Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Folklore, Folkloristics, and African American Literary Criticism

by Sw. Anand Prahlad
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Folklore, Folkloristics, and African American Literary Criticism
Sw. Anand Prahlad
African American Review
Start Page: 
End Page: 
Select license: 
Select License

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Folklore, FoIkloristics, and African American Literary Criticism

The importance of folklore to black literature is widely acknowledged and documented. Trudier Harris states, in fact, that "African-American folklore is arguably the basis for most African-American literature" (2). While critics have often discussed the significance of folklore in works by black writers, however, they have consistently resisted the inclusion of folklore scholarship in their discussions, often refusing acknowledgment of a discipline that has been well-established since the beginning of the twentieth century. In this essay I consider some reasons for this reticence and suggest some advantages to be gained from broadening the critical sphere of African American literary criti- cism to include folkloristics. Several reasons for the omission of folkloristic references and theoretical discourse from African American literary criticism are rather obvious. Criticism of African American texts grows out of an academic tradition that disparages "folk" discourse, and has mirrored many of the perspectives of that legacy. As noted by countless folklorists, literary critics have seldom considered the materials of folklore comparable to literature-or the discipline of folkloristics on a par with their own. These attitudes are undoubt- edly rooted in an elitist, Darwinistic perspective that regards expressive forms sanctioned by middle and upper socioeconomic classes as superior, and those associated with lower socioeconom- ic classes inferior. In general, it is this tendentious viewpoint that has posed such problems for the discipline of folklore within the American academy. Of course, this attitude is based upon antiquated ideas of who the "folk" are. Often it does not occur to literary critics that "folk- lore infuses all levels of society" (Hemenway 128); that everyone is the folk, even the critics themselves; and that intellectual snob- bery toward groups with less formal education is a part of the superstitions, folk beliefs, and mythology of the upper class. For example, the belief that literature is superior to oral traditions and, thus, that writers are more worthy of serious study than are "folk" artists is just that, a belief, as is the notion that revered aca- demic theorists have more to offer than do "folk" philosophers. In other words, the entire way of thinking, speaking, and writing about literature is folklore, and is connected to a specific social mythology and class aesthetic, arising out of a capitalistic, Western ethos. In light of this critique, one can easily understand the inher- ent dilemmas facing scholars of African American literature. In fact, African American intellectuals have historically embodied the dissonance between elite and "popular" or "folk" aesthetics and, in the quest for social equality and upward mobility, have

Sw. Anand Prahlad is Associate Professor of English, Anthropology, and Black Studies at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where he teaches courses in folklore, poetry of the African Diaspora, and creative writing.

often condemned their own traditions in favor of European-derived models. The notion of "blackness" itself has often become a locus of divergent criti- cal perspectives on African American literature. Invariably, serious scholars must confront the contradictions between the aesthetics reflected in "folk" forms and those of the acade- my-an institutional affiliate of colo- nialization. One sure product of the American, capitalist class system is that the human resources tapped are very limited. In ascribing to that system by choice of academic perspectives, schol- ars of African American literature have unwittingly accepted, for instance, that "great" ideas originate in the upper eschelon, which leaves the wisdom of the people on the street corner, of chil- dren, of the elderly, etc. virtually unrecognized.

Thus, while critics have had to con- cede that folklore forms the core of African American literature, it has been a problematic acquiescence. The uneasiness of this acknowledgment is revealed in the absence of folkloristic citations by literary scholars, even those writing about folklore in literature (e.g., Blake, de Weever, and Gray). At times this omission strikes the read- er as ignorance resulting from less than rigorous standards of scholarship.l Just as frequently, however, the exclusion of folkloristic research seems to be a deliberate choice. Henry Louis Gates, for example, constructs in his The Signifying Monkey an entire theoreti- cal paradigm around speech behavior studied primarily by folklorists, but nowhere in his entire book does he acknowledge this field. He describes Roger Abrahams, known to those of us in the field of folkloristics and self- described as a folklorist, as "a well- known and highly regarded literary critic, linguist, and anthropologist" (74).Nor do most other critics acknowledge that a field of folklore s~holarshi~exists.

