American Literature African American Vernacular Tradition
by
LaMonda Horton-Stallings
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0154

Introduction

There are centuries worth of materials that can be classified as black vernacular tradition, some lost and still in need of recovery, others archived, catalogued, and digitized for study and use. African American vernacular tradition—also known as black talk, folklore, the form of things unknown, or low/popular culture—has been around for centuries and existed as a global phenomenon for most of that time. It permeates nearly every cultural aspect of black lives and history throughout the African diaspora. This entry, however, will focus solely on black vernacular in the US context of African American literary and cultural study. This vernacular comprises linguistic elements from African languages, black English, creole, pidgin English, patois, and various dialects, as well as forms such as oral epics, folktales, the dozens, signifying, call and response, improvisational practices, sermons, line dances, ring shouts, cyphers, and music genres such as spirituals, gospel, blues, jazz, rap, hip-hop, and more. It is a tradition foundationally held together by Africanisms that have shifted and changed through geographical particularities in the Americas and Europe. Early scholarship wrote of the tradition as comprising predominantly oral forms, it can in fact be found in visual, culinary, literary, digital, and architectural mediums. Thus, collections on black vernacular tradition can take up a diverse range of topics and address many forms. The black vernacular tradition, though often perceived to be antiquated, captures the modernity and postmodernity movements of black art, culture, identity, and politics. It shifts and morphs across geographical spaces and bodies. The aesthetics can be classified as southern, northern, western, transnational, local, secular, sacred, digital, analog, visual, or musical. North American writers such as Paul L. Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Paule Marshall, Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, and Donald Goines have elevated it as high art in their written texts, and the originality and inventive genius found in much of black music would be nonexistent without the vernacular. In short, the vernacular has been a form of resistance ensuring the survival and evolution of cultures and people meant to be displaced and erased by slavery, imperialism, apartheid, and capitalism. According to Robert O’Meally’s narrative on the vernacular in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, “what distinguishes this body of work is its in-group and, at times, secretive, defensive, and aggressive character: it is not, generally speaking, produced for circulation beyond the black group itself (though it is sometimes bought and sold as exotic material by those outside its circle)” (p. 3). Black vernacular, then, should be understood as a tradition marked and influenced by time and context and issues of power rather than geography and straightforward genealogy.

General Overviews

African American vernacular traditions survive in large part because of the evolution of black communality modes of communication and black folklore societies such as the Hampton Folklore Society. In addition, archival institutions such as the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, as well as online databases such as those of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, have preserved materials and made them accessible to the public. This combination of community, institutional, and technological input and evolution is important since there is a great deal of breadth in the production, reception, and consumption of black vernacular traditions. The study of African American vernacular culture occurs in numerous fields, ranging from more long-standing traditional disciplines such as anthropology and folklore to more recent interdisciplinary fields such as African American studies, ethnomusicology, hip-hop studies, and literary studies. Herskovits 1958, Levine 2007, and Stuckey 1987 attempt to locate its origins, its cultural nationalist implications, and its permeation in black history and life. Due to the importance of each of the previously mentioned works, there have been multiple printed editions of each collection. Dundes 1972 is a collaboration with multiple scholars of folklore and provides significant insights about forms and their social implications, while Watkins 1995 forgoes broad overview to focus on the specific form of vernacular humor. In recent years, several teaching collections, such as Gates and McKay 1997 and Smith and Jones 2000, have been compiled with an understanding of the importance of sound and listening in the study of black vernacular tradition.

  • Dundes, Alan, ed. Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972.

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    An edited collection that contains the most formative critical research on black vernacular from the early 20th century until the 1970s by some of its most influential artists and scholars. Includes significant essays by Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, Sterling Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Roger Abrahams, Lorenzo Dow Turner, Alan Dundes, and many others. Reprinted editions include addendums and updated appraisals of black folklore.

  • Gates, Henry Louis, and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: Norton, 1997.

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    The volume includes well over a hundred pages of vernacular artifacts, introductory essays about the various forms in the tradition, and a CD of the some of the oral texts. Anthology contains an introduction to the vernacular that is useful and one of the most often quoted overviews of black vernacular tradition to date.

  • Herskovits, Melville J. The Myth of the Negro Past. Boston: Beacon, 1958.

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    An essential book that turned to Africanisms and vernacular to argue against the racist idea that enslaved blacks had no history or culture. It demonstrated the impact Africanisms had on American culture, and it also unveiled the racist animus concerning knowledge production about Africa, its people, and descendants.

  • Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. 30th anniversary ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    This book, first published in 1977, utilizes an impressive archive of folk materials on the recorded history of African Americans. Levine theorizes concepts such as slave cosmology and trickster tales as influential to the interior and imaginative consciousness of black people during enslavement and into the mid-20th-century era of Jim Crow.

  • O’Meally, Robert G. “The Vernacular Tradition.” In Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2d ed. Edited by Henry L. Gates and Nellie McKay. New York: Norton, 2004.

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    As an introduction to the canonical tradition of African American literature, this essay demonstrates the importance of vernacular tradition to literacy and culture in Black America. It details overarching tropes, themes, and aesthetics that become the foundation and distinguishing marker of difference that shapes African American literature and literary studies.

  • Smith, Rochelle, and Sharon L. Jones, eds. The Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Literature. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

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    Though it does not include summary information about vernacular forms, it does include theoretical essays on vernacular traditions and an audio CD that includes samples of vernacular cultures.

  • Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

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    Pan-Africanist historical study of slave culture shaped by Africanisms that could not be wiped out by cultural pluralism. Traditions such as the ring shout provide evidence of a national racial identity shaped by shared cultural values. Stuckey then links these cultural values to nationalist thinkers such as David Walker, W. E. B. DuBois, and Paul Robeson.

  • Watkins, Mel. On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying—The Underground Tradition of African-American Humor That Transformed American Culture, from Slavery to Richard Pryor. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

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    Watkins provides a much-needed history of black laughter, as well as vernacular humor arising from playing the fool in slavery, minstrel shows, and vaudeville. He then analyzes its development in radio, film, television, and stand-up comedy. Unfortunately, the collection focuses mostly on humor in black male culture and communities, with little attention to women.

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