Saturday, February 24, 2018

Natural Born Bards

The Old Plantation, by John Rose, ca. 1785–1795.

The Hampton Folklore Society, founded in 1893 under the direction of the progressive educator Alice Bacon, was the first group of its kind composed mainly of African-American members. They published stories in the Southern Workman, the Hampton Institute’s journal; Gates and Tatar call this collaboration the first systematic collection of “black cultural artifacts.” Support from the anthropologist Franz Boas and American Folklore Society founder William Wells Newell, as well as works by writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, Sterling A. Brown, Arthur Huff Fauset, Elsie Clews Parsons, and Edward C.L. Adams, sustained popular and academic interest throughout the years of the Harlem Renaissance.

Disagreements about the assimilation of folklore into the art of the modern “New Negro” caused one of the notable splits among Harlem intellectuals of the early 20th century. While some perceived traditional songs, stories, religious customs, and vernacular practices as crucial to intellectual emancipation from European lore (what Gates calls “structures of feeling, structures of thought”), others believed this assimilation would prolong enslavement to the past. One memorable debate unfolded in the pages of The Nation in 1926. 

In “The Negro-Art Hokum,” writer George Schuyler (best known for his 1931 novel Black No More) argued that there was no such thing as a unitary black art, and that notions of a common artistic wellspring actually referred to the practices of the South’s black peasant class. Jazz and spirituals, for instance, were “no more expressive or characteristic of the Negro race than the music and dancing of the Appalachian highlanders…are expressive or characteristic of the Caucasian race.” 

In a rebuttal, Langston Hughes, who would co-edit The Book of Negro Folklore with Arna Bontemps three decades later, argued that black artists must not go out of their way to avoid the source material of everyday life in black communities. A decades-long game of disavowal, on the one hand, and reclamation on the other foreshadowed the contemporary debates about black identity politics: Who are the “folk”? What issues should they care about? What stories should they preserve, disseminate, or kick to the curb?

Every tradition has its celebrities, and that’s certainly true of African-American folklore. There’s the tragic rail worker John Henry (Colson Whitehead’s 2001 novel John Henry Days centers on this story); the tar baby (see Toni Morrison’s 1981 novel Tar Baby); the desperado Stagolee (check out Cecil Brown’s 2006 fictionalization I, Stagolee). There are also lesser-known tales of a princess elephant, a yam that becomes a childless woman’s daughter, frogs that regurgitate finery for a ball, witches who slip out of their skins, magical tools, headless ghosts, stolen voices, singing tortoises, talking skulls, vindictive fairies, flying heifers, girls bewitched into nightingales, and warrior twins who journey to the land of Never Return and confront a menacing crocodile. Ballads recount the sinking of the Titanic, and we learn the dangers of fishing on Sundays and how wisdom first spread throughout the world.

Tatar, a scholar of German folklore, concedes that the “rage for order that takes hold of anthologizers vanishes in the face of the entangled histories and kaleidoscopic variations in stories from time past.” Drawing extensively on previously published anthologies, oral accounts, secondary literature, and university and governmental archives, the editors clearly envision their book not as a comprehensive collection but as an enticing introduction to an influential body of lore. 

Their annotations clarify some slang and tropes, and the endnotes for certain stories offer useful background information and suggestive interpretations. (In a media moment that has largely focused on gains for black artists in television and film, the editors were recently honored as the recipients of an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work.)

From The Nation Read More 

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