Ironically, Houston Baker writes:

The contextualization of a work of expressive culture, from the perspec-

tive of the anthropology of art, is an "interdisciplinary" enterprise. Rather than ignoring or denigrating the research and insights of scholars in


natural, social, and behavioral sci- ences, the anthropology of art views such efforts as positive attempts to comprehend the multiple dimensions of human behavior. Such efforts serve the investigator of expressive culture as guides and contributions to an understanding of symbolic dimensions of human behavior that comprise a culture's literature and verbal art. (Blues109)

In his "vernacular theory" based on blues, though, Baker fails to consider the proliferation of works by folk- lorists. This disregard is all the more curious because he discusses African American folklore in an earlier book. Long Black Song, however archaic his notion of folklore there may be. Why would one attempt to explore the aes- thetics of blues relative to African American literature but disregard stud- ies that seek to illuminate the perfor- mative, linguistic, and other cultural components of the genre? And how can we explain the fact that certain crit- ics theorize about the folklore-based narrative styles of writers yet com- pletely neglect the enormous body of folkloristic writing on stylistic and per- formative features of oral narratives?

The literary ambivalence toward folklore is further reflected in the choice of the single folklorist that crit- ics have embraced, Zora Neale Hurston. We must remember that the renewed interest in and subsequent canonization of Hurston has been, as much as anything else, an aesthetic and political choice that corresponded with specific social movements-e.g., feminism and the quest for ancestors to speak to the emergent African American feminist and/or womanist discourse. It is instructive to question why other collectors and folklorists, both contemporaries of Hurston and later generations, have been excluded from the discourse of literary analysis, or why, when they are mentioned, their work as collectors is cited rather than their theoretical studies2 One could cite a host of prominent scholars who hax~e made significant contribu- tions to African ~merican folklore but whose names rarely, if ever, appear in literary criticism: for instance, James Mason Brewer, Elsie Clews Parsons, Patricia Turner, Gladys-Marie Fry, John Roberts, Kathryn Morgan, Beverly Robinson, Jolm Vlach, Gerald Davis, and Lawrence Levine, to mention a few.

The choice of Hurston by literary critics furthermore indicates an apprehension about 11011-textual expressix~e commu~~ication, insis

and the liter& tence on conceptualizing folkl&e as textual. Hurston was also a novelist, a writer, and even her folklore work is highly literary. Her rex~ival owes a great deal to the normative values of the academic "cult" in which the liter- ary word becomes fetishistic and is practically worshiped. Hence her work is not only more palatable to literary scholars, but poses less dissonance for them than do studies that hax~e a more overt social-science orientation. In dis- cussing Toni Morrison's use of folklore, Harris writes:

In the process, she creates ivhat I refer to as literary folklore. By "literary" I do not mean to pursue the argument developed by some folklorists that folklore is no longer folklore bv the


mere fact of its appearance in litera- ture, that it ceases to be folklore because it has been lifted from the oral culture and is now in a static, objecti- fied, nondynamic form. Suice folklore can be recorded and collected, "written down," so to speak, without violating its authenticity, I maintain that it can also be incorporated uito literary texts without conipromising its original quality. Blues lyrics in Invisible Man are no less folkloric because Ellison included them in hs novel. (7)

The argument here invites us to ignore social, political, and theoretical factors that add up to very legitimate reasons to distinguish between literature and


folklore. A disparity of power and influence exists between the world of literature, academe, publishing, and critics. on the one hand. and that of oral tradition and folk and community processes, on the other. As Daniel Barnes notes, "The text of a folktale is not 'the folktale': but the transcription of an oral performance" (9); "we reduce, as it were, folklore to the level of literature . . . "by assuming that ". . . the legend or tale in question is a text to be collated against the text of a novel or story" (8).

