African American Trickster Representations in the Workplace of Romare Bearden

Article excerpt

The cultural values and traditions that exist today in the African American community derive from a long line of human struggles throughout American history. Through oral traditions prevalent in folklore from the slavery era to the Harlem Renaissance coupled with traditions of African American art and literature, we can examine the cultural icon known as the trickster. The trickster archetype is multifaceted and assumes many positions within a given community. The role of the African American trickster and the use of this archetype in Romare Bearden's work, which represents contemporary African American life, is critiqued here. This essay focuses on the historical representations of the African American trickster archetype and explores implications for the use of this figure in the art classroom.

The role of the trickster figure is useful for integrating art with the larger curriculum. Traditionally, this figure is linked to powerless groups who long to transcend an oppressive social order (VanSertima,1989), making it particularly attractive to the integration of secondary curriculum. For example, contextualizing African American artist, Romare Bearden, within an historical investigation of the Harlem Renaissance period, promotes an investigation of this often ignored period in American history. In the 1920s the concentration of African Americans in New York led to the cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, which used art, music, and literature to demonstrate the creative and survival abilities of African Americans. Furthermore, the rebirth of African American creativity during this time, combined with lessons using the African American trickster survival theme, inspires a sense of integration of African American heritage essential for today's transformational multicultural curriculum. Historical and contemporary examinations of the African American trick ster show the character as useful for better understandings of educational issues surrounding African Americans, as well as all Americans.

Examining the Trickster Role

The trickster role for African Americans is that of defiant representative for the oppressed group Jeffries, 1994). The primary goal of the trickster is social nonconformity by redefinition of norms for life and existence in mainstream American society (Jeffries, 1997). The literature reveals the trickster role as serving the evolving needs of African American communities (Jeffries,1994,1997; Roberts,1989; VanSertima,1989). Scholars who debate the roots of the African American trickster examine this figure as a conception of West African, European, and/or American Indian influence (Bascom,1992). Some believe that social, economic, and physical conditions in West African countries are responsible for creating the trickster used in African American oral, written, and artistic representations.

The West African trickster provides a foundation for understanding the African American trickster figure. It is this West African trickster that heavily influenced the African American trickster according to Pelton (1980) who focuses on this icon as it exists in West Africa. The majority of involuntary African immigrants to the United States originated in the West African countries of Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, and Togo, bringing with them folklore using the trickster as a spider, rabbit, or other animal motif. The trickster figure in African American culture evolved through the slave narrative, which describes this archetype as a free spirit whose behavior is complex and contradictory. This figure is often shown pursuing wisdom, cunning, or power and attempting to redefine the social order (Bascom,1992).

Conceptions of the Trickster in Folk Tales

African American folk tales in the southern United States include the trickster appearing in a story called "Trickster Seeks Endowments" (Bascom,1992), where the trickster appears in a variety of physical forms. For example, the trickster is a rabbit in a tale that requires him to bring to a larger, more powerful figure, black birds from a fig tree, a snake, and the tears of a deer, in exchange for the long tail he desires. …