to this view.
That observation was made by internationally renowned scholar and
author Psyche Williams-Forson during a talk titled How Sweet the Sound:
African American Performances of Class and Citizenship Using the
Piano, which she delivered March 1 at the University of Delaware.
Hosted by UDs Center for Material Culture Studies, the event was the inaugural lecture in the new African American Material Culture and Public History speaker series.
Williams-Forson is professor and chair of American studies and an
affiliate professor of womens studies and African American studies at
the University of Maryland. A founding scholar in the field of food
studies, she is the author of the award-winning book Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power.
In her talk at UD, Williams-Forson analyzed the material culture of
African American homes in the 19th and early 20th centuries, focusing on
the symbolism behind owning a piano in its relation to larger issues of
equality and economic freedom. She discussed class tensions and how
people throughout U.S. history have measured their citizenship through
definitions of materialism and economic freedom.
African Americans worked hard to obtain luxury goods, such as the
piano, for reasons much larger than just trying to be equal to their
white counterparts, Williams-Forson said. Materialism was critical to
the fulfillment of citizenship and equality, she said, discussing such
issues as the difference between owning and playing the piano, and the
work ethic that was put into owning one.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
The Inaugural Lecture in the African American Material Culture and
Public History Speaker Series. Professor Psyche Williams-Forson,
University of Maryland, discusses African American performance of class
and citizenship using the piano.
In describing her own scholarly career path, William-Forson told the
audience that she entered graduate school in the early 1990s, a time of
resurgence in the field of African American womens studies. While
studying literature, she became intrigued by depictions of the lives of
African American women in the 19th century, by the roles they played in
society and by the material culture that was often described in great
detail in novels and other literary works.
She said she began focusing her scholarship on an essential question
in the field of material culture: Why do we need things? She also saw a
lack of research into the material culture of people of color, the
working class and Southerners, all of which inspired her own work.
In answer to a question from the audience, Williams-Forson cited a
continuing need for research in certain aspects of material culture, not
just African American but also Latino and Afro-Cuban culture, for
example. While they may be less well-cataloged, such areas of material
culture are documented in various archives and can be located and
explored by persistent scholars, she said.
This stuff is all around us, she said. Its just begging for us to take the time to analyze it.