African American Culture through Oral Tradition
By: Maggie Papa, Amy Gerber, and Abeer Mohamed
African American folktales have origins rooted in West African literary and cultural forms of expression. When Africans were taken from their homeland and brought to America as slaves, they also brought with them their individual cultures, languages and customs. However, their white slaveholders suppressed this part of their heritage in them. Thus they had to find other ways of expression, mainly story telling and songs. It is incredible to see how African slaves could ever smile and laugh under the horrible and cruel circumstances, which were imposed on them by the brutal slaveholders.
The whole body of folktales and spirituals arose from the experiences which slaves had on their plantations mingled with the memories and customs that they brought with them from Africa. They would tell stories using different methods such as acting, gesturing and singing. By these means they were able to elevate storytelling into an art.
Most slave owners forbade their slaves from speaking their own language, and forced them to speak English. They were also forbidden from learning to read or write. In this manner slaveholders believed that they were keeping their slaves in ignorance so that they could neither rebel nor escape. They were greatly mistaken for many slaves would make use of their songs and stories to educate their people, and enlighten their minds and free their souls. For example the slave spirituals which they sang were a means with which they could communicate feelings of discontent and of homelessness and exile. However, not all their songs were of disparity and loss. They also sang songs expressing love, joy, and hope. Other than making use of lyrics as a form of expression, African slaves used their stories and spirituals to outsmart their owners. This clever tactic involved the passing of vital information concerning meeting places, plans, or dangers through the actual hymns and stories. They were able to accomplish this by the use of hidden meaning in their words and the ultimate result was that they outwitted their masters and proved that they were not, after all an inferior race.
The idea of a slave outwitting his master is seen clearly in many old folktales. Virginia Hamilton, a distinguished writer of fiction for children today, published a book called The People Could Fly, which is a compilation of African American folklore stories. One of the folktales in her book reflects the idea that most slaves told stories in which the slave owner would be outfoxed by his slave. The following is a brief summary of the story named The Riddle Tale of Freedom.
"Now here it tis. Long time ago, there was a slave and a slave owner. The got along. They liked to joke back and fourth sometimes. Those two would exchange jokes and riddles. The slave man say, 'Mas, you give me a riddle today and I figured it out. Now, tomorrow, I'll give you one."
A little further into the story we are told that the slave had an old dog who had died the night before. His name was Love. The slave took a piece of Love's skin and tied around his hand. He then goes to his master and tells him the following riddle:
"And if you can't figure it out," said the slave, "you give me my freedom in the mornin, too"
"All right," the slaveowner says, 'you bring me one in the morning."
"Love I see; Love I stand.
Love I holds in my right hand".
"Well I give up," the slaveowner said. "So I have to give you your freedom because I said I would if I couldn't guess. But first tell me what the answer is."
"Well here it tis," said the slave. "See wrapped around my right hand? That's my dog skin, and his name was Love. Well, I was standin right here with it and I had it in my hand, just seein it. So that's why I tell the riddle" (Hamilton p.156-57).
As one can see, storytelling and songs were a favorite evening pastime for African slaves, as were the telling of riddles. Their traditional tales were similar to those in early European culture where stories tried to explain natural phenomena in human terms. The different stories attempted to explain the world's creation, and where human's came from. Like any modern day fairytale, those folktales included tales about legendary heroes, heroic deeds, magic, and witches.
In time these stories took the form of parables, being used as a teaching tool to convey ideals and morals and cultural values from one generation to another. Instead of destroying oral tradition, slavery enhanced it. Slaves would take the old stories and create new ones which incorporated aspects of their life, as well as the Christian religion into which they had been converted. This aspect is still seen in Black churches and music today. Many modern day artists, specifically African American musicians, have been influenced by the stories of their forefathers and usually make reference to such experiences in their music.
Storytelling as a means of communication develops in an oral culture because, mentally, it is easier to remember information as a series of events instead of as a set of facts. Thus, oral tradition gives more emphasis to the rhythm of the language, with repetition and short phrases making the stories easier to understand, and in turn to recall from memory.
Another characteristic of oral tradition, and the stories that it contains, is that it is a great conveyor of emotion. The author who is recounting the story usually begins slowly and builds up tension and emotion as he goes along, until finally he reaches the bubbling climax. This is the part which the listener is truly affected by, even after the story is over.
When one looks closely at these stories, one can see how Africans valued their families, their children, their society, and their natural word. Such stories contradict traditional views of a black culture that lacked formal education and a literary tradition. More recent scholars are beginning to change the way they look at slave songs and spirituals. They now argue that there was a rich and diverse culture, which existed even under slavery. As a result folktales prove that slavery could never diminish the creativity or spirit of the African race.
Folktales- One thread of African American Oral Tradition
Folktales are another essential aspect of African American oral tradition. The term "folklore" emerged in the 19th century as African Americans began their national quest for an independent language, a separate history, and a representative literature, along with a special folklore. The folklore of a group of people consists of two essential characteristics: what this group traditionally says (songs, tales, proverbs) and what they traditionally do (weaving, dance, rituals). Each folktale is the common property of the community as well as the product of a joint and communal authorship. Culturally, any judgement of a folk text must be based in the society from which the text comes: "The production is essentially collective, tales are not created on all sides, by individual authors; but they are modified, altered and enriched, as they are transmitted from one person to another, to such an extent that new types, new combinations are adopted and true development takes place" (Okpewho 166).
