Folklore: Overview

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Folklore: Overview

African-American folklore is a mode of creative cultural production that manifests itself in expressive forms such as tales, songs, proverbs, greetings, gestures, rhymes, material artifacts, and other created products and performances. Although African-American folklore is most often thought of in terms of these expressive forms, it is in reality a dynamic process of creativity that arises in performative contexts characterized by face-to-face interaction. The performative aspects of this folklore is what distinguishes it from other modes of creative cultural production within an African-American context. In other words, unlike other modes of African-American creative cultural production, such as literary and popular culture, folklore gains its meaning and value as a form of expression within unmediated performances on an ongoing basis in African-American communities.

Although African-American folklore should be conceptualized as a performed medium, it has an important historical dimension as well. That is, its performance even in contemporary settings entails the creative manipulation of historical forms of indefinite temporal origin. As such, it is intricately linked to processes of black culture building in that it has historically served as an important means of communicating shared cultural attitudes, beliefs, and values of and within an ever-changing African community in the United States. As interrelated phenomena, African American folklore creation and culture building are both dynamic creative processes with roots in the diverse African cultures from which contemporary African Americans originated.

Among scholars of African-American folklore, however, the existence of a dynamic relationship between African and African-American processes of folklore creation has historically been controversial. The controversy arose in large part from the intricate link that folklorists envisioned between folklore creation and culture building. Early in the study of African-American culture and folklore, scholars postulated that African people were so traumatized by the process of enslavement that they arrived in the New World culturally bankrupt and, therefore, dependent on Europeans for new cultural capital. In early studies, this view of a lack of African cultural retention contributed to a conception of the products of African-American folklore as mere imitations of European expressive forms. Although this view has been challenged over the years by the discovery of decidedly African cultural forms in the United States, these cultural expressions have been disparaged further by being identified as "Africanisms," isolated cases that somehow survived in the New World despite the trauma of enslavement. "Africanisms," however, represent the most obvious evidence that African culture and cultural forms have had a profound influence on black culture building and folklore creation in the United States (Roberts, 1989, p. 9).

Folklore and Slavery

Historically, the difficulty of appreciating and recognizing the influence of African culture and cultural forms on African-American folklore has been exacerbated by the fact that Africans brought to the United States as slaves did not themselves share a coherent culture. Only recently have scholars begun to realize the irrelevance of this perspective to an understanding of black culture building in African communities throughout the New World. For example, Sidney Mintz and Richard Price have suggested that although Africans enslaved in the New World did not share a common culture or folk tradition upon arrival, they did share "certain common orientations to reality which tended to focus the attention of individuals from West African cultures upon similar kinds of events, even though the ways of handling these events may seem quite diverse in formal terms." While these "common orientations to reality" may not have been sufficient to support the recreation of African cultural institutions in their pristine form, they could and did serve as a foundation for culture building in a new environment (1972, p.5).

African people who were forcibly unrooted from their homelands and transplanted in America as slaves brought with them cherished memories of their traditional lifestyles and cultural forms that served as the foundations of African-American folk tradition. To understand the dynamic processes that characterized the development over time of an African-American folk tradition, we must recognize that both black culture building and folklore creation have proceeded as recursive rather than linear processes of endlessly devising solutions to both old and new problems of living under ever-changing social, political, and economic conditions. While both culture building and folklore creation are dynamic and creative in that they adapt to social needs and goals, they are also enduring in that they change by building upon previous manifestations of themselves. Cultural transformation is a normative process experienced and carried out by all groups. In the process, the institutional and expressive forms by which a group communicates and upholds the ideals by which it lives are equally subject to transformation.

