African American folklore has long been a topic of interest to anthropologists, many of them very high profile. These folklorists include Joel Chandler Harris, compiler of the now famous Br’er Rabbit Stories, Zora Neale Hurston, an early African American anthropologist and student of Franz Boas, who made her name recording the folklore of black communities in her native Florida, as well as by more recent and celebrated academics such as Alan Dundes and William Bascom.
There are an outstanding amount of examples of these folktales, they are extremely colorful, and are an intrinsic part of the wider American cultural heritage. Although the repertoire of African American folklore is vast and varied, we can discern from a great body of examples a singular dynamic related to the position of the Trickster hero character that is, in part, delineated in John W. Roberts’ superb study, From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom. This dynamic begins in Africa, despite longstanding debate over origins, and the attributes of the African trickster perseveres in a direct continuum through slavery and emancipation. Even today, the legacy of older trickster folktales and traditions can be found in our popular culture.
The stories that are the focus of this paper are of an oral tradition, however the work of folklorists and those who have appropriated and adapted them have turned many examples into pieces of literature and popular culture. Examples of these are the Harris’ Br’er Rabbit stories and the many versions Stagger Lee. Because of the popularity of many of these tales, their representation here as an oral tradition specific to the descendents of African slaves may seem somewhat limited, however it is appropriate in its historical context.
Beep BeepVRRROOOOMMMMand the Roadrunner speeds away from the deceitful Coyote as Coyote falls over a Cliff with his Acme dynamite still in hand. The tale of the trickster is known and shared all around the world. It is an age old story that has many different versions and is culturally diverse. Almost every culture has some version of the trickster tale; from the early West African people and ...
The examples discussed in this paper come primarily from the United States, except when citing African antecedents, although at times references are made to the traditions of other places in the New World that share a legacy of African slavery. The reason for this limiting of sources follows two reasons. First the United States provides us with a geographic boundary for this study, and second, although many parallels between black folklore in the US and elsewhere in the Americas exist, the US offers us a context of historical, political, linguistic, and social continuity that would be lost if other locations were to be treated equally.
The debate over the origin of African American folktales began soon after folklorists began to collect and transcribe the oral traditions of black communities in the United States during the late 19th century. Almost immediately, questions as to where African Americans, whose ancestors were removed forcibly from their homeland and replanted as a subjugated class in the New World, got the inspiration of these tales. That is to say, whether these stories were based on European, African, or, less often argued, Native American antecedents. The logic for each argument is simple. According to an African-origins train of thought, enslaved Africans retold stories they knew from Africa and these were eventually adapted to American conditions. On the other side, a European-origins interpretation is supported by the immense cultural disruption caused by enslavement and the imposition of new cultural and values system upon enslaved people by their European masters. In addition, as attested to by Alan Dundes in his forward to Bascom’s book, the latter view was supported for a long time by a racist bias that Blacks were by nature imitative and must not have been able to compose such tales on their own (Bascom, 1992:x).
However, it seems that the former view holds the most credence. Joel Chandler Harris himself wrote that “One thing is certain, they [African Americans] did not get them [their folktales] from the whites: they are probably of remote African origins.” (Roberts, 1989:18) and agreed with H. H. Smith who in 1879 noted, “One thing is certain. The animal stories told by our Negroes in the Southern States and Brazil were brought by them from Africa” (Bascom, 1992:xxiii).
America is a racial country, which consists of many different nation people. In the period of 17th and 18th century, Africans were the main colonials in American. By the American Revolution, 20 percent of the overall population in the thirteen colonies was of African descent. The legalized practice of enslaving blacks occurred in every colony. ' American's Journey Through Slavery, the first ...
There is significant evidence to support this assumption. First, is the well-documented existence of other elements of African cultures that did survive the transition from the Old World to the New. This includes musical traditions, such as call-and-response song style or the banjo, and religious traditions, such as Voodoo or Santeria, attested to in Bascom’s description of a Yoruba myth still present in Cuba and Brazil (Bascom, 1992:5) and Wade Davis’ observation of traditions “handed down generation to generation” (Davis, 1983:86), that “keep alive the powers of Africa.” (Hurston, 1935:193)
Bascom provides further evidence for the continuation of African folk traditions in America in his book, African Folktales in the New World. This book consists of a series of articles, compiled posthumously, that systematically list analogues between African and American folktales, using both tale-types and motifs. This was accomplished by selecting stories that did not fit into the either the Aarne-Thompson index of tale-types or motifs, both of which index generally European traditions. The series of articles were written in response to Richard M. Dorson’s re-opening of the then stagnant debate (Bascom, 1992:xxiv).
Bascom presents his findings as compelling evidence that African American folklore does owe its origins to African traditions, and because of this, I have preferred to use tales analyzed by Bascom, when helpful, as examples in this paper.
