A couple of weeks ago, the October Vanity Fair profile of Michael B. Jordan stirred up a debate on Twitter—and, no, people weren't just talking about this beautiful cover image. Rather, the controversy started because of a quote from the actor, as he talked about black culture; he said: “We don’t have any mythology, black mythology, or folklore… Creating our own mythology is very important because it helps dream. You help people dream.”
Pretty quickly, people on Twitter called BS on this statement, pointing to authors like Zora Neale Hurston and well-established mythology, like the Ashanti tale of Anansi the Spider. The message being: Black folklore and mythology may not be as widely known as that of other cultures, but it does exist.
“One must remember that many of our practices here in North America are remnants of practices that survived the slave trade,” writer Jamey Hatley, who grew up hearing folktales and beliefs from her parents as a child in Mississippi, tells me. “That is what makes African-American folklore so powerful and beautiful to me. After the trauma of the middle passage and hundreds of years of enslavement, some of those rituals are still powerful in our daily lives, not just our imaginations. Our stories and beliefs and practices had to go underground, become invisible to the untrained eye, but they are varied and many, and still alive.”
Of course, not everyone grew up reading or hearing tales from their parents or teachers, like Hatley did. This is why Jordan’s comment is a great opportunity for people to learn about the history of black folklore and its purpose. As writer Nichole Perkins wrote on Twitter, we do have stories, you just “have to know where to look and who to ask and build your own education.” So, we asked Hatley and writer Jamilah Lemieux for some of their favorite examples of black folklore, and threw in a couple of our own recommendations. Our list isn't the be-all and end-all, but it's a good place to start for anyone who wants to gain some insight into the wide world of black folklore and mythology.
The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales by Virginia Hamilton
"The People Could Fly is a great children's book that even adults would love," Lemieux says. It's a collection of over 20 tales that range from supernatural stories to more cautionary tales with clear morals; all are accompanied by gorgeous illustrations.
Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora by Sheree Renée Thomas
Hatley recommends both Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora and its follow-up, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. "These were the landmark anthologies of black speculative fiction, many of the stories taking their inspiration directly from black folklore and myth," she says.
Talk That Talk: An Anthology of African-American Storytelling by Linda Goss
Another anthology that comes highly recommended is Talk That Talk: An Anthology of African-American Storytelling. It includes stories from storytellers like Zora Neale Hurston and Nikki Giovanni.
The Annotated African American Folktales by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Lemieux is also a fan of this volume of folktales edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. It’s a collection of almost 150 folktales, myths, and legends and is considered the most comprehensive and ambitious collection of black folklore ever published in American literary history.
From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore by Daryl Cumber Dance
"Dr. Daryl Cumber Dance has made her career documenting a wide range of African-American folklore from humor to music to women's storytelling," Hatley says.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
A literary classic, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon stems from the mythology of slaves taking flight to return to their African origins and freedom.
Brer Rabbit Retold by Arthur Flowers
"Brer Rabbit Retold by Arthur Flowers is an art object in itself," Hatley says. "It takes a new spin on one of the most recognizable characters from African-American folklore, Brer Rabbit. A CD is included with the beautifully crafted book where Flowers reaches back into the oral tradition of storytelling with song and spoken tales. Flowers refers to himself as a literary hoodoo. His novels De Mojo Blues and Another Good Loving Blues also make liberal use of myth and folklore to make compelling literature."
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