African-American Folklore

African-American folklore, like the folklore of any other people, is a tradition that is community based. Folklore expresses the sensibilities and feelings of a group rather than those of any one individual. Communities use folk traditions to maintain a connection to the past even as a community evolves and changes over time. Folklore is the medium through which the wisdom of ancestors is made available to the current generation.

The performance styles, materials and concepts embedded in the folk traditions of African Americans preserves the artistic and philosophical traditions of West Africa while bending them to fit the circumstances of life in North America. At the same time, African-American folklore has had a tremendous impact on the culture of mainstream America and further abroad. African-American culture does not consist of a single African cultural heritage, but is rather a comingling of several traditions. As far back as 1619, when the first Africans arrived in Jamestown, the folk traditions of West Africa began to coalesce so that Akan mixed with Bakongo, Wolof with Igbo and Hausa with Yoruba.

As the process of combining cultures continued, certain principles emerged and became fundamental to the cultural precepts of African-American folklore. For instance, the concept of "cool," as in "be cool, fool" and "keep your cool," is derived from Yoruba itutu, or a state of coolness that facilitates cooperation and productive conversation. The principle of Yoruba itutu is honored through the stage names of African-American rappers like Chuck Chillout, Doug E. Fresh, Chill Will, LL Cool J, Kool Mo Dee, Kool DJ Red Alert, Kool G Rap, Just-ice, Ice-T and Ice-Cube. Miles Davis (1926-1991), gave honor to the Yoruba concept of "shade," a cool spot where one can work on communal relationships, through his 1949 compilation, Birth of the Cool. The album cover depicts Davis wearing sunglasses, also known as "shades," as a further symbol of the Yoruban principle of coolness.

African American-folklore has also made its way into everyday language. The term "funky" is taken straight from the Bakongo term lu fuki which describes the smell of the hardworking laborer. The term lu fuki in African culture evokes a sense of positive contribution and goodness. Today, the definition of the term has been extended to connote behavior identified with African Americans and their folk identity.

Another Yoruba phrase describes a chat between two people, "ise sise," and is pronounced "ee-shay-she-shay." The sound of this phrase much resembles the expression "he say, she say." The Wolof term "dega" is the origin of the African-American expression "dig it." Dega means "to understand."

Africans who emigrated to Brazil, Cuba and Haiti managed to preserve the religious customs of their native West Africa. This was due to the fact that in these areas, the black populations outnumbered the white European populations. But this was not true of Africans in North America, where the ratio of black to white was reversed, except for those small communities tucked away in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Within a short span of time, the West African religious traditions had combined with Christian worship to produce a new type of Christianity that had a distinct African-American flavor.

This type of merging is called "syncretism." Syncretism occurs through combining traditions, but allows for the absorption of new experiences. In this case, the syncretism of West African religious tradition with Christianity contained also elements of the slavery experience. The biblical narrative of Jewish bondage in Egypt was adapted to reflect the African-American experience of slavery and the ever-present longing to be free.

The African-American spiritual Go Down Moses illustrates the way that African Americans painted their own slave narrative atop the biblical narrative of Moses in Egypt: "Go down Moses, down to Egypt land, and tell old Pharaoh to let my people go." A number of traditional spirituals were built on similar combined narratives of Bible, the slavery experience, and of being exiled in a strange land, yearning for home, freedom and a former way of life.

Storytelling is an important tradition in African-American folklore. Certain motifs, such as the trickster, are derived straight from the West African tradition of storytelling. Anansi is the name of the Akan trickster prominent in West African stories. In the diaspora, Anansi shows up with some frequency, but under a variety of names: Boy Nasty in the Bahamas, Hanansi in Jamaica and Miss Nancy in South Carolina.

The trickster always straddles the boundary that lies between good and evil. In African-American folklore, there exists a principle that good things can be wrought through evil or evil-seeming deeds. There is a dualism of good and bad, man and woman, white and black. This is how the African-American expression "bad" came to signify something positive: something good. Without a doubt, African-American folklore is rich and complex, and has had a far-reaching, even global, impact on other cultures.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Juneteenth Texas: Essays in African-American Folklore
Francis Edward Abernethy.
University of North Texas Press, 1996
From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom
John W. Roberts.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990
Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom
Lawrence W. Levine.
Oxford University Press, 1978
Myths, Legends, and Folktales of America: An Anthology
David Leeming; Jake Page.
Oxford University Press, 1999
A Treasury of Southern Folklore: Stories, Ballads, Traditions, and Folkways of the People of the South
B. A. Botkin.
Crown, 1949
The Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History
Lawrence W. Levine.
Oxford University Press, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "'Some Go Up and Some Go Down': The Meaning of the Slave Trickster"
Courtship Contests and the Meaning of Conflict in the Folklore of Slaves
Griffin, Rebecca.
The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 71, No. 4, November 2005
Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition
Yvonne P. Chireau.
University of California Press, 2003
African American Folk Healing
Stephanie Y. Mitchem.
New York University Press, 2007
Crossing Borders through Folklore: African American Women's Fiction and Art
Alma Jean Billingslea-Brown.
University of Missouri Press, 1999
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Folklore, Folkloristics, and African American Literary Criticism
Prahlad, Anand.
African American Review, Vol. 33, No. 4, Winter 1999
"Protection in My Mouf": Self, Voice, and Community in Zora Neale Hurston's 'Dust Tracks on a Road' and 'Mules and Men.' (Autobiography and Ethnography by Zora Neale Hurston)
Domina, Lynn.
African American Review, Vol. 31, No. 2, Summer 1997
Migrant Labor, Folklore, and Resistance in Hurston's Polk County: Reframing Mules and Men
Nicholls, David G.
African American Review, Vol. 33, No. 3, Fall 1999
"One of Dese Mornings, Bright and Fair,/ Take My Wings and Cleave De Air": The Legend of the Flying Africans and Diasporic Consciousness
Walters, Wendy W.
MELUS, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall 1997
"Dere Were No Place in Heaven for Him, An' He Were Not Desired in Hell": Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions
Hildebrand, Jennifer.
The Journal of African American History, Vol. 91, No. 2, Spring 2006
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