Folktales are stories that give people a means for sharing their culture, history and values. This unit will use the folktales of the black American as a way of generating interest and pride in the black experience.
The black experience is rich, and the oral tradition of storytelling helps communicate this wealth. Studying folklore helps us to reach across time and space to arrive at an understanding of ourselves and of our ancestors that would not be found in history books. Instead of being dry, boring and impersonal it is more often uplifting poignant pieces of culture that make discovering our past more meaningful.
For years stories have been told and retold to suit the occasion. Whenever the need arises there is a folktale to teach moral lessons, explain the existence and the endurance of men and women, and to fulfill a need for answers to questions which are unanswerable.
This unit has several purposes, one is to find a link or similarities between African folktales and those folktales of the black American experience. If a link between the two cultures can be discovered, it will provide a means for generating pride and positive attitudes in people. The African link to the black American folktale will be an example of how a culture has survived time and distance. The second purpose of this unit is to research “living history and folktales.” These living histories will be the most difficult but inevitably the priceless “gems” of the unit.
This unit will assist students and teachers in familiarizing themselves with the oral tradition of storytelling, and reflect the value of the black folk tradition. Folktales will generate race pride and race consciousness for students.
Personal interviews and lots of audio tape will be the mechanism for attaining these living folktales. The unit will also be used for finding similarities in theme with the folktales. Many of the folktales that were collected were put in thematical order, and transcribed to coincide with the oral presentation. Using the written and the audio summaries will motivate the students to find out more about their own personal and collective pasts. The use of folktales as a medium for teaching can be used for any grade level from the elementary to the secondary level; there are suggestions for application to either level later in the unit.
Folktales on both of these levels can be used as a tool for teaching history or values. For example, the use of puppetry is an exciting way to teach a folktale on the elementary level and is exciting on the secondary level where students can design puppets and dramatize folktales they have either read or that they have been told.
Several books of folktales and folklore exist and a common theme of collecting the tales appears to run true throughout them. It is a difficult and time consuming job to acquire tales or oral narratives in the flavor they are intended to be told. People either “clam up” or they try to dress up the stories in such a way as to make them presentable.
When approached about this particular project people who normally began talking about the old times seemed to become intimidated about their stories and all of a sudden developed amnesia. Part of the reason for this sudden memory lapse or resistance is that many of the tales are considered to be “in-group” and therefore not intended for the general public.
There are several reasons for this phenomenon. One of the important reasons is that the people who would normally tell these stories would speak in the vernacular of the tale. For example, if someone from the south were telling a tale they might use words and phrases and a speech pattern that people from the north might not be familiar with; and if it came from “up here” it might be seasoned with “street vocabulary” and therefore be seen as inappropriate. The second and perhaps the most important reason for black people’s hesitation to tell the story is that blacks feel their stories are not worth much, and have no value and are unimportant.
Racism has done such a good job to create negative self images in black people that it has filled us with the impression that the only people who can enjoy and empathize with our tales is a black audience; and anyone else listening in would only ridicule and laugh at our stories.
A third reason for black people’s hesitation is that telling “stories,” and this is what they are called(because the word folktales is seen as not applicable by the people who tell them) bares to all a piece of life. These stories expose values, humor and those things that have effected one the most and those things closest to one’s heart.
Many folklorists spend almost as much time describing their great search for folktales as they do transcribing the stories that have been told to them.
Zora Neale Hurston, a prominent black folklorist, writes a great deal about her search for the folktales of her hometown. She writes about the difficulty of collecting the tales she had heard many times as a child. She knew the material existed, however she was confronted with problems when she tried to collect the stories. Her discovery that “folklore is not as easy to collect as it sounds,”
is a problem for all folklorists even when the writer is known by the storyteller, and probably even more difficult for people going into areas where they and their purpose is foreign.2
It is generally assumed that black folktales originated in Africa, and since the history of the black American originated in Africa it is probably not far from the truth. However, there are some folklorists who believe that the stories are European in origin.3
It is the contention of this unit that there is a link between Africa and Afro-Americans which is not clearly defined; however, it does exist. The method for determining the connection between Africa and America is in particular types of stories. The story, or theme for a story used for this unit will be the mermaid story.
In Dorson’s book,
American Negro Folktales
, the use of mermaids in folktales is seen as showing a European influence upon Black folktales. The mermaid tales he used showed the mermaid as being an underwater witch, and as previously stated definitely European, whose use in Black folktales came as a result of slaves being exposed to the tales by their masters.4
For the purposes of disputing this theory an interesting event occurred when the “living histories” were collected. An eleven year old Nigerian girl, Jenny Onubu consented to being interviewed for this unit and proceeded to “tell” me stories from Nigeria. Many of Jenny’s tales were very bloody; however, there were some interesting ideas in her tales. For example, she tells two stories about mermaids. Jenny’s stories might also be accused of being influenced by other factors, therefore another source of observing the African influence on the Black folktale looking for the African mermaid stories is the story of
Akim the Mermaid
found in the book of Nigerian folktales
Auta the Great and Other Nigerian Folk Stories
Jenny’s story needed to be transcribed because of the difficulty of understanding her accent. For that reason Jenny’s story and several of the other stories collected for this unit will be transcribed for purposes of better understanding the stories and also so that they can be better utilized for the classroom.
The oral tradition for the Black American has its roots in Africa where history is orally recorded. Oral history is an important aspect of black history particularly since black folktales, have an important place in the history of Black Americans:
“A few things in the lives of slaves belonged to them in a more intimate and personal way; these were things which illustrated peculiarly well the blending of African traditions with new experiences in America. For instance, folklore was important to them . . . Some of it preserved legends of their own past; some explained natural phenomena or described a world of the spirits; and some told with symbolism the story of the endless warfare between black and white men.”
The tales of Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear and Brer Fox give to the reader a means of understanding how the black man coped under the oppressive “peculiar institution.” When students study Black history, they have difficulties relating to how black people survived spiritually under the system of slavery. Folktales can provide them with a means of observing how people who are oppressed survive. It also gives them a positive sense of pride in the mechanics of survival. Folktales help students overcome a sense of helplessness and anger that is a side effect of racism in America. Folk stories provide a model for understanding those values that a people live with and also reflect the social values, the society, the politics, and the culture of the people.
Education is a discipline whose worth and objectives are, at times, ambiguous. Folktales have an interesting way of dealing with this. One of the folktales found in Zora Neale Hurston’s
Mules and Men
, is that of a farmer whose child has recently returned from school. The child has come back to the farm and the father wants him to write a letter, in the process of writing this letter the father tells the son that he wants him to write a particular sound that the father makes when he wants his horse to go. The sound cannot be written by the boy who in turn tells the father that he cannot duplicate a particular sound. At that time, the father questions his son as to what the boy has learned in school if he cannot spell the word he wants.6 This story helps the reader look into the values of education.
A story collected for this unit implies a similar assumption and amazement about education. An old woman wanted one of her children to write a letter:
“Tell Dr. Teal that I has his money and I goin’ to pay him his money. Mattie—tell ‘im that I doin’ fine and the chirren doin’ fine, an we gots no complains. Now Mattie, you write his name on de paper.
“Mama, how do you spell Dr. Teal?”
“Lord God, Mattie, you don’ hav to spell ‘im, jus write ‘im on de paper.”