Tricksters in African, African American, and Caribbean Folktales and Cultures
- LAST REVIEWED: 14 July 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0094
- LAST REVIEWED: 14 July 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0094
The trickster is one of the most complex and widespread archetypes of Pan-African literatures and cultures, such as those from Africa, the United States, and the Caribbean. It is a folk character who invokes a multiplicity of meanings, including transcendence of boundaries between good and bad, morality and immorality, truth and lie, and many other entities. Dwelling on third, sacred, innocuous, and marginalized spaces, the trickster is a universal figure whose location in crossroads or other unusual spaces epitomizes the forced or voluntary alienation of individuals and communities from around the world. Therefore, the trickster is more than the childlike character who enjoys duping other pranksters and being “naughty.” In Pan-African traditions, the trickster is an animal or human character whose situation and movements symbolize the harsh conditions of millions of people of African descent due to brutal historical forces such as slavery, colonialism, and other oppressions. In the Americas, Europe, and other locations where they were brought, enslaved Africans carried knowledge of the trickster persona from their folktales and cultures, and later blended this tradition with lore and customs of Europeans and Native Americans in the New World. Thus, although it was one of the most brutal human experiences, the transatlantic slave trade led to the formation of hybridity, or cultural mixing, embodied in the rich spoken and written Pan-African narratives in which trickster figures deploy various strategies to resist oppression, assert their humanity, and gain freedom. The works mentioned in this study reflect the historical, social, political, and cultural backgrounds out of which trickster icons of selected Pan-African folktales came. Such works reveal the hybridism and survival strategies that enslaved Africans developed in the United States and the Caribbean by mixing their African traditions with Native American, European, and other customs. Understanding such cultural diversity will enable scholars and students of Pan-African folklore to have the open-mindedness that is necessary to study the vast traditions that influenced such customs. To guide readers, this bibliography gives a comprehensive list of major collections of African, African American, and Caribbean folktales, tale-types, motifs, and scholarly studies of such narratives published since the early 20th century. The bibliography shows that enslaved Africans did not come to the New World as blank slates. Instead, these populations had folklore, knowledge, memories, and practices that helped them to resist oppression and affirm their humanity.
Even if their primary origins are found in African societies, from where the black populations who had been enslaved into the New World came, tricksters that permeate Pan-African tales of the United States also have sources or parallels in a variety of American cultures. For instance, in the United States, other sources of such figures are found in Native American, European American, and Hispanic cultures where there are folkloric traditions with tricksters that are very similar to their African American counterparts. Thus, Morgan 2013 examines the role of tricksters such as the African Rabbit, the Ghanaian (Ashanti) Ananse, and the African American Brer Rabbit and Tar Baby, whose skills of manipulation and chicanery allow them to overcome tribulations. These tricksters’ influence in the United States is also apparent in African American literature and oral traditions, where one finds the characters’ various resistance strategies, including the subtle use of animal and human wit and resilience in order to face adversities around race, class, and gender identities. Morgan’s book is one of many works that have explored the significance of tricksters in African American literature and culture. Abrahams 1970, Rowland 1973, Levine 1977, Roberts 1989, Ross and Jacob 1994, Reesman 2001, and Rutledge 2013 are other studies that have also examined the importance of prankster figures in African American writing and tradition.
Abrahams, Roger D. Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia. Chicago: Aldine, 1970.
This is an anthology of witty tales about iconic African American trickster figures such as Shine, the Signifying Monkey, and the Lion. In addition, the book explores the meaning of tricksters in African American culture, the origin of John the trickster in the South, and the legends of Billy Lyons and Stackolee. Furthermore, it examines the importance of verbal contests and creativity, heroes, the toast, the dozens, and jokes in African American folklore.
Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness. African-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.
This book examines tactics of trickery in African American tales as subversive strategies that blacks used against domination during slavery. The book also shows how enslaved animal and human trickster tales placed emphasis on indirection, expression of repressed feelings, and other tactics of survival that characters who appeared weak deployed to humiliate those deemed as the strong ones.
Morgan, Winifred. The Trickster Figure in American Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
This book shows the importance of diverse ethnic folklore in the literature of the United States. Focusing on trickster figures in African American, Native American, European American, Asian American, and Latino American cultures, the book reflects the rich and complex folklore of the United States. The monograph also reveals the strong influence of trickster resistance strategies in ethnic American literature.
Reesman, Jeanne Campbell, ed. Trickster Lives: Culture and Myth in American Fiction. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001.
This book examines the diverse multicultural roots of tricksters in American culture. Many of these characters are related to tricksters from African American tales. In this vein, tricksters from African American Rabbit stories are comparable to their Cherokee cousins, suggesting the strong, similar, yet insufficiently recognized influence of both African American and Native American folklore on American society.
Roberts, John W. From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.
This book shows that the transplanted blacks in the diaspora used their knowledge of African animal trickster characters to transmit values that preserved their traditions and protected them from the tribulations of slavery. Also, the book reveals the survival tactics and philosophy that justified the desperate actions of African slaves and their trickster icons against the drastic conditions in which they lived. Enslaved Africans used the trickster tradition to challenge their owners’ deceit and individualism, which compromised honesty and communalism.
Ross, Gayle, and Murv Jacob, eds. How Rabbit Tricked Otter: and Other Cherokee Trickster Stories. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
This book discusses numerous aspects, including the relationships between African American and Native American folktales. The book suggests the existence of a large reservoir of Native American Rabbit trickster folktales that await comparisons with tales from African American and African traditions.
Rowland, Beryl. Animals with Human Faces: A Guide to Animal Symbolism. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1973.
This is a study of the conventional and metaphorical symbolisms that European tradition has given to animals. Although these symbolisms do not often meet African criteria, they do provide a basis for analyzing the Anglo-American roots of animal symbolisms in African American folktales.
Rutledge, Gregory E. The Epic Trickster in American Literature: From Sunjata to So(u)l. New York and London: Routledge, 2013.
This book is a thorough historical and literary analysis of the significance of the trickster figure in black traditions, from ancient African epics to modern African American culture. Breaking the binaries between the trickster and the epic, Rutledge suggests the ways in which these entities have been intertwined in African and African diasporic traditions. Moreover, this book establishes strong connections between African and Homeric trickster and epic traditions.
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