Transported from Africa and ripped from the security of their homes the black slaves in America still found a way to create vibrant stories. I would provide the students with two sources to form the foundation oi their knowledge on the slave tradition. The first,
TALK THAT TALK
, is an anthology of African-American storytelling. It is so global in its coverage of the topic that I would introduce stories throughout the unit. But specific to the slave tradition it provides renderings of tales by authors of high repute such as Zora Neale Hurston, Ramona Bass, Linda Goss, and even William Faulkner. While many are reinterpretations, they go much farther than Joel Chandler Harris in capturing the spirit of the stories.
The second book that I would use is
The People Could
Fly, by Virginia Hamilton. Its strength lies in how Hamilton translates the slave dialect into a more accessible style for a modern audience, without losing the flavor of the stories. This second source would be used primarily in the second phase of the curriculum devoted to the creation and telling of stories. The first would give a more theoretical explanation of the arm and function of the stories.
Both books cover the range of slave stories. They describe animal tales, ghost or spirit stories, tall tales, freedom tales, sermons, rhymes, and Raps. Many of these stories became popular to a general audience when they were written down by the journalist Joel Chandler Harris. In the writing he attempted to recreate the dialect of Southern blacks of the time. But somewhere in the translation from the mouth to the pen, much of the immediacy and potency was lost and replaced with a quaintness and folksiness that was far less threatening. For Harris, the slaves were a curiosity, their stories simply a way of revealing their crude lifestyle. But to the people who told them, the telling was a matter of maintaining their humanity and their dignity.
Most of the animal tales found their roots in African mythology. The characters of Rabbit, Bear, and Fox all have their African counterparts. It is the character of Rabbit that most often represents the slaves own position. Rabbit is essentially a trickster, much like Anansi the spider in African mythology. Rabbit is constantly using his brains to overcome the obstacles placed in his way by the more overpowering animals. By replacing the slaves persona with this animal, the teller empowered the listener by suggesting that there were ways to overcome the biggest obstacles in their lives as well. In most of these stories the main characters are neither good nor evil. It is an interesting facet of black American storytelling that the stories were as complex morally as the conditions that the storytellers found themselves living in. Often, the tricks that were attempted by Rabbit failed. By creating this imperfect hero, the storyteller seems to be telling the listener not to get too overconfident about the prospects for change. It is interesting to compare this mythology with something like the Odyssey, in which the hero always seems to conquer impossible odds. The difference may lie in the cultures that supported these myths: one, the Greeks, was the dominant culture of its time; the other, the slaves, were the repressed culture of their time. By this we can see how much mythology reflects the present as much as the past.
Another way of dealing with the strange workings of the universe was the supernatural tale. African-American religious practices have a variety of influences, from Christianity to African tribal religions to Native American rituals. This form also tried to assign responsibility for good and evil and did not seek to empower but provided hope in another way. Basically, if a person could patiently withstand the tests, however difficult, that this world gave, then a reward would be waiting in the next. In that very strange theological equation, the amount of suffering now was directly related to the chances of redemption. This panacea has provided relief for many who preferred enduring oppression as opposed to fighting it.
The third form that the folktale takes is called the tall tale. One type of tall tale takes on an almost evangelical quality as it tries to explain the unexplainable. Once again the reader can find comparisons in African mythology with stories like
Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears
. Creation myths and other explanation stories were told to demystify the natural world. The twist that these stories were given by the slaves is that they were told to explain the behavior of white people. By explaining it, there might be a way of overcoming it.
The last form that the slaves stories take and the one most literally involved in changing the system that oppressed blacks in the last half of the 19th century, are the freedom tales. By cataloguing escapes to freedom, imagined or actual, the stories do not attempt to cover up the hope for change with animal or theological analogies. The stories made the escape to freedom, in spite of its difficulty, seem attainable. By using examples of real people in real situations, they went beyond the hope inspired by the animal tales.
By providing the students with an outline of the different forms that the oral tradition began with, I would hope to impress in them the power of these stories. It would be important also for these students to see that there was a storytelling tradition that existed prior to slavery, i.e. the African tradition. Understanding how these were reinterpreted by the slaves would shed additional light on the slave experience. I find that whenever I read or tell any of the animal tales to students, their original purpose and power is lost on them. In a world where the anger caused by the oppressiveness of society is expressed in riots and an epidemic of handgun murders, it is difficult for these students to understand that the story was one of the only forms of empowerment available to the slaves. Certainly there were rebellions and violence, but on a daily basis stories provided the only means of security in a world that provided no freedom and no identity. I would like them to understand therefore how the evolution of the story reflects the changing place of African-Americans in American society. More specifically, by understanding the changes in form and content, as well as the intention behind the telling, they could best understand the current plight of black Americans. In summary the objectives of the first section of the unit would be:
To familiarize the students with the four types of stories listed above.
To discuss the function of these stories in the context of the time that they were first told.
To discuss what kind of a reaction that they cause in an audience today and what we may therefore learn from the difference between their original purpose and the current reaction.
To see how the slave tradition carried over from the African tradition and how comparing the stories in both mythologies would shed additional light on the slave experience.