As James Snead (1984, p. 61) has argued, however, the failure to recognize the dynamic and transformational properties of African cultures in the New World has been influenced historically by the view that African cultures are static. Only by recognizing that such cultures are and always have been dynamic (i.e., capable of transforming themselves in response to the social needs and goals of African people) is it possible to envision African-American folklore as a continuous process of creativity intricately linked to a historical tradition of black culture building with roots in Africa. During the period of black slavery in the United States, enslaved Africans began the process of building a culture based on their "common orientations to reality." Despite their lack of a sense of shared identity and values upon arrival, the similarity of the conditions and treatment that they faced in the slave system facilitated their ability to envision themselves as a community. To communicate their shared identity and value system, they transformed many of their African cultural forms by focusing on the common elements within them. In the process, their creative efforts as well as the final expressive products they created were greatly influenced by the differences in their situations in the United States from those they had known in Africa. In other words, the transformation of African cultural forms involved a process of creating new forms based on common elements from diverse African cultures and their infusion with insights and meanings relevant to contemporary situations in the United States. That these new forms did not always resemble some African original did not negate the debt they owed to African cultural roots.

The beginnings of an African-American folk tradition can be traced to the slavery period and to the efforts of African people from diverse cultural backgrounds to maintain a sense of continuity with their past. Throughout the period of slavery, scattered references to African-American folklore appeared in written records. Systematic efforts to collect and study such folklore, however, did not begin until the late nineteenth century. The earliest efforts to collect it were carried out primarily by white missionaries who flocked into the South following Emancipation to assist black freedpeople. Although these early efforts were motivated in large part by a desire to use African Americans' creative cultural production to demonstrate their humanity and fitness for freedom, such activities nevertheless preserved for posterity a vast body of African-American oral tradition.

An equally important motive for early collectors of black folklore was the prevalent belief in the late nineteenth century that folklore as a mode of creative cultural production was rapidly disappearing. In the case of African Americans, many envisioned the growing rate of literacy among freedpeople as a sure sign that the African-American folk tradition would soon disappear. Although contemporary folklorists realize the falsity of this perspective, it nevertheless provided a primary impetus for the collection of African-American folklore in the late nineteenth century and influenced a concentration on those forms that had obvious roots in slavery. During this productive period of African-American folklore gathering, collectors focused most of their attention on three forms: spirituals, animal-trickster tales, and folk beliefs.


Spirituals received a great deal of attention, especially from northern missionaries, in the late nineteenth century. The first book-length collection of African-American folklore published was Slave Songs of the United States, which primarily contained spirituals. The spiritual song tradition of African Americans developed during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the conversion of large numbers of enslaved African Americans to Christianity. Spirituals as a body of songs were developed primarily around the actions of Old Testament figures whose faith in God allowed them to be delivered from bondage and persecution in dramatic ways. The songs followed a pronounced leader/chorus pattern known as call and response, which in performance created a kind of communal dialogue about the power of faith and belief in an omnipotent God. While the songs often portrayed heaven as the ultimate reward of faith in God, their primary focus was on earthly deliverance from bondage and persecution. Through analogy to Old Testament stories of persecution and divine deliverance, the songs constantly reiterated the power of God to deliver the faithful.

Spirituals provided enslaved Africans with an alternative expressive form for communicating their vision of the power of God and the rewards of faith in Christianity to that offered by the slave masters. As enslaved Africans freely and often testified, masters frequently attempted to use slaves' Christian conversion and participation in white religious services to reinforce the masters' view of enslavement. The dominant message that enslaved Africans received from white preachers was, "Servants, obey your masters." In the spirituals, enslaved Africans were able to convey to members of their community a more empowering and liberating vision of God and the Christian religion. Of equal importance, the creation and performance of spirituals allowed them to incorporate more of their African cultural heritage into Christian worship. Despite general prohibitions against unsupervised worship, enslaved Africans created opportunities for separate worship in slave cabins, "hush harbors," and even their own churches, where they created and performed spirituals in a style and manner that incorporated African performance practices. These practices included the development of the "shout," a religious ritual characterized by a counterclockwise shuffling movement reminiscent of African ritual dancing. The primary purpose of the "shout" was to induce spirit possession, a form of communion with the supernatural valued by many people of African descent.

animal-trickster tales

In the late nineteenth century, the collection of spirituals was rivaled only by the collection of animal-trickster tales. With the publication of Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings in 1881, the collection of animal-trickster tales by various individuals escalated. By the end of the nineteenth century, literally hundreds of these tales had been collected and published. Early collectors of black folktales often expressed amazement over the variety of animal-trickster tales created by enslaved Africans. That tales of the animal trickster would become central in the narrative performances of enslaved Africans is not surprising, however. In the cultures from which enslaved Africans originated, folktales in which clever animals acted as humans to impart important lessons about survival were ubiquitous. Although various animals acted as tricksters in different African traditions, the tales of their exploits showed important similarities throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, even the same plots could be found in the trickster-tale traditions of diverse African groups (Feldmann, 1973, p. 15).

