Saturday, February 27, 2010

Black History Month: More Folklore and Fairy Tales

I completely dropped the ball on Black History Month and sharing more titles. I know Black History Month itself is controversial these days, but I have no problem using it to find inspiration for sharing African American and African folktales and fairy tale collections. After all, I also have big plans for Women's History Month in March, so stay tuned.

Anyway, I made a Listmania list near the beginning of the month on Amazon: Black History Month: Folklore and Fairy Tales for easy reference of titles although I only managed to feature two of them this month. (It's been an even more insane month for me than usual away from this blog. I'm just happy I've managed to post every day despite everything!)

Here are five more titles culled from the list of particular interest to the armchair reader as well as scholars:

The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore: Three Volumes edited by Anand Prahlad

Here is Booklist's Starred Review for it:

Intended for "students, scholars, writers, and the general public," these volumes cover African American folk traditions in the Caribbean and North, South, and Latin America. The multidisciplinary nature of folklore studies is reflected in the list of 140 or so primarily academic contributors, whose areas of expertise include art, literature, anthropology, religion, and more. Editor Prahlad is a professor of English at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

Some 700 alphabetically arranged entries, varying in length from around half a page to 10 pages, make fascinating reading on topics as diverse as samba, the Sea Islands, sermons, Tupac Shakur, Stagolee, and the steel pan drum. Entries cover "the most important narrative and nonnarrative genres and motifs, major scholars and works, representative artists, key groups, and critical historical and theoretical concepts." The "Guide to Related Topics" presented, along with an alphabetical list of entries, at the front of each volume groups entries under nearly 20 broad topics, among them "Groups, Places, Regions" ( Barbershop, The; Ghetto; Gullah; Rio de Janeiro); "Material Culture" ( Dreadlocks, Gris Gris, Quilting, Soul food); "Music" ( Big drum ceremony; Blake, Eubie; Delta blues; Rap); and "Religion, Spirituality, Belief" ( Ashanti; Islam, Nation of; Preacher tales; Testifying). There are entries for a number of countries, among them Brazil, Haiti, and Uruguay. Other than South, The, there is no specific entry for the U.S. Article text is accompanied by occasional black-and-white illustrations and by sidebars containing folklore excerpts. In addition to the further reading lists attached to each entry, the reader will find a selected bibliography arranged by topic in volume 3. Also in volume 3 are a state-by-state appendix of archives, folk-art programs, and other resources and an extremely detailed index.

The fact that more than 100 entries are devoted to scholars and collectors, among them Imamu Amiri Baraka, Zora Neale Hurston, and Melville Herkovits, supports a statement Prahlad makes in the introduction. The encyclopedia seeks "to provide a significant overview of the current study of African American folklore" rather than simply define genres and themes. This goal, plus some scholarly language, makes it most appropriate for students at the undergraduate level and up, although there's plenty of content that would draw high-schoolers as well. This "first comprehensive general reference work" on African American folklore is highly recommended for academic and public libraries.

Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States by Zora Neale Hurston

Publishers Weekly Review:
Although Hurston is better known for her novels, particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God, she might have been prouder of her anthropological field work. In 1927, with the support of Franz Boas, the dean of American anthropologists, Hurston traveled the Deep South collecting stories from black laborers, farmers, craftsmen and idlers. These tales featured a cast of characters made famous in Joel Chandler Harris's bowdlerized Uncle Remus versions, including John (related, no doubt, to High John the Conqueror), Brer Fox and various slaves. But for Hurston these stories were more than entertainments; they represented a utopia created to offset the sometimes unbearable pressures of disenfranchisement: "Brer Fox, Brer Deer, Brer 'Gator, Brer Dawg, Brer Rabbit, Ole Massa and his wife were walking the earth like natural men way back in the days when God himself was on the ground and men could talk with him." Hurston's notes, which somehow got lost, were recently rediscovered in someone else's papers at the Smithsonian. Divided into 15 categories ("Woman Tales," "Neatest Trick Tales," etc.), the stories as she jotted them down range from mere jokes of a few paragraphs to three-page episodes. Many are set "in slavery time," with "massa" portrayed as an often-gulled, but always potentially punitive, presence. There are a variety of "how come" and trickster stories, written in dialect. Acting the part of the good anthropologist, Hurston is scrupulously impersonal, and, as a result, the tales bear few traces of her inimitable voice, unlike Tell My Horse, her classic study of Haitian voodoo. Though this may limit the book's appeal among general readers, it is a boon for Hurston scholars and may, as Kaplan says in her introduction, establish Hurston's importance as an African-American folklorist.

The Girl Who Married a Lion: and Other Tales from Africa by Alexander McCall Smith

Publishers Weekly Review:
Straying from the safety net of a bestselling series (The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, etc.), Smith tells 40 traditional African folk tales with his by now signature humor, simplicity and reverence for African culture. With an introductory letter from No. 1 Lady Detective Mma Ramotswe as a preface, he sets the literary stage for a nostalgic stroll down his own personal memory lane. Born and raised in what is now Zimbabwe, Smith began collecting these stories as a child and combines them with several he gleaned from a friend who interviewed natives of Botswana. Many of the stories parallel classic Western tales, from Aesop to Mother Goose. The ubiquitous wolf-in-sheep's-clothing fable becomes a parable about a girl who unwittingly marries a lion. Other stories deal with familiar themes ranging from ingratitude (in "Head Tree," a man cured of a tree growing out of his head does not pay the charm woman her due) to vanity (in "Greater Than Lion," a hare outwits a conceited and boastful lion). However, many are uniquely African, such as the stories that explain why the elephant and hyena live far from people or how baboons became so lazy. These are pithy, engaging tales, as habit-forming as peanuts.

Favorite African Folktales by Nelson Mandela

Publisher's description:
The vibrant tradition of African folktales—an oral heritage that predates Ovid and Aesop—is long and varied, but to date it has been largely overlooked in the West. Aware of this gap, Nelson Mandela selected thirty-two stories, many of them translated from their original tongues, to show the seminal role of African folklore in world literature. We meet tricksters from Zulu folklore; we hear the voices of the scheming hyena and learn from a Khoi fable how animals acquired their tails and horns. These fables present a veritable bible of stories "universal in their portrayal of humanity, beasts and the mystical."

African Genesis: Folk Tales and Myths of Africa by Leo Frobenius and Douglas C. Fox

Recorded in the early 20th century by an eminent anthropologist, these entertaining tales reflect the geographic and cultural backgrounds of their narrators. They range from Kabyl creation legends of the Berbers to ballads of the southern Sahara and the humorously exaggerated Improbable Tales from Sudan. Enhanced by illustrations adapted from prehistoric rock paintings, and by portraits of 20th-century Africans, this volume is of immense value to students of African culture as well as readers of folklore and mythology.


  1. I love Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and have always wanted to explore her work with folklore. Thanks for the recommendation.

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