Natural-Born Bards

Natural-Born Bards

A new volume collects African-American folk tales that foreshadow contemporary debates about cultural ownership and appropriation.


There are several creation myths in traditional African-American folklore. One of them goes something like this: In the beginning, the Creator could only do so much; the making of humankind was one task among many, and first came the white man. The Creator inspected the first man’s remnants—surplus fingernails, buttocks, and toes—and didn’t know what to do with them. So he tossed them in a corner and decided that he would return to the pieces in due course. Suddenly, something arose from the detritus and said, “Lawd, here me!” The stunned Creator turned around and saw that the black man had created himself.

In James Weldon Johnson’s 1927 poem “The Creation,” he offered a softer version: A lonely God molds the sun and stars from the light of His own smile. He stomps the valleys into being, spits out the seven seas, and with a wave of His hand fashions the animals. Still unsatisfied, He finally scoops clay from a riverbank, labors over the clump, and blows life into His own image.

The theme of creation also underlies the work of the late author Leon Forrest. His novel Two Wings to Veil My Face (1984) suggests how African-American folk traditions in the antebellum South were the products of racial and cultural mixing rather than isolation. Forrest invokes Greek mythological figures and West African trickster spirits, showing that what we understand as black folklore is often a shorthand for the sometimes parasitic, sometimes fruitful interlocking of multiethnic cultural traditions. Wry and emancipatory narratives imagine black personhood as divinely inspired, cruelly curtailed, imperfect—and yet self-willed.

Forrest anticipated some of the concerns of a recently published anthology, The Annotated African American Folktales. Harvard professors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar, the book’s editors, have amassed a compendium of tales, essays, anecdotes, and images from West Africa, the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America in “an era of recuperation of both the slave past and the African past.” In his foreword, Gates outlines the development and divided reception of black-folklore studies in the United States. Widespread interest in the subject began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the dialect poems of writers like Irwin Russell and Elliott Blaine Henderson (neither of whom, unfortunately, is discussed in the anthology), the writings of Charles Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar, and journalist Joel Chandler Harris’s influential Uncle Remus stories, which he published throughout four decades beginning in the 1870s.

The Hampton Folklore Society, founded in 1893 under the direction of the progressive educator Alice Bacon, was the first group of its kind composed mainly of African-American members. They published stories in the Southern Workman, the Hampton Institute’s journal; Gates and Tatar call this collaboration the first systematic collection of “black cultural artifacts.” Support from the anthropologist Franz Boas and American Folklore Society founder William Wells Newell, as well as works by writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, Sterling A. Brown, Arthur Huff Fauset, Elsie Clews Parsons, and Edward C.L. Adams, sustained popular and academic interest throughout the years of the Harlem Renaissance.

Disagreements about the assimilation of folklore into the art of the modern “New Negro” caused one of the notable splits among Harlem intellectuals of the early 20th century. While some perceived traditional songs, stories, religious customs, and vernacular practices as crucial to intellectual emancipation from European lore (what Gates calls “structures of feeling, structures of thought”), others believed this assimilation would prolong enslavement to the past. One memorable debate unfolded in the pages of The Nation in 1926. In “The Negro-Art Hokum,” writer George Schuyler (best known for his 1931 novel Black No More) argued that there was no such thing as a unitary black art, and that notions of a common artistic wellspring actually referred to the practices of the South’s black peasant class. Jazz and spirituals, for instance, were “no more expressive or characteristic of the Negro race than the music and dancing of the Appalachian highlanders…are expressive or characteristic of the Caucasian race.” In a rebuttal, Langston Hughes, who would co-edit The Book of Negro Folklore with Arna Bontemps three decades later, argued that black artists must not go out of their way to avoid the source material of everyday life in black communities. A decades-long game of disavowal, on the one hand, and reclamation on the other foreshadowed the contemporary debates about black identity politics: Who are the “folk”? What issues should they care about? What stories should they preserve, disseminate, or kick to the curb?

Every tradition has its celebrities, and that’s certainly true of African-American folklore. There’s the tragic rail worker John Henry (Colson Whitehead’s 2001 novel John Henry Days centers on this story); the tar baby (see Toni Morrison’s 1981 novel Tar Baby); the desperado Stagolee (check out Cecil Brown’s 2006 fictionalization I, Stagolee). There are also lesser-known tales of a princess elephant, a yam that becomes a childless woman’s daughter, frogs that regurgitate finery for a ball, witches who slip out of their skins, magical tools, headless ghosts, stolen voices, singing tortoises, talking skulls, vindictive fairies, flying heifers, girls bewitched into nightingales, and warrior twins who journey to the land of Never Return and confront a menacing crocodile. Ballads recount the sinking of the Titanic, and we learn the dangers of fishing on Sundays and how wisdom first spread throughout the world.