In the United States, the animal trickster was most often represented by Brer Rabbit, although other animals acted as tricksters in some tales. Although a number of trickster tales found in the repertory of enslaved Africans retained plots from African tradition, many transformed the African trickster in ways that reflected the situation of enslavement. The impetus for transforming the African trickster was not only the need to create a single tradition out of many but also the differences in the situations faced by Africans in the New World from those in Africa that had given the exploits of tricksters there meaning and value. In the trickster tales of enslaved Africans, the trickster was an actor particularly adept at obtaining the material means of survival within an atmosphere similar to that in which enslaved Africans lived. Unlike African tricksters, whose behavior was often conceptualized as a response to famine or other conditions in which material shortage existed, the trickster of enslaved African Americans acted in a situation of material plenty.

The primary obstacle to the acquisition of the material means of survival for the trickster of enslaved Africans was the physical power and control wielded by the dupe. This situation reflected the conditions under which enslaved Africans lived, in which the material means of survival were readily available but were denied by the control of the slave masters. In these tales, the trickster was portrayed as developing clever strategies for obtaining material goods, especially food, despite the efforts of his dupes to deny access. As historians of the slave experience have noted, the concern with the acquisition of food was a common one during slavery (Blassingame, 1972, p. 158; Genovese, 1976, pp. 638639). In tale after tale, Brer Rabbit proved to be a masterful manipulator of his dupes, who appeared most often in the guise of the wolf or the fox. The tales often portrayed situations in which cleverness, verbal dexterity, and native intelligence or wit allowed the trickster to triumph over the dupes. For enslaved Africans, this provided a model of behavior for dealing with the power and control of the slave masters over the material means of survival.


Often reported as case studies, the folk beliefs of enslaved Africans also seemed widespread to collectors in the late nineteenth century. In many ways, the concerns of collectors reflected a stereotypical view of many white Americans that African Americans were inordinately superstitious. The collection of folk beliefs centered primarily around the practice of conjuration. At the core of this practice was the conjurer, a figure transformed by enslaved Africans but based on African religious leaders such as medicine men. While the conjurer in different parts of the South was known by different names, including root doctor, hoodooer, and two-heads, the practice of conjuration was remarkably similar wherever it was found (Bacon and Herron, 1973, pp. 360361). In most instances, conjurers were believed to be individuals possessed of a special gift to both cause and cure illness. Although the source of the conjurer's powers was usually believed to be mysterious, some believed it came from an evil source, others believed it came from God, and still others believed it could be taught by those possessed of it.

During the period of slavery, conjurers played a prominent role among enslaved Africans, especially as healers. Although most slave masters attempted to provide for the health needs of enslaved Africans, their efforts often fell short. In general, the state of scientific medicine during the period of slavery was so poorly developed that, even under ideal conditions, doctors were ineffective in treating many diseases. The importance of conjurers for enslaved Africans also had to do with beliefs about the causes of illness, beliefs deeply influenced by their African cultural heritage. Like their ancestors, many enslaved Africans continued to believe that illness was caused by the ill will of one individual against another through an act of conjuration. Individuals could induce illness either through their own action or by consulting a conjurer, who could be persuaded to "lay a spell." In these cases, only the power of a conjurer could alleviate the illness.

In their practices, conjurers used both material objects, such as charms and amulets, and verbal incantations in the form of curses and spells. However, theirs was primarily an herbal practice; hence, the common name of root doctor for these practitioners. The frequent use of verbal incantations derived from African beliefs about the power of the spoken word to influence forces in nature for good or ill. Although conjurers have often been associated with unrelieved evil, their role was a culturally sanctioned one. Within the belief and social system that supported the practice of conjuration, social strife, believed to be the dominant cause of illness, was seen as disruptive to the equilibrium and harmony of the community. The conjurer's role was to discover the identity of the individual responsible for the disruption and to restore harmony. For both the social and physical well being of enslaved Africans, the conjurer's abilities in this regard proved beneficial. Not only did the presence of conjurers provide them with a means of tending to their own health needs, it also provided a mechanism for addressing issues of social strife within the group without the intervention of slave masters.

