Special Commissioned Essay on African-American Folklore and Literature, Barbara J. Wilcots
Special Commissioned Essay on African-American Folklore and Literature, Barbara J. Wilcots
Folklore is not as easy to collect as it sounds. The best source is where there are the least outside influences and these people, being usually under-privileged, are the shyest. They are most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by.
—Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men (1935)
Coined by William J. Thoms in 1846, the term folklore has multiple and varied definitions. Folklorist, anthropologist, and novelist Zora Neale Hurston defines folklore not only as “that which the soul lives by” but moreover as the essence of existence—“the boiled-down juice of human living.” (Zora Neale Hurston, Writings by Zora Neale Hurston from the Federal Writer's Project: Go Gator and Muddy the Water, edited by Pamela Bordelon [New York: Norton, 1999]). Further, she argues, “folklore is the first thing that man makes out of the natural laws that he finds around him” (70). Hurston, who undertook a comprehensive, systematic study of African-American folk culture of the South, explains that the “group mind uses up a great part of its life span trying to ask infinity some questions about what is going on around its doorstep. And the more that group knows about its own doorstep, the more it can bend and control what it sees there” (70).
Rich in its variety, folk culture embodies a people's beliefs about the nature of the universe and their place in it. It encompasses the practices and rituals used to exert control over the forces of that universe, as well as the oral and artistic expressions through which the group preserves and passes on its history, communal values, and life strategies. The elements of folk culture that most clearly imbue the literature of African Americans include West African-derived spiritual beliefs, communal-based social customs, and oral and musical traditions. Hurston asserts that while beliefs and customs are the accumulated evidence of self-discovery, oral expression—and the music and literature that arise out of it—is “discovery in itself” (70). Through oral and artistic expression, the individual explores his or her interior life and discovers the connections among all aspects of the universe. Through these mediums of discovery, the folk preserve their knowledge and history, share their wisdom, and offer hope and direction to succeeding generations.
African-American Folk Tradition
Barbara J. Wilcots (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: “An Analysis of African-American Folklore and Literature.” In Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, vol. 126, edited by Linda Pavlovski. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2002.
[In the following original essay, Wilcots provides an overview of African-American folklore and literature, focusing on its history, representative writers, significant works, and critical response.]
THE AFRICAN ORIGINS OF NEGRO FOLK CULTURE
Modern African peoples comprise more than eight hundred distinct ethnic and linguistic groups, many dating back thousands of years, and each with its own religious system and cultural heritage.1 Historians estimate that 11.7 million Africans,2 representing more than two hundred ethnic groups from Central and West Africa, were enslaved in the New World.3 Enslaved Africans brought with them a variety of languages, social structures, religions, and rituals. Consequently, no monolithic African or African-American culture exists. Some anthropologists and sociologists have used this diversity, as well as the argument that slavers forcibly divested slaves of all vestiges of their heritage, to insist that Africans in the New World were totally de-cultured. However, scholars of African religions and culture have argued the validity of a West African-derived...
(The entire section is 12900 words.)
Antebellum literature imposed the distortions of moralistic controversy and made the Negro a wax-figure of the marketplace: postbellum literature retaliated with the condescending reactions of sentiment and caricature and made the Negro a genre stereotype. Sustained, serious or deep study of Negro life and character has thus been entirely below the horizon of our national art. Only gradually through the dull purgatory of the Age of Discussion has Negro life eventually issued forth to an Age of Expression.
—William Stanley Braithwaite, “The Negro in American Literature” (1925)
Noted Harlem Renaissance poet and critic William Stanley Braithwaite traced the changing face of the Negro in American literature, deploring the condescending portraits authorized by the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and reinforced by Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: Folklore of the Old Plantation (1880). According to Braithwaite, Stowe sentimentalizes, George Washington Cable caricatures, and Thomas Dixon libels the Negro—none providing a realistic representation of black life. While he regards the characterization of Uncle Remus as “something approaching true portraiture,” he finds Harris only partly responsible for the portrait, adjudging the Negro race “its own artist, lacking only in its illiteracy the power...
(The entire section is 16030 words.)
The interest in Negro folk expression is not a momentary fad; the collection and interpretation are the work of both white and Negro folklorists, united in respect for material which, no longer set in isolation, is becoming recognized as an integral part of the American experience. But with folk culture corresponding less and less to Negro experience in America, it is of course to the conscious literature that we turn for its fullest expression.
—Sterling A. Brown, “The New Negro in Literature”
The writers who, over the decades, have insisted on the centrality of folk culture to the African-American literary tradition have done so in part because they shared Sterling Brown's concern that folk ways were slipping into obscurity. They recognized that Negro folk culture evoked ambivalence among African Americans because of its negative connotations and subsequent employment as a tool of oppression. African Americans feared that their appreciation of all aspects of their lives would mark them as inferior. Consequently, as they moved away from the rural home of the folk, they moved away from folk culture as well. The resulting erosion of folk beliefs and values threatened the loss of black history, strength, and strategies of resistance. Ralph Ellison suggests that it threatens black sanity as well. Although the themes and techniques of the following writers vary, their...
(The entire section is 12898 words.)
The Study Of African-American Literature And Folklore
Who are your people, your family, your community? What are your traditions, your history, your values? And why don't your words come more spontaneously and palpably from the grain of your experience?
—John F. Callahan, “Who You For?: Voice and the African-American Fiction of Democratic Identity”
“LITERATURE OF NECESSITY”: A HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
At the turn into the twentieth century, Charles W. Chesnutt asserted that his writing was a “literature of necessity,” provoked into being by the need for African Americans to refute the fictions written about them by white writers. Similarly, folklorists assert that African-American folk culture arises out of and responds to the needs of its community, urged into being not only as contradiction but also as celebration, as education, and as cultural expression. African-American folk culture answers the questions that John F. Callahan poses in “Who You For?: Voice and the African-American Fiction of Democratic Identity,” and does so in a voice that is distinctly, palpably black. Zora Neale Hurston responds:
“Who are My People? I would say all those hosts spoken of as Negroes, Colored folks, Aunt Hagar's chillum, the brother in black, Race men and women, and My People. They range in color from Walter White, white through high yaller, yaller, Punkin color,...
(The entire section is 13330 words.)
Allen, William Francis. Slave Songs of the United States. 1867. Reprint, New York: Arno, 1971.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Long Black Song: Essays in Black American Literature and Culture. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1972.
———. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Bell, Bernard. The Folk Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1974.
Botkin, B. A. New York City Folklore. New York: Random House, 1956.
Brewer, James Mason. American Negro Folklore. Chicago: Quandrangle Books, 1968.
Callahan, John F. In the African-American Grain: Call and Response in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.
Chireau, Yvonne. “Conjure and Christianity in the Nineteenth Century: Religious Elements in African American Magic.” Religion and American Culture 7, no. 2 (summer 1997): 225-47.
Cone, James H. The Spirituals and the Blues. New York: The Seabury Press, 1972.
Courlander, Harold. Negro Folk Music, U.S.A. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.
———. A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore. New York: Marlowe...
(The entire section is 618 words.)