The concept of folklore as textual has been under attack and, to a !arge extent, discredited since the emergence of the performative and contextual approaches in folkloristics around 1972. 111 his seminal article "Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context," Dan Ben-Amos argues that, "accordingly, it is not the life history of the text that determines its folkloristic quality but its present mode of existence" (14). Ben-Amos contends that the determi- nation shou!d be based on the commu- nicative context in which texts occur. This shift in perspectix~e has tremen- dous i~nplications for the study of liter- ature and folklore. As Robert Hemenway observed 111 1979, the notion of "folklore in literature" reflects a misunderstanding of what folklore actually is, how it operates in culture, and what has been going on in the discipline of folkloristics during the past twenty-five years. Hemenway writes:

We have to accept the fact that an author does not use folklore. Consciously or ~~~iconscio~isly,

anauthor represents, adapts, or trans- forms phenomena that existed as folk- lore during a prior communication event. What one studies is folklore and literat~n-e;the location of the analysis is the interface between the two. (110)

Folklore is worlds away from represen- tational texts found in collectio~~s. Rather, it is a part of the body, the ~~nconscio~~s

and conscious mind, the spirit, the air that is breathed, the smells, sounds, sensations, and the totality of elements found in given moments of dvnamic social interaction. It is a corporeally based, expressive, and artful language and system of thought of which spoken or written words are only a part.


In the main, African American liter- ary criticism has as yet posed no serious challenge to the foundations upon which Western academic "reli- gion" rests. In spite of the trend toward the use of folklore as a basis for theory (see Baker, Long, Blues; Gates; Harris), the Eurocentric conceptual framework within which these theories

are formulated remains the Such example, that "what same. As I have noted, this emerges is not a filled sub- framework dictates a hier- suggestions ject, but an anonymous archal relationship between I have (nameless) voice issuing forms and classes. My point from the black (w)hole" here is not to encourage the discussed (Blues5). creation of a new literary Baker's comment repre- "denomination"-e.g., could form sents what historically has Afrocentrism or Africana the basis for a been, and remains, the pre-

Womanism-but instead to vailing viewpoint of acade- suggest how far-reaching revolufjonary micians. From this outdat- and complex the pursuit of ed perspective, "folklore"

kind of

folklore is; in fact, it is a and "the folk" are mysti- much larger and more fun- literary fied, and a focus is placed damental phenomenon on the group's regurgita-


than are literature and academe. The discourse of literary critics concerned with folklore is comparable to writing about history as if historians and their research were somehow outside of the subject of their scrutiny. Or, as the Zen proverb goes, "The fish in the water cannot see that they are wet." For literary scholars sim- ply to acknowledge the influence of folklore on their own thinking, research methodologies, and analysis would undermine the conventional way of approaching literature and shift radically the nature of the field.

The impulse toward a political use of folklore by critics is another possible reason to eschew folkloristic and other ethnography-oriented studies. Because contemporary folklore research tends to focus more on the diversity of indi- vidual taste and innovation than on the homogeneous taste of the "masses," it may be at variance with the agendas of some literary critics. The agendas of which I speak seek to position critics and selected writers as spokespersons for the "masses." Folklore becomes for these scholars symbolic and historic representations of the consciousness and aesthetics of the group, not real- life processes, strategies, or dynamics so deeply embedded in individual lives that they cannot be readily extracted. This idealization and romanticization of the "folk" serves as the basis for some academicians' self-constructed mythology and identity politics. Baker

writes of the blues, for

tion and transmission of

"lore" that has life indepen- dent of any individual. Literary schol- ars write about "Black," "Negro," or "African American" blues, spirituals, or other traditions in the same way that historians write about "Black" histo- ry-indeed, as folklorists wrote about the folk in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Lest scholars forget, this way of conceptualizing and writing about African Americans is born out of political rhetoric, a testimo- ny to the historical struggle for civil lib- erties, equality, and dignity. Its focus is on the African American experience as a singular, monolithic phenomenon, rather than on widely diverse particu- larities of experience, revolving around a central historical matrix.

From this homogeneous point of view, the folk constitute a mass con- sciousness and mind, the straw out of which the gold of lore is spun. But this Darwinian perspective retards the identification of and research on specif- ic "folk" artists and disguises an igno- rance of African American culture with scholarly rhetoric. It implicitly equates folk with traditional, denying the extent of individual creativity and innovation that folklorists study as a matter of course. For many literary scholars, folk becomes primarily a class designation, and lore a referent to ~~nconsciously

transmitted traditions that persist over time.