Although spirituals, trickster tales, and folk beliefs were the focus of most early collecting, the folklore of enslaved Africans included more than these genres. Collectors seldom noted other vibrant genres that developed during slavery, including proverbs, courtship rituals, prayers, sermons, and forms of folktale other than trickster narratives. But while there was no concerted effort to collect these genres, examples sometimes found their way into collections. In addition, folklorists and other scholars have begun to utilize various kinds of records, including plantation journals, slave narratives, and diaries of various sorts in an effort to better understand the nature of black vernacular creativity during the slave period (Joyner, 1984; Ferris, 1983). These types of resources have proven particularly useful in the study of black material culture. Because slave masters were generally responsible for the material needs of enslaved Africans, the importance of knowledge possessed by Africans and applied to the production of various material objects has generally been overlooked. However, African skill and knowledge were responsible for the production of many material objects used in everyday life on farms and plantations. It has become evident, for example, that African knowledge and skill in rice cultivation were responsible for the profitable rice industry that thrived along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. In addition, African knowledge of basketry and textiles was responsible for the development of a unique tradition of basketry and quilting that continues to be practiced today (Ferris, 1983, pp. 63110 and 235274). Of equal importance, many enslaved Africans who served as blacksmiths, carpenters, cooks, and seamstresses on farms and plantations used African techniques in the production of the material products for which they were responsible.

Post-emancipation Folklore

Despite early predictions of the demise of an African-American folk tradition with the advent of freedom and literacy, African Americans have continued to create and perform various genres of folklore. In many ways, the success of early collectors was a testament to the vibrancy and importance of vernacular creativity among African Americans. Although Emancipation brought about important changes in lifestyle, it did not alter many of the conditions that had made the forms of folklore created by enslaved Africans meaningful. In the post-Emancipation era, the development of the sharecropping system and the imposition of Jim Crow laws created patterns of economic and social oppression similar to those that had existed during slavery. In fact, the similarities in the conditions of freed-people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to those endured by enslaved Africans allowed them to simply alter many of the forms they had created during slavery to reflect new realities.

As the conditions that would influence black culture building in the post-Emancipation era became clear, African Americans began the process of both transforming existing forms and creating new ones to communicate their perceptions of the economic, social, and political realties that informed their lives as freedpeople. With the failure of Reconstruction and growing patterns of segregation following Emancipation, African Americans came to realize that conditions imposed on them that inhibited their progress in society had to be addressed differently. In a general sense, the powerful role that the law played in the lives of freedpeople made many of the expressive strategies developed during slavery for dealing with white power and control no longer effective or in the best interest of African Americans. For example, the tales of the animal trickster, which had provided an important model of behavior for dealing with white economic exploitation and social oppression during slavery, gradually lost their effectiveness as the expressive embodiment of a strategy for freedpeople. In some animal-trickster tales collected in the late nineteenth century, contests between the animal trickster and dupe were settled in the courts.


Despite the decline of animal-trickster-tale narration, African Americans retained the trickster as a focus for folklore creation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the trickster was transformed into the badman, a character whose primary adversary was the law, personified by the white policeman or sheriff (Roberts, 1989, pp. 171220). The emergence of white lawmen as powerful and often brutal defenders of white privilege made it extremely problematic for African Americans to retaliate directly against whites for their exploitation. At the same time, the proliferation of patterns of segregation and economic exploitation and the rise of Jim Crow laws made the black community an arena for the actions of badmen. Therefore, although badmen spent much of their energy attempting to elude the law, they found their dupes in members of the black community. As tricksters, they attempted to dupe members of the black community into participating in illegal activities such as gambling, bootlegging, prostitution, numbers running, and drug dealing. That is, badmen as tricksters sought material gain by outwitting both African Americans and the law. In this sense, the black badmen of the post-Emancipation era faced a double bind not unknown to many African Americans.

