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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

African American Folktales

Folktales provide a radical illustration of the principle that fictions are not the fixed texts that printed pages imply but interactions between authors and audiences, who bring to the meeting their own social and individual experiences. The printed texts of the folktales int the book are themselves products of a complex network of interactions. Though the process of collection, publication, and now selection gives them the appearance of a fixed identity, they are actually only moments in a continuous process of invention, adaptation, and performance—cupfuls dipped out of a river.

What goes into a published folktale? The structural elements of folktales are traditional tale types and motifs widespread in world folklore and classified by folklorists. The motifs of African American folktales come from both African and European tradition. Over time, storytellers have selected and adapted them to reflect their own social experience. For example, in European variants of the popular tale "Dividing Souls," here represented by John Blackamore's individualized "Old Boss Wants into Heaven," the two watchers are typically a parson and a sexton, but in most African American variants, they are a crippled master and the slave who carries him. The motif of the dependent master frightened into running on his own two feet becomes a metaphor for the unwarranted economic dependency of white on black in slavery. Blackamore's highly developed and pointed version of this tale calls attention to another component of the folktale, the individual storyteller's insight and imagination.

An oral story also involves interaction between the storyteller and the audience. The printed story, however, is the product of a different interaction, that between the storyteller and the folklore collector, who is at least to some extent an outsider to the folk group. Conventions of how to represent the folk storytelling situation and acknowledge the role of the collector have changed over the years. Early folklore popularizers often embedded the tales in a fictional framework and retold them in heightened language. "Brer Coon Gets His Meat" provides an example of exaggerated dialect as well as the mimicry and music of folk delivery. Zora Neale Hurston's "John Calls on the Lord" seems to reflect collaboration between storyteller and collector; here John addresses "the Lord" in language that Hurston, the daughter of a black lay preacher, had heard all her life and repeated with relish in her fiction. In the 1930s, Federal Writers Project teams collecting the reminiscences of the last generation of former slaves attempted to portray accurately the relationship between informants and collectors by describing the communities they visited, identifying individual informants, and recording their own role in eliciting the stories. They set the standard that subsequent collectors, notably Richard M. Dorson, have developed.

We cannot be sure to what extent collectors rather than storytellers have determined the history of the African American folktale repertoire. There is little doubt that the animal tales were told during slavery. But tales of the contest of wits between the black man and the white first appear in collections between 1915 and 1919, and only gradually develop in the 1930s and 1940s into the cycle of episodes in the perpetual battle between John the unsubmissive slave and his Old Marster. Whether former slaves withheld these stories for fifty years after Emancipation, or early collectors intent on animal stories failed to seek them out, or they developed in the twentieth century as a commentary on the perpetuation of inequality, we don't know. What the published record does show is that, while African American folk narrative comes out of slavery, it is not an artifact of the slave period but a living tradition. In the twentieth century, as the selections in the book reflect, African American folktales became increasingly politically pointed and were adapted to the rhythms and concerns of an increasingly urban folk. Perhaps the clearest testimony to the continuing vitality of African American folk narrative is its importance in the fiction of such writers as Charles Chesnutt, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison.

The tales in this section have been chosen to represent some of the most commonly collected tales and a variety of narrative styles and collection principles. For more tales (including genres such as ghost stories and preacher jokes not included here), see the collections from which these are taken.

Susan L. Blake
Lafayette College

In the Heath Anthology
Animal Tales
      When Brer Deer and Brer Terrapin Runned a Race (1898)
      Why Mr. Dog Runs Brer Rabbit (c.1899)
      How Sandy Got His Meat (c.1916)
      The Signifying Monkey (1964)
      Fox and Rabbit in the Well (c.1967)
      Who Ate Up the Butter? (c.1967)
Conjure Stories
      Two Tales form Eatonville, Florida (1931)
John and Old Marster
      Master Disguised (c.1919)
      The Diviner (c.1919)
      Massa and the Bear (c.1935)
      Ole Massa and John Who Wanted to Go to Heaven (c.1935)
      Baby in the Crib (c.1967)
      John Steals a Pig and a Sheep (c.1967)
      Old Boss Wants into Heaven (c.1967)
      Talking Bones (c.1967)
Memories of Slavery
      The Flying Africans (c.1940)
      Malitis (c.1945)

Other Works

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African American Folklore
An extensive student project on African American folklore and education; the first few pages are particularly helpful, providing a folklore studies literature review.

Studying African American Literature in Its Global Context
Scholarly article by Samuel B. Olorounto (orginally published in VCCA Journal, Volume 7, Number 1, Summer 1992, 4-12) discussing the necessity of studying folktakes for analyzing African American literature.

Secondary Sources

William R. Bascom, African Folktales in the New World, 1992

Pamela Bordelon, ed., Writings by Zora Neale Hurson from the Federal Writers Project, 1999.

Alan Dundes, ed., Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore, 1990

Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom, 1977