Hide and Seek: Finding African Folkloric Identity in America
“They were carrying on a tradition as ancient as Africa, century’s old oral mode by which culture and history, the wisdom of the race had been transmitted…. Their skill with language and the strong political cast to their talk… helped to shape me as a writer” (qtd. in Billingslea-Brown 15). Whether it is evident it or not, every culture, and every race, has their own, unique folkloric identity. In the passage above, writer Paule Marshall describes her experience with African American folktales, which not only strengthened her personally, but also bettered her as a writer. African folktales found in America primarily derive from The Guinean Coast in West Africa, specifically the regions of Liberia, Ghana, Cameroon, and Nigeria (Holloway 3). Not surprisingly, this is also were much of the American slave trade occurred. Many scholars, however, believe that African folklore was lost on slaves’ passage to the ‘New World’, despite the presence of Africanisms in American culture. In the historical Herskovits-Frazier debate, which examined if African culture was lost or retained in America, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier postulated that “slavery was so devastating in America that it destroyed all African elements among black Americans” (Holloway ix). However, on the opposing side of this debate, Melville J. Herskovits accurate believed that West African folktales and culture were indeed brought to and sustained in America. The oration of these uniquely African tales, which commonly described a small, insignificant figure surviving oppression from a larger creature, even assisted slaves in persevering though the atrocities of slavery. Although scholars, like Frazier, believe African folklore was lost in the hardships of slavery and discrimination, the many similarities between African American and original African tales disprove that belief. In fact, the nature of African folklore aided in the perseverance of black Americans during slavery and other struggles they faced in America.
In the 1950’s Herskovits-Frazier debate, Dr. Frazier gave many interesting reasons for his belief of the disappearance of African folklore in America, such as the social disruption enslavement caused blacks. Frazier argued that slavery upset the African family structure, the heart of the African people (Holloway xi). Thus, by wounding the very foundations of African society, culture could simply not be carried on in America. Frazier believes that since blacks were put in close contact with whites by means of slavery, “they learned new patterns of thought and behavior which they adapted to their own use” (Holloway ix). Ultimately, Frazier argues, slaves began to assimilate into the white American culture, since their African roots were no longer acceptable by society. Thus, their folklore fell to the way side, while they picked up on and modified European folkloric models (Levine 82). After slavery, when blacks became African-Americans, Frazier thinks that they “were attempting to blend into the mainstream America and were reluctant to identify with anything that emphasized cultural differences” (Holloway xi). In total, Frazier states that “tremendous repression” of African culture, by slaves who were trying to assimilate into American society, is what brought about this end to African cultural and folkloric traditions. However many of Frazier’s arguments are quite unrealistic, and even inaccurate, when assessing the case of African culture in America.
In contrast to Dr. Frazier’s arguments, though slavery wounded African folkloric and cultural traditions amongst blacks, it did not destroy them. The splitting up of relatives, brought on by slavery, did disrupt the family structure many Africans adhered to; however, cultural identities were still continued. Slaves would often affiliate themselves with the tribes that they were taken from. This bonding to members of the same tribe is still seen in parts of the South like Louisiana, where there is still Gullah voodoo, and in South Carolina, where there is specific burial plots and procedures for the Bantu people (Holloway 174). Also, it is know that blacks picked up on Anglicisms and American culture while enslaved in America. However, despite being thrust into this new civilization, their old folkloric identities held strong. As historian Lawrence W. Levine states, “although Africans brought to the New World were inevitably influenced by the tales they found there… [they held to] the deep roots in their ancestral homeland” (82). African Americans did not give up on their folklore, but remained diligent in their culture while admiring American tales. Frazier’s claim that African Americans “were reluctant to identify with anything that emphasized cultural differences” due to their hardships in slavery, does not follow with the history of the African American people. African American’s typically devoted themselves to their African heritage, but not necessarily in public due to the immense discrimination pitted against them. Why would Africans give up on a culture they had created and sustained for thousands of years? The true answer is that they didn’t.
Contradictory to Frazier’s belief that African Americans wanted to rid themselves of their cultural differences, literature specialist John Roberts reiterates author James A. Snead’s opinion on the matter, stating, “it is unrealistic and, ultimately, unproductive to assume that despite the well-documented brutality and hostility of Europeans towards African enslaved in America, they abandoned, as a form of “coverage against both external and internal threats,” especially since they have invested in their African culture for thousands of years (5). He continues on to acknowledge Snead’s idea that it is also quite ludicrous to believe that African Americans would disband their culture and “totally reinvested in a European cultural perspective whose actuaries demonstrated little interest in their survival or well-being” (Roberts 5). Of course after slavery, during the discriminatory era of Jim Crow, where it was a crime to simply be black, many African Americans did not want to show cultural differences for a myriad of reasons, mainly because they would physically harmed. However, during the Harlem Renaissance, black culture and black pride exuded everywhere, in every town across America. It seems as though African Americans had had enough of repressing their culture.
