How African American Folklore Saved The Cultural Memory And History Of Slaves


How African American Folklore Saved The Cultural Memory And History Of Slaves

All over the world, community stories, customs and beliefs have been passed down from generation to generation. This folkore is used by elders to teach family and friends about their collective cultural past. And for African Americans, folklore has played a particularly important part in documenting history too.

The year 1619 marked the beginning of African American history, with the arrival of the first slave ship in Jamestown, Virginia. Slavery put African Americans not only in physical shackles. They were prevented from gaining any type of knowledge, including learning to read or write during their enslavement. Illiteracy was a means to keep control as it was believed that intellectual stimulation would give African Americans ideas of freedom and independence.

The effects of slavery on African culture were huge. The slaves had to forsake their true nature to become servants to Anglo Americans. And yet, even though they were forbidden from practising anything that related to their African culture and heritage, the native Africans kept it and their languages alive in America.

One important way of doing this was through folk tales, which the African slaves used as a way of recording their experiences. These stories were retold in secret, with elements adapted to their enslaved situation, adding in elements of freedom and hope. In the story of a slave from Guinea, recorded in The Annotated African American Folktales, he asks his white master to bury him face down when he dies, so that he may return to his home country which he believes is directly on the other side of the world:

Some of the old folks in Union County remembered that they had heard their fathers and grandfathers tell the story about Sambo who yearned to go back to Guinea. Hunters and hounds feared Sambo’s woods for more than a hundred years … I guess the hounds used to feel Sambo’s homesickness. But now, since the hounds run fast and free, I guess Sambo finally got back to Guinea.

Adapting the oral storytelling traditions of their ancestors helped slaves stolen from West Africa cope with and record their experiences in America. And later it helped other generations, particularly in the 19th century, to learn what happened to the ancestors who had been enslaved.

Folklore and genealogy

Folklore has not just helped African Americans to record and remember large-scale events, or relate morals as other folk tales do – it has helped with individual family genealogy too.

Having an aspect of genealogy in folklore makes African American history not only traceable but more approachable. The stories relate to specific people, their experiences and the places where they lived. They are not necessarily mythical tales, but stories are about real people and what happened to them. They demonstrate and track the fight for freedom and independence.

This linking of genealogy and folklore gives the oral histories continuity, and adds an element of personal curiosity to the historical past. Family history figures in many folk tales makes each story unique, as one’s own heritage will be intertwined with its telling. It adds to cultural memory, too, and enhances family values as descendants are able to refer back to and honour their ancestors’ experiences. Take this extract from a retelling of The Cat-Witch, for example:

This happened in slavery times, in North Carolina. I’ve heard my grandmother tell it more than enough. My grandmother was cook and house-girl for this family of slaveowners – they must have been Bissits, ‘cause she was a Bissit.

In more recent decades, novels and book retellings of this family history have become the new way of keeping African American folklore alive. Indeed, folklore has been the inspiration behind some of the most important African American literary works. In Roots, Alex Haley’s work of historical family fiction, the main character’s father, Omoro Kinte, initiates a baptism ritual that has been transmitted throughout generations. The newborn baby is held up towards the starry night sky and then given its name. The baby is told to “behold the only thing greater than yourself”. This naming ritual is a poetic moment and has become iconic in various ways. It is even referenced in Disney’s The Lion King when Rifiki lifts Simba to the sky.

Like Roots, Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966) is enriched with folkloric elements. Both novels emphasise the importance of different sayings and traditions. Jubilee’s main protagonist remembers that “when she sang, the children would stop their playing and come closer to listen, for they loved all her songs - the old slave songs Aunt Sally used to sing, and the tender, lilting ballads of the war, too”. Singing folksongs was a tradition that served as entertainment or as a way to have rhythm during their work in the fields. After all, tradition is what kept the enslaved sane. Their African culture not only gave them the strength to fight for another day but it provided solace too.