Folklore creation surrounding black badmen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected changed conditions faced by African Americans in society. As the law in both its abstract and personified forms became a powerful force in maintaining white privilege, African Americans were forced to turn increasingly to their own communities for solutions to their economic and social oppression. Because the law was often brutal in its treatment of African Americans, they made avoidance of the law a virtue and attempted to keep the law out of their communities. In so doing, they assumed a great deal of responsibility for maintaining harmony and peace among themselves. In economically deprived black communities, however, the means of enhancing one's economic status were extremely limited. The rise of secular entertainment establishments such as jukes and bars served as a focus for many of the activities associated with black badmen. In these establishments, many African Americans found activities by which they had the potential to enhance their economic well being, such as gambling and numbers playing, as well as offering psychological escape in whiskey and drugs from the oppressive conditions of their lives. Despite their illegal nature, these activities posed little danger to the black community as long as individuals who participated in them played by the unwritten rules. However, the consumption of alcohol and the existence of games of chance created an environment in which violence often erupted and the law intervened.

The exploits of black badmen typically unfolded in jukes and bars. The badman emerged in folklore as an individual who, in defense of his trade, committed an act of murder. The badman's exploits were celebrated in legends and ballads, narrative songs that told of their deeds. For example, the notorious gambling badman Stackolee purportedly shot Billy Lyons, who was cheating him in a card game. Duncan shot the white policeman, Brady, to end his bullying of patrons at Duncan's bar. Invariably caught and punished, the badman was treated sympathetically in folklore. The sympathy engendered by the badman derives from the importance to some members of the black community of the activities with which he became associated, as well as the individuals he killed. The badman's victims were usually cheaters or bullies whose actions threatened to bring the power and force of the law down on the community. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many African Americans endured economic conditions that made the activities identified with black badmen important to their material well being. At the same time, they recognized the potential and real consequences of participating in these activities.

In many ways, the focus of folklore creation surrounding black badmen reflects the nature of black folklore since Emancipation. In a profound sense, expressive celebration of the black badman reflected a general pattern of forms that focused on conditions faced by African Americans on a recurrent basis yet suggested that the solutions lie within the black community. The most common types of folktale performed by African Americans since Emancipation attempt to identify the origins of conditions that inhibit black progress in society. These often humorous narratives attempt through suggestion and persuasion to address intragroup attitudes and behaviors perceived as responsible for the conditions faced by African Americans. At the same time, they suggest that when African Americans recognize their own role in maintaining behaviors not in their best interest, they gain the ability and power to change them.

origin tales

In many narratives the focus of the tales is on the origins of certain animal characteristics. These tales were developed during slavery and usually involved animals from the trickster cycle. In some instances, the animal trickster is made the dupe. The best known of these tales purport to explain why the rabbit has a short tail or the buzzard a bald head. While these tales often seem to be naive explanations for the physical characteristics of different animals, in reality they impart useful lessons about African-American moral and social values. In most instances, the tales reveal that the acquisition of the physical characteristics came about as a result of obsessive pride and vanity, or a failure to evaluate the motives of one known to be an adversary.

The didactic intent of African-American origin tales is even more evident in those that involve human actors. Many of these tales, which also originated in slavery, continue to be performed in African-American communities today (Dance, 1978, pp. 711). The focus is on the development of certain physical features associated with African Americans as a race. For example, the performer purports to explain why African Americans have big feet or hands, nappy hair, black skin, and so forth. The stories are invariably set at the beginning of time when God, a principal actor in the tales, gave out human traits. African Americans are envisioned as always getting the "worse" characteristics because they arrived late, were playing cards and did not hear God calling them, or were too impatient to wait for God. Despite the humor often evoked in these tales, they speak to African Americans about certain negative patterns of behavior stereotypically associated with the racelaziness, tardiness, impatience, and the like. Rather than being self-deprecating, as some scholars have suggested, these tales attempt in a humorous way to call attention to certain behavioral patterns perceived by some members of the black community as inhibitive to the advancement of African Americans. In addition, they reveal one of the ways in which African Americans have historically attempted to communicate in intragroup contexts the nature and consequences of negative stereotypes of them.

