African American folktales arose out of the slaves’ impenetrable will to survive the plantation and post slavery experience. These stories served then, as they do now, to inspire and rejuvenate an awareness of inner sources of faith, hope and strength. Africans did not come to the New World empty-handed. They brought their religious beliefs, music, and cultural nuances. They brought a prolific storytelling tradition.
Some of the motifs, themes and story lines of African American tale have undeniable connection to both Africa and Europe. The manner in which tales in the New World colored and dressed these motifs gave them a unique quality that is truly a reflection of how the Black captive and their descendants chose to deal with their life experiences. This storytelling tradition is a direct outgrowth and cultural response to a condition peculiar to the New World.
Animal tales have always been very popular throughout Africa. The slaves readily adapted them to fit their circumstances. Despite the effort the slave owners put into ridding the African captive of tribal languages and customs, they seemed to accept what appeared to be simplistic animal stories so frequently told in slave quarters. They deemed them a pleasant and harmless pastime, as well as a means of entertaining their children.
These stories, which were essentially trickster stories, provided the Africans with a means of psychological and spiritual survival. They were often used to convey a double message; that for the naive, oppressive slave owner and that for the enslaved, disenfranchised Black. Within the context of these stories Africans could comment on their condition in a way that slave owners would neither understand nor find acceptable.
Tale tellers of this tradition have treated trickster like family, almost always referring to him as Brer, Bruh, Bro and Buh. These are simplified ways of saying brother. In North America rabbit is perhaps the most celebrated trickster character. Small, puny and overlooked, rabbit uses his wit to get what he wants. He is a practical joker, a glutton, a braggart and a lady’s man (very much like Anansi). Through the antics of Brer Rabbit we encounter situations that are recognizable, amusing, and ultimately instructive. Often times the tales give us models of how not to act! They support the notion that justice can sometimes prevail.
Other examples of how the captive Africans adapted the trickster motif to their plantation experience is seen through characters such as High John de Conqueror, John (Jack) the slave and the boy, Jim, in the Talkin’ Cooter. We see that a slave’s wit could bring success in avoiding a whipping or obtaining freedom. Triumphs such as these were very significant in the life of the enslaved African.
Although there are various trickster tales in the folklore of Africa and Europe, their use in the United States is more representative of the African version, where trickster constantly stirs things up, creating one predicament after another, just for the joy of it. He is truly a happy mischief maker! In European culture, characters employ tricks to improve themselves or a situation. They are usually working towards a peaceful resolution where all live “happily ever after”.
It was the harsh, hopeless reality of the institution of slavery that moved Blacks to give birth to stories where the downtrodden were empowered by their wit and daring time and time again. These stories have historically given African Americans reason to laugh, to have hope, to believe that they, too, like trickster Brer Rabbit and others, could survive, thrive, and smile while doing it!