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  • NYS Writers Institute

A virtual visit with African American folklorist Daryl Cumber Dance

We made a virtual visit to Daryl Cumber Dance, a towering authority on African American folk culture and tradition, at her home in Henrico, Virginia.

Dr. Dance visited the New York State Writers Institute in 2002 with her major work, From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore, a landmark collection of tales, proverbs, poems, homilies, comedy routines, songs and other materials of incomparable historical value.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates called that book, ""a major contribution to African American scholarship. . .destined to be studied, passed on, and cherished for generations to come."

Professor emerita of English at the University of Virginia and the University of Richmond, she continues to live near the City of Richmond where she was born in 1938.

Q: Are there any bright spots in these frightening and turbulent times?

A: I am delighted at the prospect of removing the statues [of slaveowners and Confederate figures]. They were among some of the painful elements of everyday life for me, and I am grateful that later generations will not have to suffer them.

Q: How are you keeping busy?

A: I am writing a bit, reading a bit, doing a few virtual events, keeping in touch by way of telephone, email, and texts with friends and family in the neighborhood and around the world.

Q: Any fresh news from your life?

A: I just published a new revised edition of The Lineage of Abraham: The Biography of a Free Black Family in Charles City, VA. Originally published in 1998, Lineage is an updated genealogy of a family whose documented history Henry Louis Gates, Jr., labeled “one of the oldest I’ve ever seen for an African American family” -- and that claim was before our updated study, which takes that family back twelve more generations to the 15th century.

The history of this family up to the present reveals much about numerous fundamental aspects of African American history in Virginia and the nation. Some of this story has never been told, and all too much of it has never been presented from the Black perspective. There are also humorous anecdotes as well as gripping accounts of accomplishments, battles, arrests, persecutions, feuds, love, courtship, passing, and color prejudices within the family.

Dr. Dance's other books include Shuckin' and Jivin': Folklore from Contemporary Black Americans (1978), Folklore from Contemporary Jamaicans (1985), Fifty Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook (1986), Long Gone: The Mecklenburg Six and the Theme of Escape in Black Folklore (1987), New World Adams: Conversations With Contemporary West Indian Writers (1992), Honey, Hush!: An Anthology of African American Women's Humor (1998), and In Search of Annie Drew: Jamaica Kincaid's Mother and Muse (2016).

A descendant of the family that is the subject of The Lineage of Abraham, Dr. Dance grew up with the tradition that she was descended from Abraham Brown, a free Black man who owned land in Virginia and founded one of the earliest Black churches in the nation in 1810.

Tracing that lineage back to Abraham, his mother, Elizabeth, and into the distant past, has been a life-long journey for Dance. When she was 20 years old and about to marry, Dance realized that she was the last to carry the Cumber name. That realization sent her on a desperate quest to record the stories she grew up hearing and the history of the name. The search, which began with interviewing family members, took her to the archives of Harvard, Hampton and Virginia State universities, inside the court records of Charles City County and through the public documents of the state of Virginia and anywhere else that her ancestors trod.

She writes with pride about the achievements of her extended family:

"We can claim among African Americans in Virginia and in some instances in the nation, to be either first, foremost, or most numerous in struggles for legal freedom (successful suit for freedom from slavery in 1644), in civil rights (equalization of teachers’ salaries), in land ownership (probably earliest property continuously held), in military operations (greatest number of patriots in the Revolutionary War), in education (founded at least six schools, including Norfolk State U/first to have an endowed professorship named in her honor at Harvard), in medicine, in religion (first independently established Black church in Virginia/first ordained Baptist preacher), in political offices (governor, lieutenant governor, state senator, three Delegates during Reconstruction, numerous county offices, city councilman) , in entrepreneurship, in banking (established at least three of the first banks), in art, in science (first engineer at NACA/NASA), in industry, in law enforcement (first lawyers, first judges), in sports (youngest basketball player in the US Olympic Festival/all-time leading soccer scorer at UVA/leading scorer in 2008 Summer Olympics), and in protective services. My father’s family is one of the rare families from Africa to have continuously retained its original name."

Dr. Dance is interviewed at length on The History Makers: The Nation's Largest African American Video Oral History Collection.

You can also watch her C-SPAN interviews at this link.


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