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African-American Folklore: History and Culture

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African-American folklore is at the center of our culture. Our ancestors passed it down through generations to preserve the family values that they contain. Folklore began during slavery. And it’s not surprising that slaves used them to document their experiences and keep their cultures alive.  Let’s explore more about African-American folklore. 

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Beginning of African-American Folklore

When slaves got to America in the 1700s & 1800s, they weren’t allowed to practice their culture. Additionally, their masters didn’t want them to acquire knowledge and education as it would enlighten them. Reading and writing would help them find a way to gain their own independence. Thus, illiteracy was a means of control.

The slaves used storytelling to preserve their culture. They shared tales that carried spiritual and cultural lessons. 

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Types of African-American Folklore

African-American folklore followed similar patterns and narratives. Most revolved around animals who exhibit habits of human beings to make them relatable. These are the types of African-American folklore.

Comical Tales

Slaves used these stories to provide relief. They contained villains, heroes, fools and heroines. They were meant to help listeners imagine far and wide of all the possibilities there are in life.

Tales of Trickery

Tales of trickery represent the groups that have been oppressed or denied the privileges that some high in society enjoy. They share how they managed to get out of such situations or achieve a desired outcome. 

One such story is of a woman who turns her man into a tree so he’s not sent to another plantation. He’s able to escape until a sawmill selects him for cutting.   

Life Lessons

Children were taught their history and culture through these stories. Animals with human characteristics were often used to pass on the message. Some of the lessons from these tales were spiritual, which is why they contained a lot of ghosts and spirits.  

Mother Wit

This folklore largely tells the story of the contest between the master and the slave. This can be seen through the lens of the intelligent versus the weak. It favored the witty character who used this skill to get out of trouble or influence a certain outcome. The brer rabbit played the witty character and pulled pranks on the brer fox.

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Tales of Laughter

These stories existed to help African Americans stay positive during difficult moments. It helped slaves to have hope for a better future. 

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Characters and Symbolism

The mother in the African-American folklore symbolized love and tenderness. The child portrayed purity. The brer rabbit, a smaller character, always outsmarted the bigger fox. This symbolized hope for the enslaved that they, too can overcome their situation. 

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Importance of African-American Folklore

Apart from preserving their culture, storytelling helped the slaves to maintain a sense of community. It was the only activity not controlled by the whites and thus found freedom in it.

African-American folklore helped slaves to get away from the harshness of slavery. They shared comical and satirical stories that helped them relieve their stresses. Also, it helped them to maintain hope that they could overcome anything and find their freedom.

The slaves were able to pass on coded information about their plans to escape and where they’d hold meetings. 

It’s admirable how slaves, despite being subjected to one of the most atrocious treatments in human history, still found a way to make their lives meaningful. Thanks to them, African Americans have learnt about their history and culture. 

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