colored man tales

Closely associated with tales of origin is a large group of tales that revolves around the character of "Colored Man" (Dorson, 1956, pp. 171186). These tales often purport to explain the origins of conditions experienced by African Americans in society. From all internal evidence, Colored Man tales are a post-Emancipation invention that thrived in the early and mid-twentieth century. In this group of tales, Colored Man is pitted in a contest with White Man and a member of another racial or cultural group, either Jew or Mexican. In some instances, the three actors are given a task by God, usually involving the selection of packages of different sizes; in others, they are involved in a scheme of their own making. In the former case, Colored Man makes the wrong decision, whether he selects the largest or the smallest package. His choices are most often conceptualized as a result of his greed, his ability to be deceived by appearances of easy gain, his laziness, or even his efforts not to be outsmarted. The tales almost invariably revolve around some stereotype associated with African Americans. By portraying situations in which a generic African American acts out a stereotype, the performers of these tales implicitly call for critical self-examination. On the other hand, by setting these tales at the beginning of time, performers suggest that conditions experienced by African Americans in the present result from systemic sources.

Throughout the twentieth century, African Americans have created and performed folktales that deal realistically with their situation in society. Many function as jokes that revolve around stereotypes. However, these tales function to constantly remind African Americans that one of the most problematic aspects of their existence in American society derives from negative images of them held by other groups. In many of these tales, the African American appears as the dupe of the nonblacks, who use stereotypes to manipulate him into making bad choices. In other tales, African-American performers celebrate certain stereotypical images that seem to allow them to gain an advantage over other groups. This type of narrative usually revolves around sexual stereotypes; blacks triumph over members of other groups because they demonstrate superior sexual prowess or larger sexual organs. In their celebration of an image of self generally evaluated negatively in society, African Americans reveal an interesting ambivalence about such images and possibly a different value orientation.

the blues

Besides narrative, other forms of African-American folklore created since Emancipation reveal an intimate concern with intragroup problems and solutions. Of the genres created and performed by African Americans, the blues is concerned directly with conditions and situations within the black community. As a body of song, the blues touches on various problematic areas of black life like unemployment, homelessness, sharecropping, police brutality, and economic exploitation (Titon, 1977; Keil, 1966; Oliver, 1963). However, it concentrates primarily on the problems of black male/female relationships. Although the blues celebrates the joys of being in a successful relationship, it most often focuses on the problems involved in sustaining one. These problems often revolve around economic issues, especially the inability of black males to provide for the material well being of lover, wife, or family.

In the late nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, the blues served as an ongoing commentary on conditions faced by many African Americans. As an expressive form, the blues did not often propose solutions to the problems it identified but rather focused on defining the contours of situations shared by large numbers of African Americans. When the blues did offer a solution, it most often proposed mobility: either moving out of a troubled relationship or moving out of town. It might be suggested that the idea of mobility as a solution to problematic situations often found in the blues simply reflected a solution embraced by thousands of African Americans in the early twentieth century. During the heyday of the blues, African Americans witnessed the migration of thousands from the rural South into urban centers in search of better economic and social conditions.

For many African Americans, the blues reflected much about the nature of black culture building in the early twentieth century. It emerged as the first solo form of musical expression created by African Americans and signaled the growing diversity of the black population. In the midst of the Great Migration and other changes in black life, the blues revealed the difficulty of speaking about a common African-American experience in post-Emancipation America. It envisioned a community beset by various problems of identity, values, and even beliefs arising from mobility as well as economic and social upheaval. Although blues performers spoke from a first-person point of view, their popularity derived from their ability to use personal experience as a metaphor for shared realities. Despite its popularity with a large segment of the black population, however, the blues was not valued by all members of the community. Because of its association with secular entertainment establishments in which drinking alcohol, dancing, gambling, and often violent crimes occurred, as well as to its often sexually explicit lyrics, it was sometimes strongly disparaged by religious and socially conscious members of the black community.


