This week’s New Title Tuesday, The Annotated African American Folktales by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar is a treasure trove of stories, a history lesson on the politics of the African American folklore, and a study of the literary traits and elements that distinguish the various types of these important oral narratives.
Publisher’s Summary: These nearly 150 African American folktales animate our past and reclaim a lost cultural legacy to redefine American literature.
Drawing from the great folklorists of the past while expanding African American lore with dozens of tales rarely seen before, The Annotated African American Folktales revolutionizes the canon like no other volume. Following in the tradition of such classics as Arthur Huff Fauset’s “Negro Folk Tales from the South” (1927), Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men (1935), and Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly (1985), acclaimed scholars Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar assemble a groundbreaking collection of folktales, myths, and legends that revitalizes a vibrant African American past to produce the most comprehensive and ambitious collection of African American folktales ever published in American literary history. Arguing for the value of these deceptively simple stories as part of a sophisticated, complex, and heterogeneous cultural heritage, Gates and Tatar show how these remarkable stories deserve a place alongside the classic works of African American literature, and American literature more broadly.
Presenting these tales with illuminating annotations and hundreds of revelatory illustrations, The Annotated African American Folktales reminds us that stories not only move, entertain, and instruct but, more fundamentally, inspire and keep hope alive.
The insights and interpretation of the folktales in The Annotated African American Folktales are not only timely but necessary. The average citizen doesn’t have an understanding of what Tatar describes as the “simply deceptive” tales told in slave cabins. These stories were “enmeshed with African storytelling traditions that privileged double-talk, duplicity, cunning, deception, lies, and artful dodging. African American folktales could also masquerade as harmless confections that were nothing but idle entertainments….”
It is no secret that the culture and language of the Africans who were forced into slavery was devalued and later appropriated by whites for their own entertainment and profit. One example was the once popular Joel Chandler Harris, a white 19th century journalist, who collected and later published stories he’d heard growing up in Georgia. The younger generations today may not have heard of Disney’s 1946 film, The Song of the South based on Harris’s version of Uncle Remus tales. But the movie is one reason many still remember Brer Rabbit stories still circulate today.
The reason few today have seen the movie is due to its portrayal of slave life on the plantation as carefree; in addition, the stories themselves were changed and diluted so they would resonate with white children. As Tatar writes in her introduction:
Appropriating and monetizing traditional tales, both reoriented the stories for an audience of children, smoothing out their jagged surfaces and rough edges while sprucing up their frayed plot lines. Harris and Disney were less invested in preserving and restoring traditions that were steadily eroding than in turning them into a new form of cultural capital that dovetailed neatly with capitalist success.
But there’s so much more to the African-American folktales than this type of misappropriation. Gates and Tatar remind the reader of the tales that were originally from Africa were “redesigned in the context of plantation slavery to keep hope alive by enabling talk, talk about everything under the sun: cruelty and compassion, fears and desires, hope and despair. Fueled by all the cultural contradictions that animate storytelling … they are revelatory and sometimes even redemptive…”
Whether your motive is to learn more about the context and history of these tales or to enjoy the remarkable illustrations and mysterious and abstract stories, The Annotated African American Folktales is an impressive way to share this literature.
Happy reading, Susan C.
You Might Also Enjoy:
Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston – a treasury of black America’s folklore as collected by a famous storyteller and anthropologist who grew up hearing the songs and sermons, sayings and tall tales that have formed an oral history of the South since the time of slavery. Returning to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, to gather material, Zora Neale Hurston recalls “a hilarious night with a pinch of everything social mixed with the storytelling.” Set intimately within the social context of black life, the stories, “big old lies,” songs, Vodou customs, and superstitions recorded in these pages capture the imagination and bring back to life the humor and wisdom that is the unique heritage of African Americans.
The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton – Retold Afro-American folktales of animals, fantasy, the supernatural, and desire for freedom, born of the sorrow of the slaves, but passed on in hope. The well-known author retells 24 black American folk tales in sure storytelling voice: animal tales, supernatural tales, fanciful and cautionary tales, and slave tales of freedom. All are beautifully readable. With the added attraction of 40 wonderfully expressive paintings by the Dillons, this collection should be snapped up.