For any one of us, the past is important in determining our identity and history, but without the determination and persistence of the first African Americans, it is likely that much of their story would have been lost to time. Thanks to their repeated sacrifices, African Americans can still look to their ancestors for guidance today.The Conversation

About The Author

Jennifer Dos Reis Dos Santos, PhD Candidate, Aberystwyth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

The Annotated African American Folktales (The Annotated Books)

cultureBinding: Hardcover
  • Henry Louis Gates Jr.
  • Maria Tatar

Studio: Liveright
Label: Liveright
Publisher: Liveright
Manufacturer: Liveright

Buy Now
Editorial Review:

Winner of the 2018 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction

These nearly 150 African American folktales animate our past and reclaim a lost cultural legacy to redefine American literature.

Drawing from the great folklorists of the past while expanding African American lore with dozens of tales rarely seen before, The Annotated African American Folktales revolutionizes the canon like no other volume. Following in the tradition of such classics as Arthur Huff Fauset’s “Negro Folk Tales from the South” (1927), Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men (1935), and Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly (1985), acclaimed scholars Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar assemble a groundbreaking collection of folktales, myths, and legends that revitalizes a vibrant African American past to produce the most comprehensive and ambitious collection of African American folktales ever published in American literary history. Arguing for the value of these deceptively simple stories as part of a sophisticated, complex, and heterogeneous cultural heritage, Gates and Tatar show how these remarkable stories deserve a place alongside the classic works of African American literature, and American literature more broadly.

Opening with two introductory essays and twenty seminal African tales as historical background, Gates and Tatar present nearly 150 African American stories, among them familiar Brer Rabbit classics, but also stories like “The Talking Skull” and “Witches Who Ride,” as well as out-of-print tales from the 1890s’ Southern Workman. Beginning with the figure of Anansi, the African trickster, master of improvisation―a spider who plots and weaves in scandalous ways―The Annotated African American Folktales then goes on to draw Caribbean and Creole tales into the orbit of the folkloric canon. It retrieves stories not seen since the Harlem Renaissance and brings back archival tales of “Negro folklore” that Booker T. Washington proclaimed had emanated from a “grapevine” that existed even before the American Revolution, stories brought over by slaves who had survived the Middle Passage. Furthermore, Gates and Tatar’s volume not only defines a new canon but reveals how these folktales were hijacked and misappropriated in previous incarnations, egregiously by Joel Chandler Harris, a Southern newspaperman, as well as by Walt Disney, who cannibalized and capitalized on Harris’s volumes by creating cartoon characters drawn from this African American lore.

Presenting these tales with illuminating annotations and hundreds of revelatory illustrations, The Annotated African American Folktales reminds us that stories not only move, entertain, and instruct but, more fundamentally, inspire and keep hope alive.

The Annotated African American Folktales includes:

  • Introductory essays, nearly 150 African American stories, and 20 seminal African tales as historical background
  • The familiar Brer Rabbit classics, as well as news-making vernacular tales from the 1890s’ Southern Workman
  • An entire section of Caribbean and Latin American folktales that finally become incorporated into the canon
  • Approximately 200 full-color, museum-quality images
color throughout; 160 illustrations

Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales (Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner)

cultureAuthor: Virginia Hamilton
Binding: Hardcover
  • Blue Sky Press AZ

Brand: Blue Sky Press
Studio: Blue Sky Press
Label: Blue Sky Press
Publisher: Blue Sky Press
Manufacturer: Blue Sky Press

Buy Now
Editorial Review: A collection of twenty-five African-American folktales focuses on strong female characters and includes "Little Girl and Bruh Rabby," "Catskinella," and "Annie Christmas." By the author of The People Could Fly.

The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales

cultureAuthor: Virginia Hamilton
Binding: Paperback
  • fantasy science fiction

Brand: Knopf Books for Young Readers
  • Leo Dillon
  • Diane Dillon Ph.D.

Studio: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Label: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Manufacturer: Knopf Books for Young Readers

Buy Now
Editorial Review: "The well-known author retells 24 black American folk tales in sure storytelling voice: animal tales, supernatural tales, fanciful and cautionary tales, and slave tales of freedom. All are beautifully readable. With the added attraction of 40 wonderfully expressive paintings by the Dillons, this collection should be snapped up."--(starred) School Library Journal.

This book has been selected as a Common Core State Standards text Exemplar (Grade 6-8, Stories) in Appendix B.


follow InnerSelf on


 Get The Latest By Email


follow InnerSelf on


 Get The Latest By Email