The Harlem Renaissance, which occurred in many more cities besides Harlem, displayed a profound desire for an African connection brought on by the “back to Africa” movement of political extremist Marcus Garvey. Garvey proclaimed that Africa was the true homeland of all mankind, not just African Americans; thus, Garvey argued, that African American’s were the superior race since they are the fore fathers of man. Due to this embrace of ‘blackness’ and black pride, many Harlemites and other northern folk, who were refugees from the south, expressed their ‘blackness’ through literature and the arts. Betye Saar, an artist during the Harlem Renaissance, believed that “whatever we got from Africa, we still have here,” and efficiently portrayed this in her artwork, specifically in her “Wizard” and “Gris Gris Box” which were highly centered around African culture. (qtd. in Billingslea-Brown 57). In no way was this embrace of blackness a form of assimilation and compliance from African Americans, in fact, it is quite the opposite. In response to Frazier’s belief that repression caused a total loss of culture amongst African Americans, their cultural and folkloric identities were never lost, they just were not blatantly out in the open for their own safety. Cultural stories and traditions were still passed around amongst African Americans, but since they were not highly publicized, many scholars have questioned the origins of these “African” folktales.
African story tellers rarely documented their tales, thus there has been much speculation as to whether the stories did indeed originate out of Africa. Some scholars suggest that since many of these tales were not written down they cannot accurately have their origin in Africa, rather they may have been adopted from European or Spanish stories. Even though many of the African tales were not documented, they were carried by word of mouth, like many of the fairytales we have today. In her study of African folklore, Beverly Robinson observes Stith Thompson’s dissertation regarding tainted African tales; she states, “Thompson believed… tales recorded among blacks were consequently classified as belonging to a European heritage.” She also says that Thompson upheld the idea that “Negro” tales were of Spanish origin and followed European traditions, therefore, according to Thompson, these tales were not African, but of Spanish and European decent (Robinson 213). If this is true then the primary place where African tales were tainted would have been the West Indies, where occasional slave ships docked before coming to the United States; since the British Empire did not colonize much of West Africa, there would not have been prior exposure to European tales in Africa. However, looking at the statistics of slaves’ origins in Virginia, one of the most notorious states for slavery, only about 7,000 came from West Indies ports, while roughly 45,000 were imported straight from Africa (Holloway 11). The same is true of South Carolina, another state made famous by its immense use of slave labor, which had only around 2,300 slaves from the West Indies outposts, and 65,400 slaves from Africa (Holloway 9). In both cases, only a small percent of slaves came from areas where their culture could have been lost or manipulated, therefore it is highly unlikely that their culture was tainted by European or Spanish stories before coming to America.
Additionally, the slave stories found in America are unrelated to any European, Spanish, or even Americanized version of the Spanish or European tales. Some scholars have considered the idea that American adapted tales may have been used by African Americans, however, Lawrence Levine disbands that belief in his book, “Black Culture and Black Consciousness,” saying, “Tales such as “Rumplestiltskin,” “Cinderella,” “Jack, the Giant Killer,” and “The Devil’s Daughter” were occasionally told, but rarely have they constituted a standard element in Afro-American tales” (98). Levin goes on to say that the comparison of slave tales to “African tales… reveals that a significant number were brought directly from Africa” (82). Not only were these tales pure and unadulterated, many of them truly came from the African continent. Furthermore, the idea that slaves did not have their own folklore, which is what numerous scholars believe, stems out of a 19th century prejudice belief regarding the ignorance of slaves. Many white slave owners, along with the rest of the American population, believed that slaves spoke gibberish rather than a particular language. Slowly, as blacks began to become ‘civilized,’ they picked up on more English words, yet, because of their ‘intellectual inferiority,’ they were not able to acquire the language properly. Due to this prejudice attitude, African American stories were not considered products of the slaves since they were regarded as too unintelligent to think of them. Whites believed that the stories must have come from outside forces, hence the questioning of the validity of African slave tales that still carries on to this day (Holloway 214). Despite what Frazier and the other scholars have said, it is easy to see that there are Africanisms present in American culture and that West African folktales were indeed brought to and sustained in America through those who were involved in the African slave trade. It is also noticeable that the majority of the tales that did make it to America were purely African stories, not tainted by European or Spanish tales or traditions. It is the nature of the African tales though that assisted blacks in lasting so long in the horrors of slavery.