Tatar, a scholar of German folklore, concedes that the “rage for order that takes hold of anthologizers vanishes in the face of the entangled histories and kaleidoscopic variations in stories from time past.” Drawing extensively on previously published anthologies, oral accounts, secondary literature, and university and governmental archives, the editors clearly envision their book not as a comprehensive collection but as an enticing introduction to an influential body of lore. Their annotations clarify some slang and tropes, and the endnotes for certain stories offer useful background information and suggestive interpretations. (In a media moment that has largely focused on gains for black artists in television and film, the editors were recently honored as the recipients of an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work.)

Of course, when we talk about the folk tale or folk character, we must ask the same question we ask of the Time Lord Doctor and God: Whose version works for us? As Tatar writes, “There is no original, just variants and variation, endlessly living, breathing, throbbing variations on ur-forms and ur-themes.” Nevertheless, the existence of common tale types in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas has never sufficed to quell the conviction that some tropes are reserved or off-limits for certain groups of people. (It took Disney until 2009 to feature a black princess in a movie loosely based on a tale popularized by the Brothers Grimm; as if to acknowledge that fact, Gates and Tatar include a section of fairy tales, including Cinderella and Bluebeard, that were reinterpreted by storytellers in Louisiana, the Sea Islands, and elsewhere.) A crisis of ownership, of narrative and vernacular appropriation, has been long-standing in the history of American culture. As it relates to African-American folklore, few cases are as intricate as those of Harris’s Uncle Remus stories and sociologist Howard W. Odum’s Black Ulysses trilogy. Although the latter isn’t emphasized in the anthology, the story of its creation complements the editors’ extended treatment of Harris.

In an 1876 edition of the Atlanta Constitution, readers were introduced to the fictional Uncle Remus, a gregarious, good-natured freedman who tells stories to white children. The protagonist of most Remus tales is Brer Rabbit, a quick-witted schemer and jokester who usually outsmarts the simple-minded creatures around him (sometimes they are killed in cruel ruses). The inventive stories, Old South nostalgia, and extensive use of dialect in Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1880) made Harris a literary celebrity, beloved by children and praised by the likes of Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt. Remus was partly modeled on slaves whom Harris had met while working as a printer’s apprentice on a Georgia plantation. Harris visited the slave quarters to record hundreds of tales, which were told to him from memory. He considered himself the mouthpiece of natural-born bards, claiming that the stories he transcribed were “all genuine folk-tales.”

In a remarkable 1949 essay, the author Bernard Wolfe reads Uncle Remus as a shadow of Harris’s unconscious, itself a reflection of the paradox presented by America’s “original sin.” Remus, the kindly raconteur who spends more time with someone else’s children than he does with his own, is an idealized father figure capable of intimacy but ultimately neutered and nonthreatening. Wolfe argued that Remus embodied all those qualities that Harris believed he himself lacked: originality, sociability, eternal lightheartedness, emotional generosity. No matter that Harris was re-creating stories that often undercut the saccharine lost South he so adored. “It is the white man who manufactures the Negro grin,” Wolfe writes. “The stereotype reflects the looker, his thwartings and yearnings, not the person looked at; it is born out of intense subjective need.”

When Harris put pen to paper, he slipped into a sort of written minstrel act. Stories shared by real slaves unfolded within the edifice of Harris’s personal mythology. Remus was the “‘darky’ entertainer” archetype who, as Ralph Ellison argued in the Partisan Review, a decade after Wolfe, “derives not from the Negro but from the Anglo-Saxon branch of American folklore.” Or, as Gates and Tatar write, “the more authentic [Harris] tried to make the collection, the more troubling the entire project became.” This “troubling” effect points to the indeterminate nature of Uncle Remus’s voice. Is it marked by harmony—a seamless merging of Harris’s performance in print with the orally transmitted stories of slaves—or discord?

Howard Odum’s relationship with John “Left Wing” Gordon provides a different angle from which to view the dilemma raised by the Remus tales. Theirs is another case that blurred the line between African-American folklore and the mythologizing projections of a white intermediary. Odum, an influential social scientist from Georgia, was the first chairman of the sociology department at the University of North Carolina. He and his colleague Guy Johnson published The Negro and His Songs (1925) and Negro Workaday Songs (1926), pioneering social-psychological studies of blues and work songs. While collecting material for the latter book, Odum met Gordon, a black construction worker and skillful storyteller in Chapel Hill. In exchange for food and whiskey, Gordon shared with Odum the songs, jokes, toasts, and tales that would form the basis for Odum’s Black Ulysses trilogy: Rainbow Round My Shoulder (1928), Wings on My Feet (1929), and Cold Blue Moon (1931).