Due to the intense oppression and segregation which African Americans were subjected during slavery, it is quite clear why much of what they brought from their native lands was retained. In exploring the various modes of linguistic expression in songs, sermons, stories, and speeches we find the primacy of oral tradition as the foundation of African American cultural expression. Zora Neale Hurston believed that in African American folklore she found "the greatest cultural wealth of the continent."
Folktales accomplished many purposes; they preserved and transmitted culture, as well as provided a means of escape, symbolically and for a short while, from the burden of slavery. The practice of the story-telling tradition acted somewhat as a means of empowerment for slaves: it was something that their white masters could not entirely control, and it encouraged slave solidarity. These folktales not only taught slave children rudiments of survival, but also installed in them a strong sense of morality, culture, and tradition. Folktales voiced the uncertainties and frustrations of the time, but at the same time they offered a message of integration and stability. A few common archetypes present in folktales are the mother image, the child hero, and the anima. The mother image is a symbol of tenderness and all-nourishing goodness; the child-hero represents the urge to return to the purity and innocence of childhood; the anima (male) and the animus (female) represent the spiritual drive that helps a human being assert a "superordinate personality".
Folktales have played an instrumental role in shaping African-American literature and we see examples of this in Charles Chesnutt's work. In Chesnutt's works, through his incorporation of folktales, blues, and spirituals within the traditional framework he redefines Western literature and literary influence. Chesnutt was the first to mythologize any folk themes in African American literature, and we see that oral heritage remains vital in observation, experience, and imagination. "...Chesnutt constructed a unique reservoir fed by the ancient currents of protest and over whose banks spilled the rising waters of African American folk lore, pride, and humanism: the clearer waters of black self-definition" (Wright 11). Overall, Chesnutt's work illustrates two main themes in the folklore tradition: the humanity of African Americans and the depth of their familial devotion.
We now turn to some ideas of Zora Neale Hurston, a woman who was one of the most fecund and industrious writers of her day. She published four novels, a collection of short stories, two collections of folklore, numerous essays and journal articles, as well as several dramatic and musical productions.
Hurston understood profoundly the significance of African American culture as a vital component in the full political emancipation of African American people, individually and collectively. She understood cultural survival as a condition of liberation and cultural affirmation as an essential step in decolonizing the Black mind. Hurston saw that within African American culture lay the alternative images, self-definitions, and strategies necessary to resist Anglo-American cultural domination and to reclaim Black life. Central to the struggle was the vitality of the folk, which can be seen in Signifying, storytelling, indirect discourse, and humor (Plant 4-5).
African American folklore can be traced to the root of many of the strengths in present day African American culture and literature. In "Talkin and Testifyin" Geneva Smitherman argues that "the oral tradition has served as a fundamental vehicle for gittin ovuh in Black America" that tradition, she writes, "preserves the Afro-American heritage and reflects the collective spirit of the race. Through song, story, folk sayings and rich verbal interplay among everyday people, lessons and precepts about life and survival are handed down from generation to generation...Indeed the core strength of this tradition lies in its capacity to accommodate new situations and changing realities" (73).
Slave Songs- Another Thread of African American Oral Tradition
And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song- the rhythmic cry of the slave- stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but not-withstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.
- W.E.B DuBois in Souls of Black Folk
The African American slave song is just one of many forms where African American tradition and culture can be found. The slave song is capable of embodying the desires, sorrows, objectives, values, morals, and customs all into an enchanting work of art. Because African American slaves were neglected the rights to read or write, many of their traditions were forced to be passed down orally. The composers of these folk songs were unknown and making them a genuine folk music. Often times, slaves would find it more bearable to sing their beliefs and sorrows in order to escape the trials of slavery. W.E.B. DuBois, a public and political intellectual of the late 19th century, poignantly describes the slave songs as "the articulate message of the slave to the world." This "message" became a powerful tool for survival as well as a promoter for African American freedom. The slave song soon took on many shapes and meanings for various people in the African American culture and eventually, through analysis in literature, oratory speeches, religious spirituals, and contemporary music, found a place for appreciative listeners outside of the black community as well.
African American Literary Writers Take On Sorrowful Slave Songs
Many historians mistakenly believed that the slave songs were sung because of joy and happiness in the hearts of the slaves. However, literary geniuses such as W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth all would disagree with this assumption. For example, DuBois writes in his Souls of Black Folk, "They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering, and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways."
Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave turned abolitionist, would say that slave songs "reveal at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains." When Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery to the North, he ran into those who believed that the songs were sung out of contentment and happiness and to this he says, "It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slaves were in a sense cathartic. Although they rarely revealed any sign of happiness, the idea of singing through their pain was like drinking away one's sorrows.
