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The 1989 Folklore Summer Institute “Flat Rats” in front of the National Museum of Natural History.

The 1989 Folklore Summer Institute “Flat Rats” in front of the National Museum of Natural History.

  • Remembering the Flat Rats

    As mascots go, a dead rat found in an alley on the way to the Metro train, slowly becoming flatter every day it was passed, might not seem very inspiring. However, this unfortunate rodent was chosen as a talisman by a special group of visitors to our offices during two weeks in the summer of 1989.

    The self-proclaimed Flat Rats, twelve community folklore scholars from around the United States, comprised the first class of a short-lived but influential program at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage originally aimed at reaching more minority and underserved communities with information about available folklore resources at the Smithsonian and other national, regional, and state agencies. The choice of the flat rat, which was memorialized in a banner and a song, was testimony to the humor and camaraderie of the group, which became much more than a diverse group of community scholars in the space of two weeks.

    As the director of the program, the definition of a community folklore scholar I used in selecting the 1989 group was “an individual who has shown a significant contribution to the collection, preservation, and presentation of traditional culture in a community or region, without formal training in folklore or an allied field.” With the help of several other staff members including Frank Proschan and Marjorie Hunt, we attracted participants for the first Folklore Summer Institute for Community Scholars (FSI) by sending letters far and wide to folklorists working on national and state levels, asking them to make recommendations. (This was before email and the Internet made spreading such information so much easier.)

    The overwhelming response from colleagues, resulting in a pool of ninety-five very well qualified applicants, proved how many folklorists around the country had identified and worked with community scholars in their own areas. A careful selection process winnowed applicants down to the twelve scholars who were invited to attend the program, all expenses paid, funded by a grant from the Smithsonian Educational Outreach Fund. A number of distinguished colleagues, including former CFCH Advisory Board members Gerald Davis (Rutgers University), Jack Tchen (NYU and the Chinatown History Project), and Ric Tremillos (University of Hawai’i), were recruited as faculty members.

    The 1989 FSI took place in June and July, with the first week overlapping with that year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival. From the very first day, the group started bonding and sharing information, as well as soaking up the information offered by the faculty and CFCH staff. A list of the participants, their affiliations, and a summary of their community work is attached. The accompanying photos chronicle some of the events of the two weeks of the 1989 FSI and put a face to the names of the participants and some faculty members.

    While the FSI offered much to the participants, it also helped create a valuable network of community scholars around the country. As participant Walter Bolton put it, “The economic and logistic benefits seem obvious when one considers that the Smithsonian now has a viable network of interested people able to provide initial contacts, evaluations, and insights into local communities. Such a network expanded will be of immeasurable value. The feeling I received from the other participants was that it was now our turn to give back to the Smithsonian for all it has given us.”

    The credential that the FSI offered to the group upon completion of the program, according to participant Patricia Crosby of the Mississippi Cultural Crossroads, was also invaluable. In a letter sent following the Washington experience, Crosby noted, “I’ve never placed much stock in titles or degrees but it’s fun to be designated a ‘community scholar’ by the Smithsonian, since I’m regularly miffed that the Humanities people dismiss us folks without degrees as if we can’t think or contribute.”

    For many reasons including a lack of funding sources, the FSI would be fated to go on for just one more year. During the summer of 1990, another remarkable group of community scholars was invited, dubbed “The Boxcar Gang” since they met in a small trailer on the Folklife Festival grounds. The legacy of the two years of the FSI, however, has lived on and spread across the country. For example, Michigan State University ran its own statewide community folklore scholar gathering for four years. The American Folklore Society established a travel fund to send community scholars of color to its annual meetings in honor of FSI faculty member Gerald Davis upon his untimely passing in 1997. The FSI also heightened the interest and practice of working with community scholars when researching and planning future Folklife Festival programs. For instance, in 1995, colleague Diana N’Diaye and I designed and executed a Washington, D.C.-based training and research program for African immigrant community scholars which resulted in the African Immigrant in Metropolitan Washington, D.C., program of the 1997 Festival.

    The Flat Rats on the move.

    With the help of interns Julia Aguilar and Natalie Huber, I reconnected with some of the Flat Rats this summer, marking twenty-fifth anniversary of FSI. Most participants are still working in their communities on various projects. They all had positive recollections of their time in Washington in 1989.

    “The friendship and good will of the other participants was something to treasure and remember,” said Charlie Chin, then the New York City Chinatown History Project, now living in Northern California and active as a writer, musician, and storyteller. “When the email came about the ‘Flat Rats,’ it brought back a lot of good memories.”

    Von Martin, as in 1989, is still working on research and presentation of his native Trinidad with his own not-for-profit, Caribbeana Communications Inc. “I often times think of the experience at the Folklore Institute and cite the exercise many times when I am amidst my country mates in discussions on cultural sustainability amongst Caribbean people.”

    Kathy Vargas, formerly of the Guadalupe Arts Center and now a board member of the International Accordion Festival, recalled a special celebration for the group hosted by then-CFCH director Richard Kurin. “I still remember his backyard full of scuttling crabs as he introduced us to Maryland ‘foodways.’ ”

    Sadly, participant Danny Lopez of the Tohono O’odham tribe in Arizona passed away in 2008. Although he was soft spoken and remained quiet through most of the program, when Danny spoke, everyone listened. He left behind a fine collection of written memories which have been placed online by the AILDI, the University of Arizona’s Native American Languages and Linguistics Master of Arts program. The end of the collection lists “the topics he was going to add to his story due to the impacts they made on him as an individual, and how these experiences helped shape his life.” At the top of the list was “Folklore Institute at Washington D.C.”

    Betty Belanus directed the 1989 and 1990 Folklore Summer Institutes for Community Scholars and considers the program, and the heightened awareness of the importance of community scholars to our work that the program brought, one of her proudest achievements.

    The photographers of these photos are unknown but were provided courtesy of the 1989 Folklore Summer Institute participants.

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