The African Trickster
Trickster tales are common to many cultures all over the world. However each culture adds its own nuances in its trickster stories. Because of the diverse cultural background of African peoples enslaved and brought to America, the trickster tales that survive in the United States represent a generalized African trickster.
These traditions have two very important qualities in the context of the dynamic of African American folklore. The first is its social quality. The trickster is a character to be emulated. For example, Bascom relates how Spider was able to defeat a python who threatened a village and win a promised prize of greater wisdom from God by deceiving the snake by feeding him until full, and asking if he could measure him next to a felled tree. Spider then ties the python to the tree and cuts him to pieces and although God disapproves of the trickery he is still beholden to Spider to give him extra wisdom (Bascom, 1992:51).
The Amerindians of the region had their own religious practices and ceremonies before the intervention of any Europeans. For the most part they were polytheistic-worshiping many gods. Much of their rites involved sacrifices, often times humans, as well as dancing singing and smoking. All of that was interrupted with the arrival of the Europeans who insisted that the Amerindians were heathens thus ...
His wit and cunning are the tools he uses to obtain his goal are traits seen as greatly admirable in African cultural values. This goal could be anything of desire such as wisdom, or often food, not a trivial prize in Africa, as explained by Roberts, where societies frequently had to struggle against a harsh environment and food shortages (Roberts, 1989:26).
In addition to displaying valued personal attributes, the trickster is frequently an advocate of social cohesion. Although the trickster may often seem to encourage chaos, his mischief can actually uphold the social order. As put by Robert D. Pelton in his analysis of the celebrated spider trickster Ananse, “Ananse seems to be far more the agent of social order than the embodiment of structurelessness” (Pelton, 1980:37).
As shown in the example above his trickery over his dupe (both the python and God) actually saves the village from destruction. In another example, Ananse introduces the convention of childhood obedience and punishment for disobedience while attempting to secure the best food for him alone and not share with his children (Pelton, 1980:38).
The second important quality in the New World, and perhaps a less obvious one, is a religious one. In many African traditions the trickster is not only a hero, but also a divinity, and in almost all, the trickster at least interacts with divinities. The Yoruba sacred myth mentioned above, existing in Cuba and Brazil, concerns a goddess who tricks another goddess and co-wife, to feed their husband a dish prepared with her own severed ear (Bascom, 1992:5).
Their husband, disgusted, rejects the dupe and the trickster gains the favor of their husband. Legba, the trickster hero of the Fon people, is also the master of language and divination (Pelton, 1980:71), a quality often shared by African tricksters. In this respect, although a trickster generally relies on his or her wits not magic, the trickster becomes invested in the magical and spiritual realm.
Throughout the play The Tempest there is a relationship that pits master and slave in a harmony that benefits both parties. Though it may sound strange, these slaves sometimes have a goal or expectation that they hope to have fulfilled. Although rarely realized by its by its participants, the Master -- Slave, Slave -- Master relationship is a balance of expectation and fear by the slaves to the ...
In African theology, divination and magic result from the use and redistribution of a “life-force.” Wade Davis describes this life-force, in the theology of Haitian Voodoo, a direct descendent of African traditions. This life-force, called the gros bon ange, in Voodoo, is the cosmic energy that all creation shares and comes directly from God (Davis, 1983:99).
Priests and medicine-men act as interpreters and intermediaries between human beings and divinities, who have more life-force than people, and they thus can effect the flow of life-force, create and protect from magic. Tricksters, as masters of language and divination, hold yet more power in the flow of life-force. Because of this, they are even more important in upholding social order in the sense that they facilitate the proper flow of life-force and legitimize the hierarchal, social order of the universe (Roberts, 1989:79)
The Trickster in America and Bondage
Thus, the trickster entered America with the oral traditions of newly enslaved Africans. The new environment in which the enslaved African entered was, in a way, similar to that of the African continent (Roberts, 1989:31).
There existed a rigid hierarchical social order, although now in the form of slave and master, and the African was constantly confronted with shortages of food and other commodities, although now it was an artificial shortage instead of one dictated by nature.
The social inequities experienced by those in chattel slavery facilitated the continued popularity of trickster tales. The ingenuity of the trickster was a trait that could act as an example to the enslaved. The slave was forced by a deficit of the basic needs to go around the slave owner and procure what they viewed as the fruits of their labor (Rose, 1982:32).
As reflected in a variant of the famous Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby story, where Rabbit is caught by the tar baby while trying to drink from Man’s well (Roberts, 1983:42), slaves frequently slighted their masters both for individual gain and in retaliation for the cruelties of inequity. Rabbit uses his wits to escape into the briar patch where he was born and the slave had to use his wits to escape the master’s whip. Even the personification of the trickster as a small animal, like a rabbit, constantly at battle with larger more aggressive creatures, such as a wolf, could be an example to the slave in his daily struggle. As Harris stated, “It is not virtue that triumphs, but helplessness; it is not malice but mischievousness” (Cousins, 1968:113).
