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The Dynamic of African American Folktales

  • Date Submitted: 04/06/2010 09:12 PM
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African American folklore has long been a topic of interest to anthropologists, many of them very high profile. These folklorists include Joel Chandler Harris, compiler of the now famous Br’er Rabbit Stories, Zora Neale Hurston, an early African American anthropologist and student of Franz Boas, who made her name recording the folklore of black communities in her native Florida, as well as by more recent and celebrated academics such as Alan Dundes and William Bascom.
There are an outstanding amount of examples of these folktales, they are extremely colorful, and are an intrinsic part of the wider American cultural heritage. Although the repertoire of African American folklore is vast and varied, we can discern from a great body of examples a singular dynamic related to the position of the Trickster hero character that is, in part, delineated in John W. Roberts’ superb study, From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom. This dynamic begins in Africa, despite longstanding debate over origins, and the attributes of the African trickster perseveres in a direct continuum through slavery and emancipation. Even today, the legacy of older trickster folktales and traditions can be found in our popular culture.
The stories that are the focus of this paper are of an oral tradition, however the work of folklorists and those who have appropriated and adapted them have turned many examples into pieces of literature and popular culture. Examples of these are the Harris’ Br’er Rabbit stories and the many versions Stagger Lee. Because of the popularity of many of these tales, their representation here as an oral tradition specific to the descendents of African slaves may seem somewhat limited, however it is appropriate in its historical context.
The examples discussed in this paper come primarily from the United States, except when citing African antecedents, although at times references are made to the traditions of other places in the...


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