African American Folklore and Folkways

views updated

African American Folklore and Folkways


The African American folk tradition, like any folk tradition, is by nature communal, the creation and expression of a group rather than an individual. Through their folk traditions, communities maintain connections with the past as they change over time, in this way making ancestral wisdom and practices available in the present.

In its concepts, materials, and performance styles, the African American folk tradition conserves West African philosophical and artistic traditions at the same time that it adapts those traditions to the changing circumstances of North American life. Through mass media and marketing, both at home and abroad, it also has a tremendous cultural impact in mainstream America and beyond.


Because African American culture is the product of adaptation and combination, there is no single African heritage to be found in African American folkways. As early as 1619, with the arrival of the first Africans in Jamestown, West African folk traditions began to combine with one other in North AmericaHausa with Yoruba, Wolof with Igbo, Akan with Bakongo.

In this process of combination, general principles have become fundamental African American cultural precepts: for example, Yoruba itutu, a state of personal coolness facilitating productive conversation and cooperation, has evolved into the African American imperative "Keep your cool. "In their performance names, the contemporary rappers Ice-Cube, Ice-T, Just-ice, Kool G Rap, Kool DJ Red Alert, Kool Mo Dee, LL Cool J, Chill Will, Doug E. Fresh, and Chuck Chillout, among others, pay honor to this Yoruba principle. Miles Davis's (1926-1991) 1949 jazz initiative "Birth of the Cool," along with his signature sunglasses, or "shades," honors the Yoruba conception of "shade" as a cool place where one builds communal relationships.

African words as well as concepts have taken their place in the tradition. The multipurpose African American term "funky" derives directly from the Bakongo term lu fuki, which denotes the smell of a worker who has contributed to the common good through labor. The original definition has been expanded to include any behavior that undergirds the distinctive folk identity of African American people. The Yoruba phrase for the act of talking back and forth between people, ise sise (pronounced "ee-say-she-shay"), sounds too much like the phrase "he say she say" to be a coincidence. The African American expression "dig it" has its origins in the Wolof term dega, meaning "to understand."

Both the Wolof dega and the Yoruba itutu are featured in Langston Hughes's short poem "Motto":

I play it cool
And dig all jive.
That's the reason
I stay alive.

My motto,
As I live and learn,
is: Dig And Be Dug
In Return.

(Poem: Langston Hughes, from "Motto," in Montage of a Dream Deferred, 1951. Copyright © 1951. All rights reserved. Renewed copyright © 1979 by Langston Hughes. Reproduced by permission.)

The connections are fascinating and unending, and combinations are still being forged. In addition to such terms and concepts, many other West African folkways persist in African American culture, again in combined forms, in cooking, burials, weddings, hair styles, and adornment.


In Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, and other places in the Americas where Africans outnumbered Europeans, many West African religious systems remained nearly intact. But in North America, apart from fairly remote communities in the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands, the ratio of Africans to Europeans was reversed. For this reason, West African religions soon combined with Christian, mainly Protestant, forms of worship, producing distinctly African American versions of Christianity.

This process is known as syncretism. It occurs when traditions are combined, or mapped onto each other, allowing for the adjustment and adaptation to new communal experiencesfor example, the experience of chattel slavery. By the process of syncretism, African communities in North America began to link their experiences to biblical narrative, adapting stories from the Bible to reflect their own bondage and longing for freedom.

The Afro-Christian spiritual "Go Down Moses" clearly maps slave experience onto biblical narrative in the thinly masked folk expression: "Go down Moses, down to Egypt land, and tell old Pharaoh to let my people go. "The traditional spiritual "Mary" offers similar counsel: "Mary don't you weep, tell Martha not to moan, 'cause Pharaoh's army drowned in the Red Sea. "Other spirituals that combine biblical narrative with slave experience include "Daniel and the Lion's Den" and "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" ("and the walls come tumblin' down"). Deeply influenced by what has been called the "kinetic orality" of West African spirituality, these "syncretic moments" attest to the collective spiritual vision generated by African American folklore.

