Paul Radin and the Fisk University Narrative Collection

Widely recognized for his fieldwork among the Ho-Chunk/Winnebago people of Wisconsin and Nebraska, Paul Radin (1883–1959) was among Franz Boas’s first generation of students, which included his best friends Robert Lowie and Edward Sapir. Together with Alfred Kroeber and Alexander Goldenweiser, these pioneers of American anthropology recognized Radin’s research as a major contribution to the ethnology of native North America.  

Little known is his work among African Americans. In 1927 Radin turned his attention from the American plains to Nashville and the neighborhood extending outward from Fisk University, where he had accepted a three-year research appointment funded by the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial. Because he regularly chafed under the customary obligations of academic life, including meeting his classes, the Fisk appointment was nearly ideal. The university expected little of Radin beyond the collection of the personal remembrances of elderly African Americans willing to confide their life stories and religious experiences to him and his graduate assistant Andrew Polk Watson.  

Watson was more collaborator than student. Radin instructed Watson about his techniques of narrative collection, developed since 1911 among the Ho-Chunk/Winnebago. His publication in 1920 of The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian was a landmark, establishing the personal narrative as a major strategy in anthropological research. Watson quickly caught on, impressing Radin not only with his collecting skills but also his personal demeanor in gaining the trust of the narrators, including former slaves. They might otherwise have resisted the presence of a white stranger. Radin after all was an urbane, cosmopolitan with no prior experience in the American South, certainly not with survivors of slavery.

A native of nearby Franklin, Tennessee, Watson was in his early thirties when the project began, having studied briefly at the University of Chicago following army service in World War I. That he was an African American was vital to the success of the collaboration. His religious upbringing, however, was very different from the religious experience of the narrators who were accustomed to exclamatory surges of emotion marking worship in what Watson called “primitive Christianity.” The Radin-Watson texts contain various verbatim accounts of the ecstatic experience of encountering God or Jesus and undergoing death and rebirth in heaven. Watson wrote a thesis that utilized what he gleaned from the autobiographies and accounts of conversion to describe and interpret faithfully religious life and thought not his own.

Radin and Watson collected eight life histories and over 50 religious conversion accounts. Watson recorded in his notebooks all of the conversion narratives and six of the eight autobiographies. Radin collected the two most detailed autobiographies and accompanied Watson when he visited others who had agreed to relate their life experiences. Their collaboration complemented an oral history project already underway at Fisk, likewise aiming to record the subjective experience of living through slavery and its aftermath. African Americans in the two Fisk projects became the active chroniclers of their own lives, whereas they were only silent figures in the racially contorted accounts of slavery produced by major historians of the day. African American subjectivity had suffered either denigration or indifference, both in bondage and in the postbellum world of American apartheid. Radin also valued the conversion texts for their aesthetic value, characterizing those narratives of numinous, transformative sky journeys as a “special form of American oral literature.” Radin observed that “every anthropologist knows or should know that there is no inherent correlation between literacy and artistic and literary ability and craftmanship.”

Unwritten History of Slavery: Autobiographical Account of Negro Ex-Slaves and God Struck Me Dead: Religious Conversion Experiences and Autobiographies of Negro Ex-Slaves (containing a large part of the Radin-Watson corpus) were published by Fisk University in 1945. Begun nearly a decade before the famous multistate Works Progress Administration slave narrative project, the Fisk collections represent the first systematic gathering of personal accounts of the slave experience. Moreover, Radin observed that the conversion narratives represented the richest collection of African American religious texts then available. At his death, Radin’s manuscript on his Fisk research remained unfinished.

Consistent with Radin’s humanistic viewpoint, Watson observed in his thesis that although they were unlettered and denigrated, field hands in slavery and freedom nonetheless exhibited “originality” and “imaginative genius” in transforming the Christian message presented by white churchmen into an instrument of spiritual liberation. For Radin, that liberation through a reinterpreted and distinct black Christianity also enabled people to find a fixed point of reference and a repaired sense of self when their lives as slaves had been subject to the whims of white people.

Published in 1927, the year of his Fisk appointment, Radin’s Primitive Man as Philosopher argued the then radical view that people in any society are intellectually individuated, not simply automatons bowing to the tyranny of custom or in the case of his Fisk informants, accepting the legitimacy of white interpretations of Christianity. The latter presented a punitive God demanding slave obedience to their masters at the risk of hell. The narrators in the Radin-Watson collection instead found a loving God not complicit in their subjugation and to whom every believer was worthy.

“Finding the native,” Radin would later say, was the goal of all of his investigations, whether in native North America or among aged but resourceful survivors of slavery. Only through their own voices would Radin find them.

Although the Radin-Watson relationship ended in 1930 with Radin’s departure from Fisk, Watson remained in the academic world. Following his graduate work at Fisk, he settled in Marshall, Texas, where he taught for many years at Wiley College, an historically black institution. Among his friends and colleagues was Melvin Tolson, poet, activist, Harlem Renaissance scholar, and famed debate coach. Portrayed by Denzel Washington in the film The Great Debaters, Tolson led his team to a national championship in 1935. Taught by Watson and Tolson, future civil rights leader James Farmer was a member of that team.

Jack Glazier is professor emeritus at Oberlin college. Glazier discusses the Radin-Watson collection in his forthcoming book, Anthropology and Radical Humanism: Native and African American Narratives and the Myth of Race.

Cite as: Glazier, Jack. 2020. “Paul Radin and the Fisk University Narrative Collection.” Anthropology News website, February 25, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1358

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