Influences of these attitudes are reflected in critical studies as well as in anthologies of African American litera- ture. One might think at first glance, for instance, that Gates's convincing argument for signifying as the central rhetorical trope in African American culture would lead to a fairer, more emic assessment of folk culture and, thus, have more than cosmetic implica- tions for future scholarship and anthologies such as the 1997 Norton Anthology of African American Literature. But closer inspection of Gates's Signifying Monkey reveals that, however radical the theory might seem, his concepts of "folk" remain consistent with those of the past. Although studies of signifying as oral performances are considered, this examination is ultimately in the inter- est of focusing on texts. The expressive modes of the "folk" are given honorary status in the context of written texts, and although the trope of signifying is used as the basis for an all-encompass- ing rhetorical strategy for African American communicative practices, the trope becomes subsumed in the theo- retical discourse of literary criticism, informed largely by European theo- rists. Important distinguishing features between the worlds of writing and orality are ignored, and none of the vast literature on this topic is men- tioned (see Foley, Immanent, Singer; Ong). And while Gates should be com- mended for framing his discussion of signifying within the larger context of African mythology, he remains unwill- ing to view that system as a viable the- oretical one in its own right, relying instead on in-vogue literary theories to explain it. One cannot, for example, do justice to Ishmael Reed's writing with- out having a solid grounding in and understanding of the African-derived

religion of Vodou, and one cannot gain such a knowledge without extensive reading of ethnographic and folkloris- tic materials. The critic who approach- es Mumbo Jumbo should be as versed in the mythology and practices of Vodou and other New World African religions as the Western critic is in Greek and Christian mythology; other- wise, the meaning of rhetorical strate- gies such as signifying cannot be fully comprehended.

Ignorance about elements of African, European, African American, and European American folklore leads to an inability to conceptualize African American literature in its broadest con- text, or to develop theoretical models that will be the most illuminating. Many essays about blues and literature provide good illustrations. For instance, Sherley Anne Williams's oth- erwise excellent essay "The Blues Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry" presents several critical mis- conceptions about the blues that impair her analysis and that a familiarity with folkloristics might have resolved. The first of these is the notion that blues can be analyzed as "a verbal-as distinct from a musical-genre" (73).I wonder how a sung, poetic genre, among a group of people whose core aesthetic is that music is at the nucleus of every kind of expression, can ever be considered distinct from music. Another serious problem with the essay is the notion of blues as non- sacred music, a popular view more reflective of an American Christian perspective than of the reality of how the blues have been conceptualized within African American culture. The concept of blues theology is eloquently discussed by Jon Michael Spencer; but, more importantly, folkloristic and ethnographic works on such phenome- na would help literary critics to imag- ine African American expressive forms within the larger context of African- influenced philosophical perspectives. Many emic systems can be viewed as highly developed theories that are in many ways antithetical to Western


thought. To view blues or other folk-


lore forms within the framework of New World African religious philoso- phy would necessarily transform criti- cal perspectives.

It is unfortunate that critics do not more often integrate the opinions of writers into their theories, for writers are often quite articulate about their philosophies, and are frequently more familiar with alternative systems of thought than are critics. I know of no critic, for example, whose knowledge of African-derived religious systems equals that of a writer such as Ishmael Reed. In fact, critics commonly display hostility toward the aesthetic explo- rations of African American writers, a puzzling attitude from those who make their living off of the artists they may openly scorn. By way of illustra- tion, we can note the venomous tone of Gates's comments about Imamu Baraka: ". . . race as the controlling 'mechanism' in critical theory reached its zenith of influence and mystification when LeRoi Jones metamorphosed himself into Imamu Baraka, and his daishiki-clad, Swahili-named 'harbari gani' disciples 'discovered' they were black" ("Preface" 56).

