Word! the African American Oral Tradition and Its Rhetorical Impact on American Popular Culture

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Popular culture consists of the everyday culture that comprises virtually every aspect of our existence. Its forms of expression include music, dance, literature, drama, film, poetry, language use, newspapers, radio and television, fashion, sports, and leisure activities. (1) Its major components are objects, persons, and events, but it is through the use of verbal and nonverbal symbols that popular culture is constructed and has the potential to persuade, influence, motivate, and inspire. We are surrounded every day by these constructs of popular culture.

For many years, African Americans were simply objects within popular culture whose representation tended to be quite stereotypical and problematic. So wrote Todd Boyd in his three-volume work African Americans and Popular Culture. (2) However, at a certain point, notes Boyd, African Americans attempted to harness the means of production and create their own representations instead of being represented by others. (3) As a result, the African American influence on American popular culture has been among the most sweeping and influential rhetorical impacts this nation has ever seen. African American cultural expressions have been a way of resisting racial oppression by articulating experiences of resistance and struggle and articulating oppositional identities in highly creative and dynamic ways, beginning with the oral tradition from which all other cultural forms originated. (4) Because of this dynamic, an understanding of the African and African American oral traditions is highly important for K-12 students to learn.

The oral tradition refers to stories, old sayings, songs, proverbs, and other cultural products that have not been written down or recorded. The forms of oral tradition cultures are kept alive by being passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next. These diverse forms reveal the values and beliefs of African Americans, the things they hold to be true, and lessons about life and how to live it. (5) In African American culture, the oral tradition has served as a fundamental vehicle for cultural expression and survival. This oral tradition also preserved the cultural heritage and reflected the collective spirit of the race. It has a powerful history, beginning with Africans' preslavery existence.

Prior to enslavement in America, Africans lived in societies developed around a worldview that was predicated on highly sophisticated religious systems and an impressive oral communication style. The Africans believed in Nommo, which means the generative power of the spoken word. Nommo was believed necessary to actualize life and give man mastery over things. "All activities of men and all the movements in nature rest on the word on the productive power of the word, which is water and heat and seed and Nommo that is, life force itself ... The force, responsibility, and commitment of the word and the awareness that the word alone alters the world." In traditional African culture, newborn children are mere things until their fathers give them names and speak them. No medicine, potion, or magic of any sort is considered effective without accompanying words. So strong is the African belief in the power and absolute necessity of Nommo that all craftsmanship must be accompanied by speech. Nommo was not restricted to the spoken word in a public forum, but encompassed all communication situations. (6)

Culture was transmitted through this oral tradition. The people's cultural mores, values, histories and religions were transmitted from generation to generation by elderly individuals known as griots who were known to be excellent storytellers. These storytellers gave to their listeners narratives that contained elements of realism and magic in situations and characters with whom they were familiar. (7) They infused their storytelling with dramatic power that appealed to the emotions: it satisfied inner cravings, cloaked unrest, evoked laughter, provided solace, and fostered a temporary release from the misery of chaotic experiences. …