African American religious syncretism was not limited to eighteenth-and nineteenth-century plantation life or to rural southern or Christian settings. In the mid-1930s, in response to racist conditions in the urban North, Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975) would begin to forge a similarly syncretic hybrid of Islam and black nationalist politics, offering in the Nation of Islam an uncompromising separatist invocation of Islamic belief that attracted many followers. The power of this syncretic faith produced one of the most compelling and well known "folk intellectuals" in the history of the African diaspora, Malcolm X, or El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (1925-1965).

The Nation of Islam's call to reevaluate Christianity's relevance to African American life was not new, however. It is heard in many of the early folk tales in which heaven is satirized as a "white" place where the practices of segregated racist America will continue in deified form. The African American folk tradition has always kept a flexible attitude towardand a critical eye onthe combinations and conversions whereby new African identities have been formed in America.


West-African trickster motifs play an important role in storytelling traditions in African American culture. The Akan trickster figure, Anansi, appears in diaspora tales under a variety of names, from Hanansi in Jamaica, to Miss Nancy in South Carolina, to Boy Nasty in the Bahamas.

These and other African American tricksters, including Brer Rabbit, are direct descendants of the tricksters in West African lore, but with a twist. One of the primary threats to well-being in West African communal societies was fragile or hostile relationships among their members. The role of the West African tricksterAkan Anansi, the Yoruba Esu-Elegbara, and otherswas to test the honesty of communal relationships and their ability to resolve conflict. By instigating trouble among community members (often represented by a variety of animalslion, tiger, monkey, and so forth), the trickster brought the community together, for only by establishing communication with each other are they able to discover the source of their predicament. Although the trickster figure was typically punished for his deeds at the story's end, his "trick" served to test and solidify community relationships.

This sequence changed as African communities in America faced new circumstances. When the tales were mapped onto the racist power dynamics of plantation slavery, the trickster's skills in languagehis quick, improvised speechbecame more of an asset to the community, and his role evolved into that of defending the community against an outside threat. The trickster adversary of West African loreproblematic but necessary to communal survivalnow became the trickster as kinsman. The ambivalent attitude in African American culture toward outlaws, now present most visibly in "gangsta rap" music, is derived in part from this shift in the West-African worldview and folktale tradition from trickster as adversary to trickster as kinsman.

Brer Rabbit is a version of the trickster as kinsman, working his magic against physically more powerful animals such as bear, fox, and wolf, who obviously represent the master in plantation life. The classic African American folk hero John the slave takes up Brer Rabbit's role in postbellum plantation folktales. Shedding the animal disguise, John matches his wits against the power of Master, or "Marse," in ostensibly good-natured duels.

The folk hero Stagolee carries the tradition into the twentieth century, as does the urban practice of "toasts," long narrative poems in rhymed couplets that frequently enact the same exploits as those of John or Brer Rabbit, but in the phrasings of contemporary urban America. As the mask continues to change, the critique of the "master's" power becomes more open: the exploits of Tupac Shakur, Chuck D and Public Enemy, KRS-1, and other socially "conscious rappers" bring the problematic trickster as kinsman role into contemporary African American folklore.


To conclude where we began, in language itself, the terms that describe the most profoundly "black" moments of African American culture all bridge the boundary between "good" and "evil," the same boundary that the trickster straddles. Like West African trickster lore, African American folkways assume that good things can be produced by bad or evil-seeming actions. The simple division of the world into good and bad, white and black, male and femalewhat Ralph Ellison called "the basic dualism of the white folk mind"never describes the complex forms of African American folk culture, which typically combine categories that are commonly understood as separate. For this reason, African American folk products are often stigmatized as "crude,""vile," "lewd," or "vulgar," and its folk heroes must live with one foot on each side of the boundary. But the tradition accepts, even prizes, this seeming affliction, making it a part of itself.

With one foot in each dimension, spiritual and physical, earth and beyond, good and evil, African American folk heroes walk with the trickster's limp, the signature of the Yoruba's Esu-Elegbara himself. In contemporary African American urban folklore, they move with the gangsta's limp: one foot in the world of the trickster as kinsman, with each step enacting their rebellion against white norms of behavior and style, one foot in the world of the West African trickster adversary, challenging the community, especially the women, on whom they occasionally prey.