The trilogy—a hodgepodge of epic, myth, picaresque novel, and sociological reportage—narrates the adventures of Black Ulysses, a restless wanderer and itinerant laborer. He is an outlaw, hustler, and gambler capable of arbitrary violence and outbursts of affection, combining qualities of antiheroes like Stagolee and Railroad Bill, as well as the virtues of the vulnerable family man John Henry. The trilogy follows Black Ulysses’s childhood and early adult life, his stint as a soldier during World War I, and a rainy-day recitation of ghost stories passed down from his formerly enslaved grandfather. Black Ulysses’s exploits are dutifully juxtaposed with those of The Odyssey’s hero—Odum was well-versed in the classics—and the books abound with unusual plays on black folk tropes: gourd vines and ghost soldiers, tar men and cursed plantations, doomed ships and extravagant hunts.

Odum undertook his project on the strength of two convictions: first, that the story of Gordon/Black Ulysses was above all an American story and therefore not beholden to any single race; and second, that his fieldwork gave him a special insight into the mind and soul of the black Everyman (whose plight represented the “common denominator of the societal process”). In the introduction to his doctoral thesis at Clark University, Odum wrote: “To know the soul of a people and to find the source from which flows the expression of folk-thought is to comprehend in a large measure the capabilities of that people. To obtain the truest expression of the folk-mind and feeling is to reveal much of the inner consciousness of a race.” Odum contrasted folk society, which he understood as a spontaneous and homogeneous form of group organization, with what he called “state civilization.” For him, black folk culture was to American Southern society what the family was to the nation-state; although one was supposedly less complex, it was the ideological and sentimental foundation that allowed the other to exist. Because the black Everyman was the chief representative of that family, it was important to understand and assimilate him for “regional balance and equality of man.” Despite his relatively progressive views, however, Odum’s representation of a black folk hero would do less to show “the Negro” as he really was than to show, in literary form, how he was seen and imagined.

The poet Mark Van Doren, a former literary editor and film critic for The Nation, in a 1929 review of the second book in the trilogy, described Black Ulysses’s speech as “direct and pure.” “I like to think,” Van Doren writes, “that Mr. Odum has for the most part worked without tricks—that Gordon’s talk has somehow come straight through him to us.” But not even Odum could know whether the language came from himself or “nature.” He was evasive when asked how much of the trilogy’s content stemmed directly from Gordon and how much Odum had invented himself. To Odum’s credit, the trilogy is distinct from the Uncle Remus stories in the extent to which it imagines the inner lives of its black characters. Black Ulysses has actual aspirations and shows misgivings about some of his white associates, while Remus, for the most part, does neither.

Though Odum believed that presenting black folklore to white Southerners was a “service that [could] be rendered in the solution of race problems,” he didn’t notice the paradox of his magnum opus: His method for social critique used stereotypes from the very society he wanted to change. This is most evident in the prefatory passages of the trilogy’s first volume, Rainbow Round My Shoulder. Each chapter is preceded by fragmented authorial asides meant to serve as Odum’s own coolheaded analysis. One description, which presumably tries to challenge myths about black women by juxtaposing them with a subsequent account of Black Ulysses’s mother, ends up as a kind of meta-commentary on its own work:

Again, the Negro woman and mother, chiefest of paradoxes in the white and Negro world. Faithful worker and stolid servant. Provider for large families. Revered “Auntie” and “Mammy” enshrined in memory and literature. Faithful, dependable, powerful in prepotency. The woman God forgot.

Significantly, the scholar Lynn Moss Sanders notes in her book about the trilogy that the real John Gordon’s mother died very early in his life. Black Ulysses’s mother, then, is one of Odum’s most explicit fictions, a semi-real woman whom Odum fleshes out by making her conform to a prevailing image, the long-suffering “mammy,” reproduced in postbellum plantation romances and popular advertising. Black Ulysses himself is always trying to escape white society’s labyrinth of lies, including its folk archetypes. In the arcane process of recording, editing, structuring, embellishing, and adding to Gordon’s stories, Odum fortified the structure he sought to critique.

Of course, the history of black folktales isn’t all doom and gloom. The lore has been essential in forming the basis for what Gates deems a “great tradition of canonical literature.” In the last decade, Patricia McKissack’s inventive and beautifully illustrated book Never Forgotten (2011) was praised for the way it incorporated West African and African-American folklore for young readers. The important role of the ghost, or “haint,” is central to Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House (2015), while Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) builds on the rich mythos that has surrounded the workings of that antislavery network. The roles that Harris and Odum have played in the evolution of the black folk tradition echo Tatar’s assessment that these tales are “narratives alive with social energy constantly turning into new versions of themselves as they are repurposed for different audiences.” Like the artisan-gods of early lore, contemporary black storytellers show that the promise of self-creation is only minorly misleading. Creating oneself might mean breathing life into another, reviving the old bones and flesh heaps in the corner, and making them sing the only songs you know, the ones your mother taught you.

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