Sojourner Truth, a slave for twenty eight years who fought for freedom and women's rights, also used the power of the African American folk song and spirituals. In Truth's famous speech, 'Aint I a Woman, she proudly stood six feet tall and sang songs of freedom to her audience in order to fulfill her mission to "sojourn the land" and "speak the truth of God's word."
The Expression of Human Experience Through Religion -Slave Songs As Spirituals
Another important aspect of the slave song comes in the form of what is known today as a spiritual. These spirituals reflect African American culture through Christianity and tend to focus on religion as a means of saving slaves from the cruelty they experienced. These spirituals were essentially Christian ideals and beliefs in the form of a bittersweet harmony. The blacks that were taken from Africa and brought on slave ships to America were originally musical people who were used to expressing religious ideas in song. However, these slaves were soon converted to Christianity and forced to abandon their African religions; yet, they managed to merge African beliefs and customs with their newfound religion. The slaves were so moved by these spirituals they sang and soon began to incorporate dance movements involving traditional African moves with strong beats.
Slaves could not sing these spirituals on the plantations because the songs were misinterpreted by the slaveowners to be joyful songs so they were forced to find a place where they could let their spirits soar.
Singly or by twos the black slaves slipped into the torch lit forest grove. What they were doing was illegal. They could be whipped for it. But they had to sing, had to sing without restraint, had to pour out to God their soul's deepest prayers, longings, and complaints, regardless of consequences. With bodies swaying and eyes half closed, they sang, lifting to heaven their anguish and triumph.
The slaves who sang these religious spirituals were so moved by the power of prayer that they risked their lives to sing these expressions of sorrow. They needed a place where they could seek solace and sing out for freedom and delivery to a better place. An allusion from the bible is not uncommon in most of these spirituals. The slaves would refer to Moses freeing the Hebrew out of Egypt or David outsmarting Goliath and use these stories to guide them towards freedom of the mind and body. Here are some examples of biblical allusions found in spirituals.
"Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel And why not every man?"
-From Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel?
"Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land, Tell ole Pharaoh, Let my people go. Let my people go."
-From Go Down Moses
"David was a shepherd boy, He killed Goliath and shouted for joy."
-From Little David, Play On Your Harp
Despite spending long, hard hours in the fields on the plantations, the slaves would still slip away into the night to sing their sorrows to God, hoping and praying that one day they would be relieved of their pains of slavery.
Bob Marley, universally known as one of the greatest Reggae artists, innovatively combined the sounds and ideas from religious slave spirituals with his own unique Jamaican music to form a legendary musical genre. In "Redemption Song", Marley almost completely steps away from his unique reggae style to sing a plaintive acoustic spiritual song. In this song, Marley sings in the first person, taking on the role of a slave "singing the songs of freedom."
"Old Pirates yes they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I from the
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty
We forward in this generation triumphantly
All I ever had is songs of freedom
Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom
Cause all I ever had, redemption songs, redemption songs
Emancipate yourself from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our mind............"
Other songs such as "Go Down Moses", "Buffalo Soldier" and "Amazing Grace" also have traces of the original African American slave folksongs. Marley was able to incorporate his own culture and traditions into his music and still find popularity amongst other cultures.
Oral history is, in the present day, becoming a means with which to record reactions, interpretations and subjective feelings about modern day events. Rap music from the 1980's and beyond has been seen as an extension of oral culture. An example of this includes the music of a well known African American artist called Lauryn Hill. In one of her songs, Zion, it is apparent that the influences of slavery play an important role. In the end of the song the listener hears a rythmic beat, of people marching. This can be seen to be similar to the slaves on the march during slavery and in the Civil War.
For I know that a gift so great
Is only one God could create
And I'm reminded every time I see your face
That the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Marching, marching, marching to Zion
Marching, marching, marching to Zion
Beautiful, beautiful Zion
Other Interesting Links to Check Out:
For more on Bob Marley
For more on Lauryn Hill
For more on Sojourner Truth
For more on Charles Chesnutt
For more on Zora Neale Hurston
for the Centers for Studies in Oral Tradition
For more on American folklore and oral tradition
For a children's guide to African American oral tradition
To hear a speech on African American oral tradition
Dorson, Richard M. African Folklore. Indiana University Press; Bloomington, 1972.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Penguin Books; New
DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Avon Book; New York, 1965.
Chambers, H.A., Ed. The Treasury of Negro Spirituals. Emerson Books, Inc; New York,
Hamilton, Virginia. The People Could Fly. Knopf Publishing; New York, 1985.
Jones, Gayl. Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. Harvard
University Press; Cambridge, 1991.
Okpewho, Isidore. African Oral Literature. Indiana University Press; Bloomington,
Plant, Deborah G. Every Tub Must Sit on It's Own Bottom: The Philosophy and Politics
Of Zora Neale Hurston. University of Illinois Press; Chicago, 1995.
Radin, Paul, Ed. African Folktales. Shocken Books; New York,1983.
Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Houghton
Mifflin; Boston, 1977.
Wright, Lee Alfred. Identity, Family and Folklore In African American Literature.
Garland Publishing; New York, 1995.