The audience is involved as well, describing such figures in terms marked with cautious envy and respect. African American folk heroes are not just "good" or "special. "They are "bad,""fierce,""vicious,""dope,""stupid," and, in the name of Anansi himself, "nasty"all terms of honor that express the complex mix of envy and caution associated with many powerful African American folk figures.

Mainstream American media are often condemned for constructing dangerous and demonized images of African Americans. This is true from a certain point of view. But complexity is a necessary vehicle for carrying on West African folk traditions in America, and from this point of view, the mainstream media appear to simplify African American reality, creating safe heroes and role models out of the would-be trickster as kinsman.

The African American folk tradition resists such simplification, however, constantly creating new styles and performances that mainstream American vocabulary cannot fully explain, express, or contain. In its unapologetic, radical combinations of American reality and West African-based sensibilities, it continues to assert the full complexity of African American identity, at the same time exerting a powerful influence on all American identities.


Abrahams, Roger D. Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia. Chicago: Aldine Publishing, 1970 .

Courlander, Harold. A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore. New York:Crown Publishers, 1976.

Dundes, Alan, ed. Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Goss, Linda, and Marian E. Barnes, eds. Talk That Talk: An Anthology of African-American Storytelling. New York: Touchstone, 1989.

Hughes, Langston, and Arna Bontemps, eds. Book of Negro Folklore. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1958.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1935.

Jackson, Bruce. "Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me": Narrative Poetry from the Black Oral Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York:Oxford University Press, 1977.

Pelton, Robert D. The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980 .

Spalding, Henry D., ed. Encyclopedia of Black Folklore and Humor. New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1978.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Vintage, 1983.

Miles Davis (1926-1991), Jazz Innovator

In a genre that includes such legends as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane, Miles Davis is regarded by many as history's greatest practitioner of jazz music. He had the rare ability to identify, perfect, and enhance the best of what performers throughout the years had to offer. In addition, in spite of an ongoing problem with drugs, Davis proved to be a brilliant businessman and band-leader, anticipatingor rather instigatingeach new trend in the musical scene.

For many blacks in the late 1940s and the 1950s, Davis's image loomed even larger than his music. Early photos of Davis with his polished, "cool" demeanor and his back to the audience had a very specific meaning for African Americans living in the United States, where "colored only" water fountains were the norm in the South and where black culture was mainly fetishized in the North. At a time in history when economic and cultural realities for blacks were abysmal, Davis, in addition to achieving stardom and respect, presaged black power and the turmoil of the years to come. As he made his music, he did not hesitate to express with words and actions what he really felt about those who were consuming it.

ABOVE: Miles Davis was famous for his aloof posture before the press and the white public that adored his music. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS

Romare Bearden (1914-1988) and African American Collage

Romare Bearden is often referred to as a consummate craftsman and color theorist who takes his roots from the lessons of the cubists. In the 1960s, Bearden, anticipating the collage aesthetic of the 1970s and 1980s, created a wholly unique and transforming visual language. He is credited with bringing Realism into the realm of the Cubistic, rendering images out of cut pieces of newspaper, magazine, and hand-painted bits of cloth and paper that made complex jumps in their visual language between various sources, sizes, and color schemes. Essentially, Bearden created an art that captured the dizzying experience of the modern urban life, and specifically that of African Americans thrust into a world of symbols contradicted by hard, flat realities.

While Bearden sought to express universal truths, referencing the mythologies of the Western tradition and playing with the accepted norms of an art world that looked toward Europe even as it tried to find its own way, his collages refer to other traditions as well. The artist's jumbles of figures, arms, legs, and heads dance within the African rhythmic traditions of call and response. His reworking of Western themes in a language wholly apart, vivid, and undeniably attractive and disturbing brings to mind the ferocity with which jazz and swing appropriated all stylistic devices and norms that lay in their pathall the while singing in a mode that could not be mistaken for its source. His sudden monochromatic square expanses (as in the painting Black Manhattan) place the viewer in a discomforting extreme of negative space that immediately recalls the poverty, hardship, and nagging discontent that are a continual presence for the poor in the urban ghettos of the North.

For many, Bearden is also credited as one of the first African American artists to gain significant recognition within the mainstream white and European art world. His work is in private collections and museums around the world.

About this article

African American Folklore and Folkways

Updated About content Print Article


African American Folklore and Folkways