In the early twentieth century, however, the blues had its expressive and religious counterpart in the emergence of gospel music (Heilbut, 1975; Allen, 1991). The development of modern gospel can be attributed to two interrelated influences, which can be conceptualized as, on the one hand, musical and, on the other, social and religious. Although spirituals continued to be performed well after Emancipation, the message of deliverance from bondage and persecution through analogy to Old Testament figures and events lost much of its meaning for freedpeople. In addition, performance of spirituals in the post-Emancipation era was greatly influenced by efforts of some African-American religious leaders to make black religious practices more closely resemble those of white Americans. As a result, many black churches banned the "shout," an important context for spiritual song performance, and began to encourage the singing of European hymns to the neglect of spirituals. At the same time, the emergence of Europeanized arrangements and performances of spirituals proliferated, especially with touring college choirs such as those organized at Fisk University and Hampton Institute. The success of these choirs, as well as the barbershop-quartet craze of the nineteenth century, influenced the organization of hundreds of black harmonizing quartets that sang primarily arranged spirituals.

While these changes in the religious and musical life of African Americans in the South greatly influenced the attitude toward and performance of spirituals, the Great Migration confronted many African Americans with a new lifestyle and environment that threatened their ability to maintain the spiritual values that many had traditionally associated with black religion. In urban areas, many African Americans embraced not only new social and economic patterns but also modes of worship in churches that did not fulfill social and spiritual needs as southern churches had. In both South and North, many African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries turned to the newly developing Spiritual Church movement and Holiness movement and the storefront churches that arose to house them. In these churches, many African Americans found patterns of worship more conducive to their religious sensibilities, and an emerging musical style that came to be known as gospel. Unlike the spirituals of enslaved Africans, gospel songs tended to emphasize the New Testament message of love and faith in God as the solutions to human problems. As such, gospel relies less on analogy to Old Testament personalities and events and more on the abstract New Testament promise of rest and reward for the faithful.

In an important sense, gospel, like the blues, envisions a diverse black community, whereas spirituals relied on the existence of a coherent community sharing a single condition: slavery. As such, gospel songs tend to abstract the nature of the problems for which Christian faith provides a solution. In essence, the lyrics of gospel songs seldom identify specific conditions but, instead, speak of burdens, trials, and tribulations and offer faith in God as a solution. In this regard, gospel is a genre that gains its meaning in performance. Through performance, its apparent abstract message is concretized in messages delivered as sermons, prayers, and testimonies, which provide numerous illustrations of the situations of which gospel music speaks. Although gospel songs are usually written by individuals and recorded by commercial companies, a development that goes back to the 1920s and 1930s, gospel remains a vernacular form performed in African-American communities in churches and concert halls throughout the United States on a regular basis.


The study of African-American folklore in the twentieth century remains vital. The focus of collection in recent years has turned from the rural South to urban communities in both North and South where viable traditions of African-American oral expressive culture continue to thrive. In the process, folklorists continue to produce important collections of African-American folklore reflective of both historical and contemporary concerns. For example, the toast tradition, which involves the recitation of long narrative poems revolving around the actions of black badmen, has been collected extensively (Jackson, 1974; Wepman, Newman, and Binderman, 1976). These poems, which have been collected in prisons and on the streets, chronicle the lives of individuals involved in criminal activities and warn of the consequences of their behavior. Although a large number of toast texts have been published, the toast as a genre is not widely known among African Americans. In fact, it seems to be known and performed primarily by individuals who participate in a criminal lifestyle or individuals who have connections with it. While toasts seem to celebrate criminality and the peculiar brand of "badness" associated with it, these poems tend to be highly moralistic and realistic in terms of the consequences of criminal activity. In additiondespite their often offensive language, violent imagery, and seeming disregard for legal and moral authority in the black community and societytoasts give expressive embodiment to behavioral and economic strategies and reflect attitudes embraced by some individuals in African-American communities with regard to drug dealing, prostitution, gambling, and other so-called victimless crimes.

the dozens

Although not primarily or exclusively an urban genre, the dozens became the focus of much study in the latter half of the twentieth century (Abrahams, 1970). The dozens is a generic name for a form of verbal artistry known variously in African-American communities as joning, wolfing, busting, breaking, cracking and snapping, and by a host of other names. Although the art of playing the dozens is generally associated with adolescent males, the practice in different ways is one that knows no age limit or gender. Generally speaking, younger males tend to play more often and to rely more on formulaic rhymes and phrases in their performances. Often discussed as verbal exchanges that disparage the mother through implications of sexual impropriety, playing the dozens just as often involves apparent insults to one's opponent. While playing the dozens has been associated with the acquisition of verbal skill, especially among young African-American males, it also serves as an intragroup mechanism for communicating information with negative import for individuals. Regardless of who plays the dozens or how it is played, the content of the exchanges focuses on behaviors that violate certain norms generally accepted by African Americans, whether they relate to sexual activity, personal habits, physical characteristics, modes of dress, and so forth.

