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    Mar 13

    Written by: Michael Dalby 3/13/2013 3:54 PM 


    If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. -Carter G. Woodson
    In 1926, African American scholar Carter G. Woodson established one week in the month of February as Black History Week. Woodson chose February because both Abraham Lincoln (Feburary 12, 1809) and Frederick Douglas (February 14, 1818?) were born in that month. At the time, Woodson felt that both men had made significant contributions to race relations in America. As the founder of The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Woodson did scholarly research on the contributions that African-Americans had on the United States. He then published The Journal of Negro History since history books at that time neglected to mention any significant contributions made by African Americans. By 1976, Black History Week had been extended to the entire month.
    Much of the focus of the study of African -American Folklore centers on the rural life of the African-American in the antebellum south. Folklore collecting in America became a serious form of study during the post Civil War period.
    It is during the 16th through the 19th century that an estimated 12 million Africans were forced to leave their homelands and settle in America as slaves. This caused the creation of new and blended traditions. Out of necessity a new language was born. On the voyages to America there were many tribes of Africans, a large number were West African. Each of these groups had their own lanuage: Mende, Wolof, Kongo, Twi, Yoruba, Temne, Ibo, Hausa, Fante, Barbara, Ewe and Fula. In addition to having to find a way to communicate with each other, upon arriving in America they had to learn English from people who spoke in different accents. Yet and still, there was the challenge of learning phonic sounds that were not part of the West African phonic system.” Th “and “V “were replaced by “D” and “B”. A "pidgin" or hybrid of two or more languages grew. On the coastal Islands of Georgia and South Carolina what is known as Gullah or Geechee dialect is a well known pidgin. A unique culture and traditions was born. There were the songs, both work and religious and the folk tales. These tales came from African trickster tales. Usually these stories were a contest of wits between various animals. A weaker animal uses his cunning to outsmart a bigger or stronger animal. They also sometimes had hidden meaning, as a statement about the conditions that they were forced to endure. These folk-traditions spread amongst the domestic slave trade.
    With the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865 slavery was abolished. Now scholars and journalist started to look at African-American folklore as being important. Europeans had begun to study "folk" traditions. Much of this was a result of the industrial revolution. There was a belief that people who were tied to the land were not corrupted by the results of cities and industry.
    Americans too wanted to look for their folk roots. Interest in short stories written using regional speech patterns were in vogue. Many writers employed "local color" or dialect as a literary device to make their writing more authentic. The work of Mark Twain would be an example of the literary tastes of this period. At this time formal groups for the study and publication of folklore are being created. The American Folklore society was formed. One of its founders, Franz Boas, is considered the father of cultural anthropology. This group’s goal was to preserve rural folk traditions that they deem on the brink of disappearing due to changes in society. Reconstruction put a rush on the collectors together material; they felt that new freed African-Americans would be too busy with their duties as citizens to preserve their folklore.
    An article written in 1877 by William Owens and published in Lippincott's Magazine titled "FolkLore of the Southern Negro," isone of the first articles which discussed the value of the folklore. It also introduced readers to the tales of Brer Rabbit. These were in the tradition of West African trickster tales told around the plantations. One reader of the article was Joel Chandler Harris. Joel Harris was a reporter and he knew the Brer Rabbit tales quite well.
    Raised by a single mother, Harris was forced to join the work world at an early age. At 17 he worked on a plantation called Turnworld. It was there that he worked at the local newspaper called The Country Man. It was during his time at Turnworld he met two slaves George Terrell and Harbert. These men functioned like surrogate fathers for Harris. They told him the Brer Rabbit stories and became models for the Uncle Remus character. Uncle Remus is the narrator in Harris’ stories. He is wise and teaches the ways of the world to the boy whom he is telling the stories to. Harris initially wrote the tales in 1880 for his newspaper column. These tales eventually became his book “Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings”, published in 1886. In a very subtitle way Harris challenged the old plantation code of racial hierarchy. The stories were set among the domestic tranquility of the plantation, where everyone is supposedly segregated. However, they mixed and the children of the slave owners learned many life lessons under the guise of an animal tale. The Uncle Remus stories were popular and well received. Harris encouraged his friend, historian Charles Jones to study the similar folklore of his region, the coastal areas of Georgia. Jones produced a work based on the stories he remembered growing up on his father's plantation. He published Gullah Folktales from the Georgia Coast in 1888. For many years, Harris’s work has been overlooked or has a negative connotation because of the 1946 Disney adaptation Song of the South.  Harris's work played into negative stereotypes about African-Americans by Disney's use of the folktales as a theme combined with human actors and studio animation. When the film premiered in Atlanta in 1946, it was hailed as a masterpiece. For many years Song of The South was one of Disney's most popular films. In 1948, one of the songs from the movie won an Oscar.
    African-American author Charles Chestnutt also produced The Conjure Woman. Chestnutt never consider himself a folklorist per se, but he took elements of the story from the ancient African story telling tradition. His narrator from The Conjure Woman, Uncle Julius tells oral tales that Chestnutt heard from his elders.
    In 1893, an African-American folklore society was formed at the Hampton Institute in Virginia. They encouraged the collection of material in the style of Brer Rabbit. They also wanted traditions, proverbs, sayings and songs that reflected African or transmigration of the Africans to America. By 1894 the material collected was published in The Southern Workman. The Hampton group asked their neighbors to faithfully collect data so that it could be preserved. The folklore collection ran for six years and some of the columns were reproduced in the American Folklore Journal.
    The Special Collections Department of The Cleveland Public Library invites our patrons to come into the department and read the mentioned titles. In addition to the ones listed below, there are many other folklore titles that students of African-American folklore will enjoy.
    Books of note:
    Gullah Folktales from the Georgia Coast
    Jones, Charles Colcock
    (Book - 2000)
    White Collection in Special Collections Department.
    GR111.A47 J69 2000
    The Conjure Woman
    Chesnutt, Charles W.
    (Book - 1899)
    White Collection in Special Collections Department.
    The Conjure Woman
    Chesnutt, Charles Waddell
    (Book - 1904)
    White Collection in  Special Collections Department.
    FR.B. 813.49 C42C11
    Southern Workman and Hampton School Record
    General Reference Department
    Uncle Remus His Songs and His Sayings
    Harris, Joel Chandler
    (Book - 1920)
    White Collection in Special Collections Department.
    387.32 H24U3
    The Negro and His Folklore in Nineteenth Century Periodicals
    Jackson, Bruce
    (Book - 1967)
    White Collection in Special Collections Department.
    387.32 J132N



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