One of the most obvious features of African American literature is its insistence that we live in a spiritual universe, that human lives are continu- ally touched by invisible powers, and that wholeness must emerge from com- munity rituals. In contrast, the "reli- gion" of the academy embraces ratio- nalism, skepticism, materialism, and competitiveness as its highest virtues. How then can we imagine that the most illuminating critical tools will ever arise out of the thinking of the Western academy? I posit that those serious about the development of African American literary theory pur- sue the diverse philosophical and eso- teric trails left by the creators of the lit- erature, terrains that are typically sub- versive of academic values. Such pur- suits will invariably lead critics to place less emphasis on distinctions between "folk" and "elite" artists, but will aug- ment our understanding of processes, craft, and mastery of different genres and forms. They will also lead to more international cdnnections and frames of reference, distinct from those of the mainstream.

A careful look at the tradition of African American poetry, for instance, reveals a close affinity between it and other New World African ceremonial and ritual practices. To a large extent, poets can be considered priests, shamans, and healers who draw upon the wellspring of African American spiritual traditions, music, incanta- tions, etc. in the processes of creating and communicating with their audi- ences. African American literary criti- cism should seek to validate this ethos rather than continuing to view it through lenses that can only debase it. Is it too radical to suggest that critics immerse themselves in the same hil losophical waters as the artists whose work they critique and, in doing so, assist in developing a field that is as


deeply creative, exploratory, and in dialogue with as full a range of intel- lectual and spiritual forces as the art is?

African American literary criticism will remain indebted to Gates for his bold examination of signifying and its importance to the study of black litera- ture. But the imaortance of this studv should be seen kthe context of oth& efforts to discern what is unique about black discourse, and the consequent imvlications for theoretical anaivsis. In fact, a similar spirit inspires Stephen Henderson's Understanding the New Black Poetry (1973),which, in many


ways is moEe revolutionary than Gates's work, primarily because it seeks to articulate a theoretical orienta- tion that emerges from African American poetics, not privileging the written, literary, or academic. But per- haps the most revolutionary effort to date has been Janheinz Jahn's Muntu, which appeared first in 1958.In this work, Jahn attempts to describe an African-based philosophical system that characterizes not only African, but also New World African, societies; and


he applies this theoretical system to a wide range of artistic genres. The strength of Jahn's efforts lies in his reliance on ethnographic works as well as in his transcontinental perspective on literatures written by people of African descent, two elements strange- ly absent from much of today's African American literarv criticism.


African American literature reveal the same limited scope of vision as do scholarly studies. While they have sometimes acknowledged the debt that the literature owes to oral traditions, they have consistently reflected the dominant attitudes toward the two forms. Customarily, examples of oral tradition have been included as precursors to literature, substantiating an evolutionarv model One is temptzd to view the iiclclusion of folklore texts in recent African American anthologies of literature as a progressive gesture (see Donalson; Gates and McKay; Hill); however, folk- lore texts were included in anthologies published much earlier (e.g., Henderson, Understanding).Nor is the incorporation of "popular" forms unique, for this was a common practice during the seventies, when literary anthologies embraced songs by artists such as Bob Dylan and "poems" from diverse ethnic-oral traditions. Granted. some anthologies (e.g., Henderson; Hill) insinuate a more equal acceptance of folklore expressions than others, but in most cases, folklore is treated as "oral literature," a pejorative concept. To reduce folklore to texts helps to jus- tify the exclusion of folklore and ethno- graphic works from consideration and subverts the need to make distinctions between these two kinds of commu- nicative practices a pertinent area of discussion and debate.

Although Call and Response avoids the evolutionary model sug- gested by The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, in which folklore is situated as a primitive pre- cursor to written genres, Hill's antholo- gy still reveals a perspective that is firmly rooted in the conventional notions about what literature is and how it should be read, interpreted, and critiqued. Jahn seems to understand some of these implications of textual presentations of African American folklore. He writes, for example, that

the blues lie at the bo~mdary of African culture, where residual African ele- ments pass over into American. They are always in danger of crossing the boundary but are held back by their musical traditions and mode of singing. Where, however, the song becomes a poem which is no longer swg, but written and printed, Africa is hardly a memory. (225)

