As the two academics pored through materials, their goal remained the same: to introduce young readers to stories that have been passed down from generations and across continents.
“I am very much concerned that black kids see themselves as part of a global black experience,” said Mr. Gates, who is the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard.
This is, of course, in line with Mr. Gates’s mission — as seen in his PBS series “Finding Your Roots” and his recently published “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro” — to expand the understanding and appreciation of the contributions of black people across the diaspora.
“The Annotated African American Folktales,” which came out in November, contains more than 100 African and African-American folk tales as well as introductory essays and commentary to provide historical context. It draws from the rich, undersung work of folklorists from West Africa to the Deep South.
The collection begins with the Anansi tales of West Africa, stories featuring a trickster character who is both a human and a spider, a decision that Ms. Tatar describes as “pragmatic” because so many of the later tales borrow from these foundational myths.
From there, they follow the tradition to the United States, where tales about magical instruments and flying Africans played a significant role in the lives of slaves, inspiring resistance and enabling a sense of community. The last half of the book takes a more scholarly turn, considering the work of folklorists such as Zora Neale Hurston and Jessie Redmon Fauset, the editor of the first magazine for African-American children. There is also a chapter dedicated to The Southern Workman, a monthly journal of the Hampton Institute founded in 1872 to explore the achievements of African-Americans.
Professors Gates and Tatar also tackle controversial parts of folklore history, dedicating a chapter to the work of Joel Chandler Harris. Born in Eatonton, Ga., in 1848, Harris, who was white, established his reputation in American literature with his Uncle Remus series, stories about an old black slave who told his young white master tales about wily animals such as Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. The stories were written in dialect and tried to evoke images of a nonexistent idyllic life on Southern plantations. They inspired Walt Disney’s 1946 film “Song of the South,” which has fallen out of favor because of its racist overtones, but they were also “the first large-scale effort to collect African-American lore” and emboldened African-Americans like Charles Chesnutt, the author of “The Conjure Woman,” to reclaim the stories, Mr. Gates said.
The decision to include Harris’s work in this collection produced lively discussions between Mr. Gates and Ms. Tatar. “I felt uncomfortable with it,” Ms. Tatar said. But Mr. Gates disagreed. The exchange proved to be a key moment of collaboration.
“In my house, growing up in Piedmont, West Virginia, we collected Mother Goose and Joel Chandler Harris,” he said. “My father used to tell Brer Rabbit stories to my brother and me all the time.”
These conversations led to “a much deeper understanding of the larger stakes in the project,” Ms. Tatar said. Like the history of America, the history of folklore is messy and complicated. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, African-Americans debated whether these folk tales were worth preserving. Some people considered the stories remnants of slavery rather than evidence of ingenuity.
The novelist Toni Morrison, however, has played an important role in validating these stories by integrating them into her writing, Ms. Tatar said.
While Ms. Morrison’s novels contain traces of innovative uses of folklore, “Tar Baby” is the most obvious and the one Mr. Gates was particularly eager to include in this collection. Not only is it one of his favorite stories but he also finds the appearance of the tar baby in many cultures “haunting.” The original folk tale is the story of Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit. Angry that Brer Rabbit is always stealing from his garden, Brer Fox makes a tar baby. Brer Rabbit comes across the figure and tries to start a conversation. He grows frustrated by the lack of response and hits the tar baby, only to find his paw stuck in what is a doll made of tar and turpentine.
In her 1981 novel, Ms. Morrison mines this folk tale to create a love story between two black Americans from very different socio-economic backgrounds. According to a Times review, the novel spoke to the black person’s “desire to create a mythology of his own to replace the stereotypes and myths the white man has constructed for him.”
It isn’t just Ms. Morrison who has used African-American folklore for inspiration; Nnedi Okorafor and Marlon James have also turned to it in their prose. Ms. Okorafor recently published the second novel in her Akata series and Mr. James is working on an epic fantasy trilogy that draws from African mythology and folklore.
“Whoever created the Anansi stories was a genius,” Mr. Gates said. Indeed, he and Ms. Tatar are grateful to those like Hurston who collected these stories before them.
Folk tales give us “ancestral wisdom,” they teach children lessons about compassion, forgiveness and respect, said Ms. Tatar. They take us “back to the people who lived before us.” They help us “navigate the future.”
Mr. Gates couldn’t agree more. He has dedicated this labor of love to his 3-year-old granddaughter. He wants the book to be not just for her and black children of her generation, but for all American children.Continue reading the main story
African American Culture Essay example
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African American Culture
Culture is not a fixed phenomenon, nor is it the same in all places or to all people. It is relative to time, place, and particular people. Learning about other people can help us to understand ourselves and to be better world citizens. One of the most common ways of studying culture is to focus on the differences within and among cultures. Although their specifics may vary form one culture to another, sociologists refer to those elements or characteristics that can be found in every know society as cultural universals. For example, in all societies, funeral rites include expression of grief, disposing of the dead, and rituals that define the relations of the dead with the living. And on the most…show more content…
Many of our life lessons were often given by our elders in the form of stories, jokes, and the spirituals which serve often song in the fields, as well as, on Sunday mornings. Yet, as a people, we thought it necessary to hold on these priceless teachings because it has served as the only link to our African ancestry. African American culture is both part of and distinct from American culture. African Americans have contributed literature, agricultural skills, foods, clothing, dance, and language to American culture. There are distinctive patterns of language use among African Americans that arose as creative responses to the hardships imposed on the African American community. Slave-owners forced African Americans to create a language that allowed them to communicate effectively with one another. Slaves were not allowed the opportunity to read and write because most slave owners thought they would find a way to buy their freedom if they knew how to read and write. Significant numbers of people still speak some of the Creole languages they used to communicate so many years ago. Agriculture and food is also a unique aspect of African American culture. The cultivation and use of many agricultural products, such as yams, peanuts, rice, okra, grits, and cotton, can be traced to African and African American influences. African American foods reflect creative