Folklore Fun! African American Tales

Where people go, stories follow. The African diaspora, unjustly facilitated by the brutal Atlantic Slave Trade, forcibly sent African folklore abroad, where it mixed with new environments and grew into its own distinct form. African American folklore was born during centuries of slavery, and to ignore those roots would be to lose the significance of the tales. In this blog post, I will focus on the celebration of resilience that is evident in African American folklore and highlight the vibrant cultures that have emerged against all odds.

Westlake Library has two excellent African American folktale collections. The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales comprises twenty-four beautifully illustrated tales. The book offers a sizable sampling of all the most beloved themes, including trickster tales, cautionary tales, and (as the title implies) tales of freedom.

I don’t usually feature works from our adult collection, but I must mention The Annotated African American Folktales. Meticulously compiled from a staggeringly broad range of sources, it is a massive book and perhaps the most complete collection of African American folklore to date. The tales are neatly sorted by type, each section with its own illuminating preface. Historical background, original sources, and hidden details are concisely explained. Unassuming line-by-line annotations add to the stories’ fullness without being obtrusive. This book took me a month or two to read in full; it is a near-bottomless wellspring of tales, expertly organized.

The most literally uplifting African American folktale is The People Could Fly. (Not to be confused with Virginia Hamilton’s collection of tales, this is a standalone picture book.) Some tales would tell of slaves flying back across the ocean to their home countries, while others were an open-ended escape into the skies. The promise of immediate, miraculous freedom made this kind of story a whispered thread of pure hope.

The “Flying Africans” theme has persisted in newer works. In The Year We Learned to Fly, Jaqueline Woodson references the original legend, while deftly applying it to the frustrations of a modern kid’s life. In the same way, Tar Beach is narrated by a young girl whose flight provides dreamy relief from poverty and discrimination. Christopher Myers’ book Wings (available through SearchOhio) tells of a winged boy who is treated as an outcast until the timid narrator recognizes the beauty in his singularity. Even as social settings and time periods evolve, themes of African flight continue to champion the indomitable spirit and unfettered mind.

Folk hero John Henry represents a different kind of victory. The quasi-historical railroad worker, born with hammer in hand, soothed the worries of working folk during the Industrial Revolution. As their jobs were replaced by machines, people feared for their livelihoods. John Henry raced a steam-powered drill through solid stone and won, though it cost him his life. Humanity prevailed and Henry became a classic American hero. Notable creators like Ezra Jack Keats, Julius Lester, and Jerry Pinkney have retold John Henry’s story with their own masterful techniques. To this day, John Henry remains an icon of pure strength.

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky is the first of a Rick Riordan Presents series that focuses on African American Folklore. John Henry and his trusty hammer are on the cover, and the hero does his best to help young Tristan save the world (and fix that hole in the sky). The Tristan Strong books also feature folkloric staples such as people who can fly, High John the Conqueror, Anansi the Spider, and the mischievous Brer Rabbit.

A classic trickster figure, Brer Rabbit regularly outwits the fox, the bear, and others who wish to do him harm. Though he is disadvantaged in size and strength, this rabbit’s quick thinking and smooth talking can get him out of any scrape. Brer Rabbit is one of the the most important figures in African American Folklore, but his tales have a complicated publication history.

These tales were first collected and published by a White man named Joel Chandler Harris. He created a benevolent Black narrator named Uncle Remus who told the stories to a plantation master’s young son. The books were popular enough to be adapted by Disney in the now-inaccessible film Song of the South, featuring the hit song Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. Since the beginning, the Uncle Remus tales have been both criticized for their stereotypes and praised for their depiction of true African American folklore.

In the 1980s, celebrated author and scholar Julius Lester reworked these tales. Lester himself grew up hearing Brer Rabbit tales from the elders of his community, and recognized the importance of an updated anthology. In his thoughtful foreword to The Tales of Uncle Remus, Lester acknowledges that “because Uncle Remus is a character with whom blacks and whites are uneasy today, the tales themselves have become tainted in many minds. This is unfortunate. Whatever one may think about how Harris chose to present the tales, the fact remains that they are a cornerstone of Afro-American culture and continue to be vital.” He goes on to explain the shortcomings of the original text and his gentle methods of updating the stories for modern readers. It is evident that Lester respects these tales, and brilliant illustrations by Jerry Pinkney bring the familiar characters to life.

On the subject of bringing things to life, zombies are actually African in origin. Zombies in America follows Voodoo from Africa to Haiti and America’s South, summarizing famous cases of zombies and famous practitioners of Voodoo. The book suggests that historical zombification was achieved with various drugs. A bokor (sorcerer) would give an unfortunate person a powerful neurotoxin, which induced a deathlike state. Then the victim was removed to another location, where they were given other natural substances to keep them dazed and docile. While there aren’t any zombies in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, the movie features two masters of Voodoo, one evil and one benevolent.

Meanwhile, the Gullah people of South Carolina practice Hoodoo, another form of spirituality with African roots that incorporates the many uses of plants. Though the two words sound similar, Voodoo and Hoodoo can be traced back to different areas of Africa, and have evolved separately in America. Root Magic is the story of two Gullah siblings who begin to learn “rootwork,” and must soon face down a supernatural threat.

Witches and hags are part of African American folklore, though they’re not the broom-riding pointy-hat-wearing crones that we might first think of. Gullah culture tells of the Boo Hag, a creepy outsider who preys on the people foolish enough to answer the door when she knocks. A picture book called Precious and the Boo Hag (available through SearchOhio) follows the story of a young girl who must outwit her frightful visitor. Wiley and the Hairy Man (available through SearchOhio) is a similar tale collected from the swamps of Alabama. The quick thinking and courage of the protagonists is reminiscent of Brer Rabbit’s craftiness.

Folklore belongs to its people, and African American folklore in particular emphasizes the element of community. Tales aren’t meant to be read alone; they are a vehicle for fellowship and personal connections. Even simple children’s play can reinforce togetherness, as Patricia McKissack’s book demonstrates. Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin, and Turn it Out! is a collection of rhymes, songs, ring shouts, games, and fables that shaped McKissack’s childhood. They are carefully organized into sections, with a short explanation by McKissack explaining their significance. Even these “trivial” activities have their place in the larger folkloric background of a community. Interpersonal connections are a vital part of life.

African American folklore is a beautiful example of human resilience. Folktales offer comfort and bring scattered people together. Tales that crossed the ocean take on local flavor, and with each telling a story is shaped to fit the needs of the listeners. African American Folktales found a way to flourish even in the harshest conditions. Despite everything, these are stories of hope, of cleverness, of strength, and of love.