Folklore and Folk Tales

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Folklore and Folk Tales

Generations of African Americans toiled their days away in the bonds of slavery. Relatively few of them had the benefit of education, which would have enabled them, perhaps, to leave a more complete written record of their experiences. In fact, few of them would likely have had the time to do so. Of those who were literate, some have indeed bequeathed their readers in the present with their stories; others have transmitted those stories through third parties, who set them on paper. Still, the record is thin. There are inevitable questions, too, about the recorders—their intentions, biases, and foibles. A thin written record, however, does not indicate a lack of history. As Americans, a house full of ghosts has been inherited; the voices are there, if one listens.


Zora Neale Hurston returned to her native Florida in the 1930s to gather folklore, which was collected in her 1935 book Mules and Men. One of the tales she collected centered on a slave named John, who rescued his master's children from drowning. The master was so grateful that he promised to set John free after the next crop came in, which resulted in the following exchange:

So Friday come, and Massa said, "Well, de day done come that I said I'd set you free. I hate to do it, but I don't like to make myself out a lie. I hate to git rid of a good nigger lak you."

So he went in de house and give John one of his old suits of clothes to put on. So John put it on and come in to shake hands and tell 'em goodbye. De children they cry, go. So John took his bundle and put it on his stick and hung it crost his shoulder.

Well, Ole John started on down de road. Well, Ole Massa said, "John, de children love yuh."


"John, I love yuh."


"And Missy like yuh!"


"But 'member, John, youse a nigger."


Fur as John could hear "'im down de road he wuz hollerin', "John, Oh John! De children loves you. And I love you. De Missy like you."

John would holler back, "Yassuh."

"But 'member youse a nigger, tho!"

Ole Massa kept callin' 'im and his voice was pitiful. But John kept right on steppin' to Canada. He answered Ole Massa every time he called 'im, but he consumed on wid his bag (Hurston 1990, p. 89).

SOURCE: Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. New York: Perennial Library, 1990.

Folklore is, in a sense, the collective voice of past generations. It is not a detailed written report of events, the way history is, but is rather a synthesis of the aspirations and experiences of a group of people, transmitted orally from one generation to the next. Historian Tolagbe Ogunleye describes it thus:

Folklore, also called folk tales, includes myths, storytelling, recollections, ballads, songs, rap, and other orally transmitted lore … Folklore represents a line to a vast, interconnected network of meanings, values, and cognitions. Folklore contains seeds of wisdom, problem solving, and prophecy through tales of rebellion, triumph, reasoning, moralizing and satire. All that African American people value, including the agony enslaved and freed Africans were forced to endure, as well as strategies they used to resist servitude and flee their captors, is discernible in this folk literature. African American folklore is also an historical thread that ties the cultural heritage of Africans in the diaspora and those living on the continent of Africa. (1997, pp. 435-436)

Historian Charles Joyner notes that folk culture "may be regarded as what human beings remember not because it is reinforced by the church, the state, the school, or the press, but simply because it is unforgettable" (1999, p. 3). Author Zora Neale Hurston describes it more concisely as "the boiled down juice of human living" (1995, p. 875).

Human living, in the slaves' world, denoted a unique set of perspectives. When living in a master-slave relationship, it was necessary to be circumspect; hopes, dreams, and fears by necessity were often disguised. This disguise was woven by language. Trickster tales featuring Br'er Rabbit or Old John reflected not only how the world was—hence a reflection of the slave worldview—but how the storytellers and their audience wished it to be, a reflection of the slave ethos. For example, the slave character Old John uses wit and intelligence as tools of resistance and survival, but sometimes the master outwits him. In order for a story to become part of a body of folklore, it must be repeated; in order to be repeated, it must resonate somehow, and connect the storyteller to his or her audience. By thus reflecting both the common values and experiences of a group, using symbols that are universally (within the group) understood, the story not only gives the listeners a sense of the subject being discussed, but in binding them together into a commonly understood experience, gives them a clearer sense of who they are as a group.

African American folktales involved more than just trickster tales and animal stories. They also included tales to illuminate blacks' relationships with one another. One such story later recorded in several sources (including one by Hurston) explained why women were really in control of the household. In the beginning, the Lord made Adam and Eve and set them up in a house together, with both partners being equal. Neither was content with equality, though, and each tried to dominate the other—with Eve getting the upper hand. Whenever it seemed that Adam was about to come out on top, she would employ her secret weapon; she would start crying, and her tears would make her husband feel "low down and dirty." The man went to the Lord for help. Because Eve had the advantage, he wanted one that would trump it, and requested that they no longer be equal physically but that he be made stronger. That way he could beat her, and if she knew that a whipping was nigh she would give in. The Lord granted his wish, and Adam returned home to find Eve surly as ever. When he confronted her she reached into the woodbox and retrieved a piece of kindling with which to beat him in the head. He was unfazed, and took away her weapon and whipped her.

The next morning she consulted with a serpent who lived in an apple tree, who gave her a plan of attack. Then she, also, went to the Lord to ask for help—she asked for two rusty keys, which had hung nearby for so long that the Lord had forgotten what they went to, and he gave them to her. That evening Adam came home and demanded his supper, but Eve informed him the kitchen was locked tight. None of his strength enabled him to open the door. She volunteered to try her conjuring magic on it, and recommended he go cut some wood in the meantime—a task he had intended for her. Naturally, the door opened right up with the old key.

After supper, Adam suggested they "hit de froghair"—but was informed that the bedroom door, too, was locked tight. He asked his wife if she would try her magic there, too. She was happy to comply—if only he would patch the roof in the meantime. Once again, she used the secret key.

"So dat de reason," the tale concludes, "de very reason, why de mens thinks dey is boss and de wimmens knows dey is boss, cause dey gots dem two little keys to use in dat slippery sly wimmen's way. Yas, fawever mo and den some!

"An' if you don't know dat already, den you ain't no married man" (Garner, pp. 52-53).


Dickson, Bruce, Jr. "The 'John and Old Master' Stories and the World of Slavery: A Study in Folktales and History." Phylon 35, no. 4 (1974): 418-429.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Joyner, Charles. Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Ogunleye, Tolagbe. "African American Folklore: Its Role in Reconstructing African American History." Journal of Black Studies 27, no. 4 (March 1997): 435-455.

Thurman Garner. "Black Ethos in Folk Tales." Journal of Black Studies, 1984; 15: 53-66.

                                      Troy D. Smith