African American Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.