*Life of hard work of slaves: Life of the slaves in the American culture was really brutal and didn’t have any kind of humanity against them. Their life was always full of hard work. They had to wake up very early to start working from the moment the sun rises up until it fully sundown. Some of them were intended to work as home cleaners, cookers, and even taking care of the children but the main ...
The New Trickster: John and Old Master
However the character of the animal trickster was destined to change. Although animal trickster tales remained popular, a new type of trickster entered the folklore of African Americans. This trickster was fined tuned to the particular situation of American slavery. The primary difference between the old trickster and the new one was that now the trickster was a human being, and more specifically a slave. Roberts explains the reason for this was to express appreciation of the humanity of the slave in response to the dehumanizing conditions of chattel slavery (Roberts, 1989:45).
The human trickster also developed along with the growing popularity of the use of Black slave drivers by slave owners. These slave drivers, slaves themselves, took over the duties usually given to white overseers. They supervised and directed labor, doled out rations, and often punished slaves (Rose, 1982:30).
These slaves were favorites of the master and often given incentives for loyalty such as extra rations and special privileges such as having the ear of the master. This is not to say that they were exclusively on the side of the slave owners. They protected the slaves from the master as often as punished them for the master (Rose, 1982:30).
In fact the new privileges of this new class of slaves only deepened their sense of worth as a human being, not as property, and contributed to the rise of the human trickster (Roberts, 1989:50).
The most popular folktale cycle for the new trickster was the John and Old Master Cycle. These tales offered guides to slaves in a variety of ways, particularly the way they should interact with and treat whites. Hurston collected several examples of what she called “Ole Massa” tales. In one example, “de nigger” is supposed to kill a deer for “Ole Massa.” However when the deer runs by, “de nigger” doesn’t shoot. When interrogated by his master he explains “All Ah seen was a white man come along here wid a pack of chairs on his head and Ah tipped my had to him” (Hurston, 1935:82).
Slave Family in the Antebellum South This color line was drawn in the XVII century, when first black slaves were brought to Virginia. Today many historians believe that the first Africans who came to North America in 1619 had an equal status with white servants. White and black servants had a lot in common. Moreover, black and white servants worked and often lived together, which resulted into ...
In another example, John, the slave, has convinced Ole Massa that he could tell fortunes. Ole Massa bets another slave owner his plantation that John could tell the answer to anything. The other slave owner gives John three guesses as to what is in an upside down wash pot. John guesses wrong twice but because the slave owners do not appreciate John’s human capacity to read situations, he is able to discover the answer and win his master the other man’s plantation (Hurston, 1985:87).
Bascom notes another John and Old Master tale in his analogues of stories, entitled “Talking Skull Refuses to Talk” (Bascom, 1992:28).
In this particular version of the tale, the message is to be wary of whites and treat them very diffidently. John, the slave driver, overhears two slaves in a graveyard, dividing apples. He assumes that it is the devil and God dividing souls. Running back home, John trips over a skull that says “Same thing that got me here will get you here.” John unwisely tells Old Master what he had witnessed and Old Master follows him back to the graveyard. The graveyard is empty and the skull refuses to talk. To punish John for lying Old Master cuts off his head. The Skull then says “Told you the same thing that got me here will get you here.”
So far, the American tricksters encountered in this paper embodied the social quality of trickster behavior, as well as their definitive duplicity. Missing, however, has been the spiritual aspect of the trickster hero. Slave owners in the United States were often very mistrustful of traditional African religious beliefs. They suppressed representation and practice of these beliefs, including even banning drums used in religious dances (Roberts, 1989:88).
However, slave owners did not facilitate a ready replacement of religious beliefs. In fact, many slave owners discouraged their slaves conversion to Christianity because of the time it took to give their slaves a religious education and because many felt that, “slaves who became Christians might fancy themselves free men” (Rose, 1982:22).
Because of the neglect of the spiritual development of enslaved African Americans, suppressed African religious traditions continued to survive. The important African positions of priest and medicine-man became combined in a new type of folk hero called the conjurer. The conjurer acted as an herbalist and healer (slaves were known to refuse the treatment of white doctors in favor of conjurers) as well as a magician (Roberts, 1989:92).
He or she was an ambiguous figure. Revered and respected, many conjurors were very popular and offered the Black community aid for a whole range of problems. However, much like the practitioners of magic in Africa, the conjurer could disrupt the community and often the duties of conjurers included protecting individuals from the magic of malevolent conjurers.
