The Power of the Porch

In FICTION AND FOLKLORE: THE NOVELS OF TONI MORRISON (1993) the well-known scholar Trudier Harris stressed the importance of the oral tradition in African American literature. When she was invited to present the 1995 Lamar Memorial Lectures at Mercer University, she again turned to the subject of folklore, looking first at Zora Neale Hurston’s MULES AND MEN (1935). Eventually, Harris decided to include Gloria Naylor and Randall Kenan in her study, in order to show that the influence of front-porch storytelling transcends gender, generation, and even geography. Her three lectures, one on each writer, have now been published as THE POWER OF THE PORCH: THE STORYTELLER’S CRAFT IN ZORA NEALE HURSTON, GLORIA NAYLOR, AND RANDALL KENAN.

Writing at a time when the black reading public was relatively small, Zora Neale Hurston wished to make the larger world aware of her black Floridians and their folklore. In order to establish connections with her largely white audience, she became not just a dramatist, but a whole cast of characters. Like Hurston, Gloria Naylor shows the South as a place where African Americans can flourish, but she ends MAMA DAY (1988) by recruiting the now plentiful black readers to transmit what they have heard to future generations.

Though traditionally it was black women who preserved the oral tradition, contemporary male fiction writers like Randall Kenan make good use of it. Kenan’s story “Clarence and the Dead” shows how even a lying storyteller can enchant listeners and readers alike. THE POWER OF THE PORCH is a lucid, thoughtful book about a fascinating subject.