The oration of uniquely African tales aided slaves in persevering though the atrocities of slavery due to their composition and inherent didactic meanings. Commonly, African tales described a small, insignificant figure surviving oppression from a larger creature. In the children’s story of Buh Rabby, a greedy little rabbit finds himself in trouble for stealing a family’s food source, yet he is able to get out of his predicament by tricking a wolf into taking the punishment for him (Hamilton 4-6). The wolf is Buh Rabby’s natural born enemy, therefore it makes sense for him to trick the wolf into taking the blame. This story also seems to be taking a jab at whites, making it seem as though they are gullible to any trick brought on by the slave’s quick wits. Additionally, Anansi the spider, one of the most significant characters in West African folktales, also uses his cunning to get out of situations, however, unlike Buh Rabby, Anansi uses his cleverness when his life is in danger. In “Why Anansi Has Eight Thin Legs,” the spider hero becomes over whelmed by a glutinous greed and tries to taste everyone’s dinner in the village. In order to know when each dish is done, Anansi ties a web from his leg to the eight dishes he desires to eat, when the food is ready the homemaker will pull the string. As it turns out, all the dishes finish at one time, so Anansi is pulled eight different ways, stretching his legs painfully. In a moment of desperation to save his life, Anansi rolls in a nearby river where his webs are dissolved and his legs are freed (“Africa” 1-3). If it were not for his quick thinking, Anansi could have been pulled to death. Due to his wits Anansi and Buh Rabby were able to escape death, something that African Americans had to do on a daily basis, from slavery, all the way to the 1960’s Civil Rights Act.
Although it may seem quite ludicrous to assume that folktales saved slaves’ lives, each story had a purpose and a message to teach. Levine observes that “While the slaves’ didactic tales attempted to inculcate elements of proper conduct and righteous living, they were also filled with strategies of survival” (99). Not only are the Buh Rabby and Anansi stories entertaining, they are also teaching children and even adults to be aware of their surrounds at all times. Who knows what would have happened to Buh Rabby if he did not use the wolf as a scapegoat, and similarly, what would have become of Anansi if he hadn’t seen the river next to him? Due to their cunning abilities, these characters survived. So is the same of the African American people who had to use their wits to get out of confrontations quickly to evade death. Levine raises an interesting point in his historical analysis of African American culture. He acknowledges all of the brutality involved in African tales, from the trickster character setting other large animals like tigers, elephants, and panthers on fire, and having them indulge in self mutilation and even murder of their family members (117). Interestingly enough, these are things African slaves were subjected to in America. Perhaps this role reversal, where the trickster was no longer the oppressed but the oppressor, is why these violent aspects of the stories were continued. In regards to the messages in African tales, folklorist Heli Chatelain states, “They do not teach how to make a thing, but how to act, how to live” (qtd. in Levine 90). This is why African stories were typically carried over to America from Africa, not just to sustain a cultural identity, but to sustain life; to keep living despite oppression and discrimination, to have stories that empowered African Americans to never give up, no matter how bleak circumstances might seem.
Conclusively, whether it is evident or not, every culture has their own unique folkloric identity. Yet, due to much opposition of African tales’ existence, since many were not documented at the time of their oration, and since E. Franklin Frazier’s ideas of assimilation and social distortion as explanations of their invalidity were highly believable, it is easy to see why many disregarded African folktales altogether and considered them hybrids of European or Spanish stories. But, even though scholars, like Frazier, believed African folklore was lost in the hardships of slavery and discrimination, the many similarities between African American and original African tales disprove that belief. As Beverly Robinson states in her essay concerning African folklore, “The overlapping of genres related to language, tales, performance, beliefs, and other expressive modes within the context of African American cultural usage will unlock the traditions of Africa surviving in America” (222). Through simply looking at the facts and the stories, we can tell that African American and slave folklore did indeed originate in Africa, and that it has aided in the perseverance of black Americans during slavery and other struggles they faced. By putting our ignorance behind us, hopefully we can acknowledge the commonalities between African and African American folklore and give each our due respect; eventually “unlock[ing] the traditions of Africa surviving in America.”
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