In her book, Mules and Men, Hurston contains an entire section on what she calls hoodoo, the realm of the conjurer. This selection includes biographies of famous conjurers of her time, such as Kitty Brown, and accounts of rituals that these conjurers describe to her in interviews. The topics of these rituals include helping a person in jail, bringing a lover back, and making a death. Moreover, Hurston adds an appendix to her book containing such topics as “Paraphernalia of Conjure” and “Prescriptions of Root Doctors” which mentions John the Conqueror, a folk hero and conjurer that gave his name to a medicinal (or magical) root (Hurston, 1935:288).
This John the Conqueror root, or “John the Concheroo” is also mentioned in the lyrics Muddy Waters’ popular version of “Hoochie Coochie Man” (1954) right after lyrics about a “black cat bone” and “mojo.” The lyrics to this song is listed in the appendix to this paper.
Emancipation and the Badman
The end of slavery meant a new shift in the dynamic of African American folktale. Blacks no longer had to live under the yoke of the slave master. They now lived free, not as property but as full citizens. However, the Reformation brought about a new face of oppression. These included the proliferation of Jim Crow laws, the loss of the vote soon after it was given to them, and fear of white lynch mobs and the Ku Klux Klan. The burdens of the sharecropping system, held them economically tied to their old masters but with these plantation owners no longer obligated to sustain their former slaves and their families (Rose, 1982:88).
The older trickster figure, although still popular in folktales, was no longer a hero that could provide an example for African Americans. As slaves they could use their wits to steal from their masters and win individual gain while slave owners were forced to tolerate disobedience to a degree. However with the loss of the obligation of these former masters to support their slaves, they no longer had to turn a blind eye to acts of rebellion. In addition, the new force used to subjugate freedmen was the law (Roberts, 1989:191).
During slavery, slaves, as property of their masters, were, in essence, outside the law. However the figure of the lawman, who only entered Black communities to enforce the law when it threatened the white community, now was the main antagonist to African Americans.
In this environment, the folk hero of the badman, as termed by Roberts, was born. He represented a reunion of both trickster and conjurer heroes types. Badmen, included the infamous Stagger Lee (Stack-o-Lee), immortalized in songs by over 400 artists since 1923 (The Song and Myth of Stagger Lee, 2008), three versions of which are listed in the appendix. Stagger Lee was a gambler who killed Billy Lyons after he tried to take his Stetson hat. Another example is Railroad Bill (Roberts, 1989:172) who shot a sheriff and robbed railway cars for food that he sold to poor Blacks. They inhabited a world where they were defiant figures against the law enforced upon African Americans by white oppressors. They often killed threats to the community in the persona of those who brought the attention of whites. They frequented saloons and the like, places where lower class blacks were free to relieve themselves of the stresses of the end of the 19th century. They were gamblers who courted the magical quality of luck and were often represented as overtly supernatural. Railroad Bill is said to have been able to turn into animals at will and Stagger Lee’s power has even been mentioned to come from his “magical Stetson hat” (Roberts, 1989:201).
This embodied both the trickster and the conjurer in these elements, defying authority that threatened the community, using their talents for personal gain although instead of cunning it was now an almost magical use of force in the guise of the gun.
Conclusion: The Legacy of African American Folklore
African American folklore’s influence today is obvious in the continued and even wider spread, popularity of these folktales. Although for many Harris’ Uncle Remus stories carry with them an uncomfortable spector of Southern racism, they are, along with other stories, very well known and still enjoyed. Trickster, conjurers, and especially badmen have the subject of many popular songs that are still being sung. For example, versions of “Stagger Lee” are still being recorded by artists of many ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Moreover, the hero archetypes developed in African American folktales are still being used in the creation of new stories, observable outside of the folklore tradition in today’s popular culture. Take as an example the 2009 movie, Next Day Air. In this movie, a Black and Latino cast play characters that fit in the many roles created in the centuries since the forced removal of Africans from their homeland. These characters live in the context of the drug trade in modern Philadelphia. It is important to note that while they may be antagonistic to each other, very few characters are portrayed as the “bad guys” of the movie and most have qualities of the various hero-types. Leo is similar to an animal trickster. He finds ways to skirt from work and duties he feels are asking too much of him, and although this may land him in trouble, in the end he is able to escape. Guch and Brody are tricksters in the tradition of John. They mislead police with clever dialogue and constantly scheme of ways to make money, although they also provide examples of incorrect and invaluable behavior with their failure to communicate with each other or to give more powerful figures the proper respect. There is a badman, in Shavoo, a cocaine dealer who uses force and his intelligence for personal gain, although he also is very concerned with an ordered exchange between all members of the community. There are even examples of conjuration in the movie. Weapons, use of language (sacred in African religions), and even watches protect characters from misfortune and even more explicitly, there is a scene where Chita, actually performs a Santeria ceremony to protect her boyfriend, Jesus, from harm. This example shows that the African American folktale tradition, which started in Africa, came to America, and evolved during slavery and emancipation, continues to influence our culture today.
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