The contribution that African-American writers have made to American culture has been vast. Sometimes the extent of that contribution has been blurred by the fact that much of the black artists work has been appropriated by white artists, who in addition to financial reward and critical acclaim, have gained credit for the development of new forms. Perhaps the best example of this came in the 1950’s when the president of Sun Records was heard to remark that if they could find a white singer who sounded black that they would become millionaires. Soon after he signed Elvis Presley. In literature as well, African-American writers have had similar trouble attaining the respect that they deserve. Beyond the racial discrimination lay the fact that much of the narrative creations have been in the oral tradition, which in our segregated society has prevented them being recognized in the white establishment. Being denied a formal education did not prevent blacks from creating a very rich literary tradition; it is just harder to catalogue because so little of it has been written down. Inherent in the work is a power that resonates from its core. This core, or reason for creation, relates to the reason that these stories were told in the first place. More than a mere description of the circumstances that they found themselves in, the stories of African-Americans have always had survival and a quest for power as major themes. Sometimes diverting, sometimes empowering, the stories always concerned themselves with overcoming the terrible oppression that blacks have suffered in this country.
I will attempt, in this curriculum unit, to introduce students to works which form the basis of African-American storytelling. I will focus on three distinct time periods, each of which contributed unique forms. We will begin with the oral tradition which began during the days of slavery and carried on into the early part of this century. Next we will look at the works of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and specifically their contribution to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 1930’s. We will conclude with a look at Rap music, a form which is the most familiar and relevant to the students. By looking at each time period and discovering the similarities between them, I hope that the students gain an understanding of the black American storytelling tradition. I think that by seeing the past in the present and the present in the past they will gain a deeper insight into where they fit in the American landscape.
A literary history would only form the first half of the unit. The second part of the curriculum, once the students had a grasp of the form and function of stories in each of these periods, would be to create stories of their own in the style of each given period. In storytelling, unlike most other creative forms, the process of creation and the product of creation are the same. It would be vital for these students understanding of the different forms to attempt to create stories of their own. While this would complete the educational agenda, I would hope that the students would also add storytelling to their survival skills as they cross the threshold into adulthood. Let us now focus on the form and focus of storytelling in each time period.