On Friday, April 1, from noon to 1:30pm, in the Mary Greer Room of Hodges Library, Bryan Wagner, Associate Professor of English at UC Berkeley will lecture on “The People’s Court.” Professor Wagner’s lecture surveys the development of the police court in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As he describes it:
Police courts were tribunals where officials resolved disputes and punished misdemeanants (including vagrants, prostitutes, and petty thieves) without recourse to formal jurisprudence. They were also popular entertainment, attracting numerous spectators who were engrossed not only by conflicts and confessions but also by the mechanics of the justice system. In this lecture, I am interested in the legal education that audiences took away from these tribunals, or in how they came to know law as theater, as prerogative, and as process. The official records produced by these courts were sparse, when they were kept at all, but we have access to a rich secondary archive–satirical newspaper columns and cartoons, mock-epic poems and theatrical set-pieces, vaudeville recordings and sheet music, radio transcriptions and courtroom anecdotes collected as folklore–that can help us to reconstruct these proceedings in substantial and often lurid detail. Keyed to a situation in which status depends on embodiment rather than abstract rights and on role-playing rather than principled deliberation, these neglected sources reveal the extent to which knowledge of law has been mediated by popular entertainment conventions.
Bryan Wagner is Associate Professor in the English Department at UC Berkeley. His research focuses on African American expression in the context of slavery and its aftermath, with a particular focus on legal history and critical theory. His first book, Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2009) revises the history of the black vernacular tradition and gives a new account of black culture by reading these myths in the context of the tradition’s ongoing engagement with the law. His second book, The Tar Baby: A Global History, is forthcoming this spring from Princeton University Press. For those who can stay on after his lecture and subsequent Q&A, Professor Wagner will lead a brief, informal discussion of The Tar Baby, ending around 2pm.
Professor Wagner’s visit is sponsored by the English Department and by UTK’s American Studies and Africana Studies Programs. His lecture is free and open to the public.