Folklore texts in literary anthologies are akin to Muzak versions of B. B. King, Bob Marley, or Jimi Hendrix per- formances played in an elevator, department store, or doctor's waiting room, and anthology editors should recognize the inherent problems with such textualizing and work actively to minimize them. The inclusion of CDs is simply not sufficient to convey the complexities of spoken and musical genres. A most striking feature of recent anthologies is the absence of any unique perspective on African American literature that would distin- guish their theoretical framework from those of mainstream anthologies. The editors suggest that there is more inter- relatedness among the folk, popular, and literary threads of African American traditions than of main- stream traditions, but they do not go so far as to reflect a resultant, distinct the- oretical perspective on these forms. It is, furthermore, puzzling that current anthologies seem less theoretically expansive than some earlier ones. Addison Gayle's 1969 anthology of essays black expression, for instance, contains an entire section of essays on folk culture; in contrast, contemporary anthologies include short sections of folklore texts.

Perhaps when Robert O'Meally stated that "the effective teacher of Afro-American literary tradition must be something of a folklorist . .."(15354), he was thinking of a familiarity with the most fundamental tools of


folklore-e.g., basic terminology, Stith Thompson's motif and tale type index- es, and other basic reference works for different genres-and keeping an eye on the primary journals of the field. But the implications of this statement go beyond this basic familiarity and the simple awareness that African American authors tend to rely on folk- lore in their work to a reconceptualiza- tion of the place of literature in cultural studies. Thus far, no one has devel- oped the perfect descriptive term to encompass the full range of expressive and artistic behaviors, without privi- leging folklore, literature, or popular culture. Nevertheless, I am suggesting such a perspective here.

If one considers that the expressive and artistic behaviors of any group are interrelated (and perhaps more so in some cultures than in others), it only makes sense to use as comprehensive an approach as possible, rooted not in the pre-established belief that one form is superior, but in the affirmation of the creative and aesthetic principles that give rise to these diverse forms in the first place. These principles should be as much the subject of our critical inquiry as any specific form. I suggest that, based on the range of materials included in anthologies and alluded to in critical studies, the focus should be more expansive than "literature." Instead, our concern should be the study of the African American body and voice and their multitudinous artistic expressions. Music, sound, and spirit should be the basis of our theo- rizing, and the multi- and poly-vocality the foci of our methodologies. Submerged somewhere in all of this is the debate over the political and social autonomy of African Americans within the confines of the United States, an issue I do not wish to belabor here. However, my comments certainly point to the crisis of a widespread ignorance about and irreverence for to the absence of internal institutions to preserve and promote our own culture. If we take seriously the commonly expressed idea that African American expressive arts represent the most authentically American folklore, and are at the core of American "popular" culture and aesthetics, then it would seem imperative to elevate the inven- tors and creators of these forms to canonical status. It is high time that lit- erary critics extend invitations to the folk and folklorists to dine at their pri- vate dinners, to begin learning our names and engaging in a discourse of mutual exchange, and even to come and "take dinner" at our humble tables once in a while. Otherwise, "folk" artists remain in the same position rela- tive to academe as do the dispossessed, neglected, enslaved, and marginalized relative to the mainstream. Work- horses. Doormats. Meta~horical Sampsons chained to the pillars of the academic temple. Otherwise, African American literary criticism goes on sit- ting on the metaphorical pot, neither getting off nor pissing. The field of African American literary criticism should insist that its scholars have an intimate knowledge of specific works by folk artists and an understanding of the processes, aesthetics, and strategies of particular oral and material genres- as well as a familiarity with diasporic philosophical traditions. A general knowledge of the blues is not enough. The critic should be familiar with the distinct regional and historical styles of blues, some of the major innovators and lyricists of these different styles, and the philosophical systems that guided creators and performers. At the same time that scholars argue for uni- versity courses on African American literature, thev should also battle for classes on thLb1ues and other African American communicative practices.