A concern with playing the dozens in recent years has been accompanied by a general focus on other forms of African-American folklore that reveal a rich tradition of verbal play. Forms such as signifying, marking, and loud-talking have been discussed as a reflection of the art of everyday life in African-American communities (Mitchell-Kernan, 1972). The artistry of these forms derives from the ability of individuals to encode messages with serious import in humorous and witty forms. In addition, the rise of rap music, which transforms many African-American expressive forms into a flourishing narrative tradition, reflects the continuing verbal artistry in black communities. Rap, which exists as both a narrative and a musical tradition, reflects a continuing concern in African-American expressive culture with identifying conditions and situations that impact negatively on the black community. Though a diverse group, rap songs frequently point to the need for self-evaluation, criticism, and change in the black community itself without denying the impact of systemic causes for many of the conditions it identifies. The most recent genre of African American folklore to be identified is the urban legend, an amorphous expressive form that is often communicated as a rumor (Turner, 1993). One of the earliest examples of this genre concerns the fast-food franchise known as Churches Fried Chicken. According to the legend/rumor, Churches Fried Chicken, a once highly visible restaurant in African American neighborhoods in the United States, is owned by the Ku Klux Klan. The owners are reported to have injected into its chicken a substance that renders African-American males impotent. While no longer as popular as it once was, the Churches Fried Chicken legend has been found throughout the United States among African Americans. Over time other rumors emerged concerning high profile businesses that cater to or have become popular with African Americans, such as British Knight sports wear, Reebok Sneakers, and several soft drinks. In each case, the businesses have been associated with the Ku Klux Klan which inserts surreptitious messages in their products that identify this organization as owners. Other legend/rumors found among African Americans include an accusation that the CIA is responsible for introducing crack cocaine and other addictive substances into the African American community. In almost all cases, the performers of these narratives cite an authoritative source such as a newspaper or the popular television show Sixty Minutes as the source of their information. Although scholars have attempted to verify the accuracy of these accounts, the value of the stories to those who circulate and/or believe them has little to do with their factuality.

These narratives reveal a continuing concern in the African American community with its physical well being and survival. In the most general sense, they exist to remind the community of hidden dangers for African Americans that exist in the society. By associating the danger with the Ku Klux Klan, a racist organization with a history of ill-will and violent intentions toward African Americans, performers of such narratives single out an organization with a history of racist actions against the black community. In the minds of many, the Klan continues to be a secret source of evil in the society which it directs toward African Americans. The authority of claims of clandestine activities by this organization is enhanced by naming the media as the source of the story.

African-American folklore reflects many of the ways in which African Americans have historically communicated their attitudes, beliefs, and values in artistic forms in everyday life. Although the roots of the study of this folklore lie in beliefs about its ultimate demise, the African-American tradition of vernacular creativity and performance remains vital. While the genres that constitute the African-American folk tradition are too numerous to be examined in a short discussion, the basic categories of narrative, song, verbal artistry, and material culture suggest the tradition's contours. With African culture and cultural forms providing the tradition-rich source of African-American folklore, it has been endlessly transformed to both aid and reflect black culture building in the United States. On an everyday basis, African-American folklore continues to provide individuals with a rich creative outlet for expression and performance.

See also Africanisms; Blues, The; Dozens, The; Folk Arts and Crafts; Folklore: U.S. Folk Heroes and Characters; Folklore: Latin American and Caribbean Culture Heroes and Characters; Folk Medicine; Folk Music; Folk Religion; Gospel Music; Rap; Spirituals


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john w. roberts (1996)
Updated by author 2005