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.