An anthology compiled from this new perspective would, first of all, not be titled African American Literature. Second, it would not contain empty texts of folklore genres, lumped togeth- er and discussed in brief introductory ed solely to studies of African and New comments. Rather, it would contain World African proverb use (see ethnographic excerpts of particular Mieder). The basic argument of my performances by specific individuals, 1996book African American Proverbs involving descriptions and analysis of in Context is that proverbs should not

performative dynamics occurring at a be read as literary texts and that mean-

specific rmment. By such contextual ing can only be interpreted as proverbs organization, and through more elabo- are used in context. M~ essay on rate explanations, readers would Come

proverbs in Gloria Naylorfs &fama Day to understand more fully how folklore offersan analytical glimpse into how is lived and what the relationship of proverbs function in one particulartexts might be to the dynamics of inter-

work of literature,

personal communication. Editors I envision segments of an antholo- would indicate that meanings cannot gy, which ~ f~~~~i~~ proverb~ ~~ i be gained from texts alone, that folk- are highlighted in the same lore always involves elements of inno- way that literary artists are, and invation and tradition, and would which examples of their art (proverbs explain how folklore is related to spoken in context and the speakers' works of literature on more than a tex- comments on their proverb aretual level' it be made featured,1also envision critical works abundantly clear that folklore is a con-that demonstrate an intimate knowl- temporary, dynamic phenomenon, edge of such folk masters and their art.

integral to every person's life, not a Furthermore, I imagine that same kind holdover from some earlier, primitive of focus on specialists in other genres- stage of development.

for example, storytellers (Crowley; We might turn to the sections in Morgan; Bauman), toasters (Abrahams;

Call and Response titled "Slave

Jackson), quiltmakers (Fry, NightProverbsu and "Slave Proverbs and Riders), (Brown), rappers Their African Parallels" by way of singers and musicians variillustration. First, simply listing a num-


ber of proverbs provides no substantial OuS music (Evans)/ dancers

(Hazzard-Gordon; Emery), and minis- assistance to the student seeking to ters (Titon; Rosenberg; Davis). To the

learn how proverbial speech figures extent that African American literature

into African American literature.

Second, the editors' organizational evolves out of a different philosophical

implication is that proverbs are obso- and aesthetic system than does litera- lete forms that have no relevance in ture of the mainstream, the field of crit- today's society-an unforgivable dis- icism should be equally divergent.

tortion of one of the most beautiful and Such suggestions as I have discussed widespread folklore genres. There are could form the basis for a revolution- literally thousands of bibliographic ref- ary kind of literary criticism, one that erences on the topic of proverbs in lit- would distinguish African American erature (see Mieder and Bryan) and studies and also inspire the approaches even an annotated bibliography devot- taken to literatures of other groups.

  1. Although there is as yet no generally recognized methodology for studying folklore and literature Notes (Barnes 6), there is nevertheless a plethora of writings on the subject, many of which touch on con- cerns of scholars of African American literature (e.g., Dundes and special issues of folklore journals devoted to this topic, including Southern Folklore Quarterly from 1979).
  2. For example, Daryl C. Dance's 1978 collection Shuckin' and Jivin: Folklore from Contemporary Black Americans might be mentioned, whereas her groundbreaking 1987 study Long Gone: The Mecklenberg Six & The Theme of Escape in Black Folklore never is.


Works Aarne, Antti. The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography. Ed. and trans. Stith

Cited Thompson. 2d ed. 1961. Helsinki: Folklore Fellows Communications, 1984. Abrahams, Roger D. Deep Down in the Jungle. Chicago: Aldine, 1963. Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago:

U of Chicago P, 1984. -. Long Black Song: Essays in Black American Literature and Culture. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1972. Barnes, Daniel R. "Toward the Establishment of Principles for the Study of Folklore and Literature." Southern Folklore Quarterly 43 (1 979): 5-16. Bauman, Richard. Story, Performance and Event: Contextual Studies of Oral Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986. Ben-Amos, Dan. "Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context." Toward New Perspectives in Folklore.

Ed. Americo Paredes and Richard Bauman. Austin: U of Texas P, 1972. 3-19. Blake, Susan L. "Folklore and Community in Song of Solomon." MELUS 7.3 (1 980): 77-82. Brewer, James Mason. American Negro Folklore. New York: New York Times, 1968. -. Dog Ghosts and Other Texas Negro Folk Tales. Austin: U of Texas P, 1958. -. Worser Days and Better Times. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1965. Brown, Karen McCarthy. Moma Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: U of California P,

