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 ...view middle of the document...
The reason for this limiting of sources follows two reasons. First the United States provides us with a geographic boundary for this study, and second, although many parallels between black folklore in the US and elsewhere in the Americas exist, the US offers us a context of historical, political, linguistic, and social continuity that would be lost if other locations were to be treated equally.
The debate over the origin of African American folktales began soon after folklorists began to collect and transcribe the oral traditions of black communities in the United States during the late 19th century. Almost immediately, questions as to where African Americans, whose ancestors were removed forcibly from their homeland and replanted as a subjugated class in the New World, got the inspiration of these tales. That is to say, whether these stories were based on European, African, or, less often argued, Native American antecedents. The logic for each argument is simple. According to an African-origins train of thought, enslaved Africans retold stories they knew from Africa and these were eventually adapted to American conditions. On the other side, a European-origins interpretation is supported by the immense cultural disruption caused by enslavement and the imposition of new cultural and values system upon enslaved people by their European masters. In addition, as attested to by Alan Dundes in his forward to Bascom’s book, the latter view was supported for a long time by a racist bias that Blacks were by nature imitative and must not have been able to compose such tales on their own (Bascom, 1992:x).
However, it seems that the former view holds the most credence. Joel Chandler Harris himself wrote that “One thing is certain, they [African Americans] did not get them [their folktales] from the whites: they are probably of remote African origins.” (Roberts, 1989:18) and agreed with H. H. Smith who in 1879 noted, “One thing is certain. The animal stories told by our Negroes in the Southern States and Brazil were brought by them from Africa” (Bascom, 1992:xxiii). There is significant evidence to support this assumption. First, is the well-documented existence of other elements of African cultures that did survive the transition from the Old World to the New. This includes musical traditions, such as call-and-response song style or the banjo, and religious traditions, such as Voodoo or Santeria, attested to in Bascom’s description of a Yoruba myth still present in Cuba and Brazil (Bascom, 1992:5) and Wade Davis’ observation of traditions “handed down generation to generation” (Davis, 1983:86), that “keep alive the powers of Africa.” (Hurston, 1935:193)
Bascom provides further evidence for the continuation of African folk traditions in America in his book, African Folktales in the New World. This book consists of a series of articles, compiled posthumously, that systematically list analogues between African and American folktales,...