African-American Folktales

    Contributing Editor: Susan L. Blake

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Some of the questions about these folktales I would anticipate from students are: The tales are so simple--are they really art? If they didn't actually contribute to the abolition of slavery, how are they subversive? Both African-American students and others may be made uncomfortable by stereotypical characterizations and dialect. What's the point of perpetuating images of slavery today? Answering these questions is not easy; I've tried to address them in the material below.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Folktales interpret the experience of tellers and audience. While motifs endure from century to century and culture to culture, details and emphases vary with group experience and individual talent. Indeed, the art of the tale is to adapt the traditional motif to particular circumstances. Most African-American tales are about power relations, but as power relations are contextual, so are interpretations of the tales. Students familiar with slavery and willing to take metaphoric leaps will be able to read the John and Old Marster tales and the animal stories as critiques of slavery and, more generally, a racist society. But it is important, too, to think of the range of meanings the tales might hold for tellers and listeners in various social positions at various historical moments.

    The ongoing conflict between John and Old Marster dramatizes the contradiction between humanity and slavery. The John tales turn on the paradox that John is a man and yet a slave, Old Marster's colleague/confidant and yet his chattel. John keeps trying to close the gap between his status and that of Old Marster. When he succeeds--in, for example, claiming a right to the chickens he's raised--he in effect achieves freedom, an interpretation John Blackamore makes explicit at the end of "Old Boss Wants into Heaven." Even when John fails or appears foolish, the tale still skewers slavery by its use of metaphor. In "Ole Massa and John Who Wanted to Go to Heaven," for example, Ole Massa's impersonation of the Lord represents, and ridicules, the slave master's assumption of godlike control over the slave's life--and death. There is little evidence, however, that these tales were told during slavery, and the slave-master relationship they depict, between two individual men, for all its metaphoric power, is narrow and relatively genial. Another way to think of the tales would be as an interpretation of race relations under "freedom" as slavery.

    Unlike the John tales, the animal tales, which were told during slavery, do not distinguish neatly between unjust and justified antagonists. They can, however, be seen as a pointed refutation of the romantic myth of the old plantation that developed in the 1830s and may be most popularly represented in Gone with the Wind. On the plantation of myth, status is based on virtue, and human relations are governed by honor, pride, justice, and benevolence. In the recognizably human society of the animal tales, status is based on power, honor is absent, pride is a liability, justice is anything you can get away with, and benevolence is stupidity. Animal characters provide not only camouflage for social criticism but the essential metaphor of society as jungle.

    The two conjure tales collected by Zora Neale Hurston, in which the rivals for the power represented by conjure are not master and slave but male and female, provide an interesting counterpoint to the John tales and animal stories. These tales draw attention to the absence of women in the other tales and raise a host of questions: Are they about gender conflict? Is there a specifically woman's point of view missing from the body of African-American tales? Is it significant that these tales were collected and published by one of the few female folktale collectors? Would these tales be read the same way in the 1930s and the 1990s?

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Folktales might be said to have three audiences, all of them in some sense "original": The people who hear and help create the oral tales; folklorists who persuade story-tellers to perform their tales for publication; and readers of the published collections. It can be difficult for students to grasp that the tales were not "written" by a single "author" but are the product of a historically and politically mediated collaboration. Some of the stylistic features of the tales are conventional--the reproduction of animal sounds in dialogue, for example, and the retort that concludes the tales of John "stealing" Old Marster's livestock. At the same time, the tales bear the stamp of an individual performer's style and emphasis--E. L. Smith tells a snappy tale, John Blackamore a highly developed one; Mrs. Josie Jordan's "Malitis" concludes with a comment on slavery, J. D. Suggs's "Who Ate Up the Butter?" with a comment on the present. The tales also show the fingerprints of the collectors: the introductions to the two tales of the Flying Africans from Drums and Shadows, the distanced narration of Zora Neale Hurston's two conjure tales, the gratuitous misspellings ("lide" for "lied," "rode" for "road") in W. A. Eddins's "How Sandy Got His Meat." It would be useful for students to look for evidence of both the performers and the collectors in the published texts. For example, what are the characteristics of John Blackamore's or J. D. Suggs's style? Which tales seem most nearly quoted from the performer, which most edited by the collector, and why? What can you tell from the texts about the collectors' attitudes toward the tellers or the interaction between collectors and tellers? How might the conditions of collecting--the historical moment, the collectors' race (Hurston is black, the other collectors represented here are white), and the recording technology--affect the collecting event and the published text?

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Comparison between any of the tales and a European, African, or other American variant (Dorson, American Negro Folktales, provides comparative references) highlights both the political analysis and the art of the African-American tale. Comparison between the told-for-true story "Malitis" and any of the food-stealing stories in the John cycle reveals the conventions of folk fiction. Comparisons might also be drawn with contemporary African-American humor, rap lyrics, the tales of the southwestern humor tradition, and the fiction of Langston Hughes, whose Simple stories update the John tales, and Toni Morrison, whose Song of Solomon is based on the tale of the flying Africans. A comparison between Zora Neale Hurston's fiction and the folktales she published might illuminate her strategies in folktale editing as well as fiction.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    Topics for discussion, in addition to those suggested above, include the following: The function of violence in the animal stories, John as loser and fool, the way retorts work, kinds of racial experience not reflected in the tales, narrative strategies of indirection, whether and in what contexts the stories could be considered subversive.

    The repetition of plot elements in a number of short texts makes folktales good subjects for analytic papers. Students might also write their own folktales following a traditional pattern. The terms of a creative assignment, which might be worked out by the class in discussion, should be quite specific so writing their own tale helps students see the structure, implications, and limitations of the traditional form. Such an assignment might be the following: Write a John tale in which John transgresses against slavery in some way not represented in the tales we've read (learns to read, dances with Old Marster's daughter), or the slave is not John but Johnetta, or the two protagonists are not slave and master but representatives of some other relationship of unequal power (student-teacher, worker-boss). In any case, establish at the beginning that the dominant character trusts and depends on the subordinate and conclude the tale with a retort that undermines the principle of the unequal power relationship that has been transgressed.