Brian Foster, self-identified Black boy from rural Mississippi, joins us today for a conversation about his book, I Don't Like the Blues: Race, Place, and the Backbeat of Black Life (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020). In this interview, he shares with us how his experiences growing up in, leaving and returning home to Mississippi shaped his storytelling. Foster first began this ethnographic project as a doctoral student in Sociology at UNC Chapel Hill. As he tells us, the project started as an exploration of educational inequality and race. It became something very different as he let himself be guided by the stories and experiences of the community he was researching. Brian tells us about a few of the folks he met while living in Clarksdale who shaped the direction and core ideas of this book; their stories highlighted perplexing and sometimes uncomfortable contradictions about what it meant to love and not like the Blues. We learn about Clarksdale, MI and the unique history of the Mississippi Delta, the development of the Blues Commission and Blues tourism as an effort to combat declining manufacturing and agricultural industries, the significance of the Blues to the Delta region, and the contradictions between investing in the Blues and investing in Black communities. We discuss storytelling, examining positionality in ethnographic research and how Foster sees Blues Epistemology as a lens to prioritize seeing Black Southerners as complex human rather than constructed caricatures.
I Don’t Like the Blues tells us an often-overlooked history of a community who has come to be defined as just one thing – Black Southerners – by just one thing – the Blues. By taking us into the homes, cars, backyards and neighborhoods of Black Clarksdalians, Foster gives us the stories and the framework for thinking about how race, place and community development has shaped the lives of Black folks in contemporary Mississippi.
Recently, his public writing “How We Got Here” on his Mississippian family and the tradition of hog slaughter, was developed into an award-winning short film. You can learn more about Brian’s ongoing work on his website.
Nafeesa Andrabi a 4th year Sociology PhD student with specialization in Race/Ethnicity and Health/Illness. I am currently a Biosocial Fellow at Carolina Population Center.
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