Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Folklore, Folkloristics, and African American Literary Criticism

Article excerpt

The importance of folklore to black literature is widely acknowledged and documented. Trudier Harris states, in fact, that "African-American folklore is arguably the basis for most African-American literature" (2). While critics have often discussed the significance of folklore in works by black writers, however, they have consistently resisted the inclusion of folklore scholarship in their discussions, often refusing acknowledgment of a discipline that has been well-established since the beginning of the twentieth century. In this essay I consider some reasons for this reticence and suggest some advantages to be gained from broadening the critical sphere of African American literary criticism to include folkloristics.

Several reasons for the omission of folkloristic references and theoretical discourse from African American literary criticism are rather obvious. Criticism of African American texts grows out of an academic tradition that disparages "folk" discourse, and has mirrored many of the perspectives of that legacy. As noted by countless folklorists, literary critics have seldom considered the materials of folklore comparable to literature--or the discipline of folkloristics on a par with their own. These attitudes are undoubtedly rooted in an elitist, Darwinistic perspective that regards expressive forms sanctioned by middle and upper socioeconomic classes as superior, and those associated with lower socioeconomic classes inferior. In general, it is this tendentious viewpoint that has posed such problems for the discipline of folklore within the American academy.

Of course, this attitude is based upon antiquated ideas of who the "folk" are. Often it does not occur to literary critics that "folklore infuses all levels of society" (Hemenway 128); that everyone is the folk, even the critics themselves; and that intellectual snobbery toward groups with less formal education is a part of the superstitions, folk beliefs, and mythology of the upper class. For example, the belief that literature is superior to oral traditions and, thus, that writers are more worthy of serious study than are "folk" artists is just that, a belief, as is the notion that revered academic theorists have more to offer than do "folk" philosophers. In other words, the entire way of thinking, speaking, and writing about literature is folklore, and is connected to a specific social mythology and class aesthetic, arising out of a capitalistic, Western ethos.

In light of this critique, one can easily understand the inherent dilemmas facing scholars of African American literature. In fact, African American intellectuals have historically embodied the dissonance between elite and "popular" or "folk" aesthetics and, in the quest for social equality and upward mobility, have often condemned their own traditions in favor of European-derived models. The notion of "blackness" itself has often become a locus of divergent critical perspectives on African American literature. Invariably, serious scholars must confront the contradictions between the aesthetics reflected in "folk" forms and those of the academy--an institutional affiliate of colonialization. One sure product of the American, capitalist class system is that the human resources tapped are very limited. In ascribing to that system by choice of academic perspectives, scholars of African American literature have unwittingly accepted, for instance, that "great" ideas originate in the upper eschelon, which leaves t he wisdom of the people on the street corner, of children, of the elderly, etc. virtually unrecognized.

Thus, while critics have had to concede that folklore forms the core of African American literature, it has been a problematic acquiescence. The uneasiness of this acknowledgment is revealed in the absence of folkloristic citations by literary scholars, even those writing about folklore in literature (e.g., Blake, de Weever, and Gray). At times this omission strikes the reader as ignorance resulting from less than rigorous standards of scholarship. …