African American Studies Folklore
by
Jerrilyn McGregory
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0033

Introduction

Folklore manifests in the everyday, with a certain taken-for-grantedness that appears self-evident to all, and thus devoid of much interpretation. Usually relegated to being synonymous with falsehoods and superstition, folklore is not static but speaks to its own dynamism. Whether employed in academe or by the public sector, folklorists provide a lens through which to focus on the identification, documentation, and analysis of underrepresented groups and their cultural expressions. Foundational definitions based on concepts such as tradition, oral transmission, and anonymity easily have become obsolete. Tradition gives way to emergent structures; word of mouth bows to the reality of transmission by other means; and anonymity is uprooted by written and digitized texts. Also, folklore subsumes folklife, which references material traditions such as food preparation and quilting as well as folk arts and crafts. Customs related to ritual, festival, and holidays add another dimension to folklore study. Foremost, folklore continues to be germane in our lives, indicative of living traditions.

General Overviews

As pertains to African American studies, in 1888, the founder of the American Folklore Society and editor of the first Journal of American Folklore, William Newell, identified African American folklore to be an appropriate focus of interest, since an “indissoluble part of the [United States] body politic” (p. 5). Driven by the popularizing of animal tales by white writers such as Joel Chandler Harris, Newell emphasized the study of southern African American folklore, anticipating that migration to the North would contribute to its demise. Numerous anthologies, privileging African American folklore, suggest otherwise. For instance, affiliated with the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes and Bontemps 1958 is a coedited comprehensive collection representative of African American cultural production, including urban genres. Dundes 1981 constitutes another milestone as a publication organizing, under one cover, important previously published journal articles with scholarly headnotes. Levine 1977 is a monograph offering an extensive interrogation of African American history, life, and culture. Published by Norton, for undergraduates, Dance 2002 is one of the first textbooks devoted to African American folklore, replete with color photography. Prahlad 2006 is the first three-volume encyclopedia, containing 700 entries and covering many aspects of the discipline. Prahlad also guest edited a special issue devoted to African American folklore in the Journal of American Folklore (Prahlad 2005).

  • Dance, Daryl Cumber. From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore. New York: Norton, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    With scholarly notations, a groundbreaking anthology organized to be nearly exhaustive by including thirteen genres of African American folklore: “Folktales,” “Folk Music,” “Stylin’ Out,” “Folk Arts and Crafts,” “Sermons and Speech,” “Family Folklore,” “Soul Food,” “Proverbs,” “Folk Rhymes,” “Riddles,” “Folk Beliefs,” “Urban Legends,” and “Techlore.”

  • Dundes, Alan. Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore. New York: Garland, 1981.

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    Reprints of widely scattered and extremely diverse classic essays drawn from popular periodicals and scholarly journals, written by luminaries such as Charles Chesnutt, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Alan Lomax, and Claudia Mitchell-Kernan. Its contents exemplify a range of folkloristic selections divided into eight chapters: “Folk & Lore,” “Origins,” “Folk Speech,” “Verbal Art,” “Folk Belief,” “Folk Music,” “Folk Narrative,” and “Folk Humor.”

  • Hughes, Langston, and Arna Bontemps. The Book of Negro Folklore. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1958.

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    Although dependent on listing folklore items, without notation, this is an important anthology offering a sampling of African American folklore along with prose and poetry “in the folk manner.” Because they are included here, many prose narratives, such as “The Legend of the Flying African” and the female trickster figure “Annie Christmas,” remain extant.

  • Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

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    Critically acclaimed, the text synthesizes the experiences of African Americans from 1840 to circa 1950, examining religion, music, humor, folktales, folk belief, and urban verbal art forms.

  • Prahlad, Anand. “African Folklore.” In Special Issue: History and Challenges. Edited by Anand Prahlad. Journal of American Folklore 118 (2005): 253–270.

    DOI: 10.1353/jaf.2005.0035E-mail Citation »

    Editor of this special issue, Prahlad clarifies the impact of Africana folklore on the development of cultures in the Western Hemisphere. His article speaks to historical weaknesses by folklorists focusing on groups marginalized by geography, class, and race, suggesting group homogeneity. This issue answers a call for greater engagement with transnational perspectives, folklore, and politics as well intraracial issues.

  • Prahlad, Anand. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    Truly encyclopedic, entries validate not only African American expressive culture, but also, with inclusivity, situate folk groups throughout the African diaspora as well as current scholars of African American folklore.

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