1991. Crowley, Daniel J. I Could Talk Old-Story Good: Creativity in Bahamian Folklore. U of California Folklore Studies 17. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966. Dance, Daryl C. Long Gone: The Mecklenberg Six & The Theme of Escape in Black Folklore. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1987. -. Shuckin' and Jivin': Folklore from Contemporary Black Americans. Bloomington: lndiana UP, 1978. Davis, Gerald L. I Got the Word in Me and I Can Sing It, You Know. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1985. de Weever, Jacqueline. "Toni Morrison's Use of Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, and Myth in The Song of Solomon." Southern Folklore Quarterly 44 (1 980): 131 -44. Donalson, Melvin, ed. Cornerstones: An Anthology of African Literature. New York: St. Martin's P, 1996. Dundes, Alan. "The Study of Folklore in Literature and Culture." Journal of American Folklore 78 (Apr.-Jun. 1965): 136-42. Emery, Lynne Fauley. Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts. Westport: Greenwood P, 1996. Evans, David. Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues. Berkeley: U of California P, 1982. Fisher, Dexter, and Robert B. Stepto, eds. Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1979. Foley, John Miles. Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic. Bloomington:

lndiana UP, 1991. --. The Singer of Tales in Performance. Bloomington: lndiana UP, 1995. Fry, Gladys-Marie. "Epilogue: Harriet Powers-Portrait of an African-American Quilter." 1976.

Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Dutton, 1990. 84- 91. -. Night Riders in Black F'olk History. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1975. Gates, Henry Louis. Jr. "preface to Blackness: Text and Pretext." Fisher and Stepto 44-69. -. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP,

1988. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African American

Literature. New York: Norton, 1997. Gayle, Addison Jr., ed. black expression. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1969. Gray, Lee Valerie. "The Use of Folktales in Novels by Black Women." CLA Journal 23 (1980): 266-

72. Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991. Hazzard-Gordan, Katrina. Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture.

Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1990. Hemenway, Robert. "Are You a Flying Lark or a Setting Dove?" Fisher and Stepto 122-52. Henderson, Stephen, ed. Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as

Poetic Reference. New York: Morrow, 1973.

Hill, Patricia Liggins, ed. Call & Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition. New York: Houghton, 1998.

Jackson, Bruce. "Get YourAss In the Waterand Swim Like Me."Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1974.

Jahn, Janheinz. Muntu: African Culture and the Western World. 1958. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1 990.

Keys, Cheryl L. "'We're More than Novelty, Boys': Strategies of Female Rappers in the Rap Music Tradition." Feminist Messages: Coding in Women's Folk Culture. Ed. Joan Newlon Radner. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1993. 203-20. Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977. Mieder, Wolfgang. African Proverb Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography. Colorado Springs: African Proverbs Project, 1994. Mieder, Wolfgang, and George B. Bryan. Proverbs in World Literature: A Bibliography. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. Morgan, Kathryn L. Children of Strangers: The Stories of A Black Family. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1980. O'Meally, Robert G. "Riffs and Rituals: Folklore in the Work of Ralph Ellison." Fisher and Stepto 153-

69. Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Methuen, 1982. Prahlad, Sw. Anand. African American Proverbs in Context. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1996.

-. " 'All Chickens Come Home to Roost': The Function of Proverbs in Gloria Naylor's Mama Day." Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship 15 (1 998): 265-81. Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo. New York: Doubleday, 1972. Roberts, John W. From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1989. Robinson, Beverly. "Faith Is the Key and Prayer Unlocks the Door: Prayer in African American Life." Journal of American Folklore 1 10 (1 997): 408-1 4. Rosenberg, Bruce A. The Art of the American Folk Preacher. New York: Oxford UP, 1970. Spencer, Jon Michael. Blues and Evil. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1993. Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk Literature. Rev. ed. 6 vols. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1955-58. Titon, Jeff Todd, with Rev. C. L. Franklin, eds. Give Me This Mountain: Life Histoy and Selected Sermons. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989. Vlach, John Michael. Charleston Blacksmith: The Work of Philip Simmons. 1981. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1992. Williams, Sherley Anne. "The Blues Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry." Fisher and Stepto 72-87.


African American Review, Volume 33, Number 4 O 1999 Sw. Anand Prahlad

  • Recommend Us