Storytellers & Black Folk Tales

The Storyteller

My grandmother's word echo—
Each syllable fills this empty room.
She creates each character
With just the tenor of her voice,
She has no need for elaborate costumes
For she brings each soul to life
By the will and command of spoken word...

And we sit anxiously,
    Tipped on the edge of stairs
We wait anxiously,
    hearts captured by the tale.

My grandmother's words attract,
Again and again, we always come back
Unable to resist the tale she weaves
We watched with eyes wide and wondered
Excited for this unexpected escape—
Through our ears we see more clearly
And she shows ourselves,
   at the heart of her story.

Storytelling in Black Culture

Earlier this year, I talked about my love for fairy-tales. Most of these tales were written in book form in the 1500s. In Black culture (African and Native-American culture as well), stories were not traditionally written down. Instead, we participate in the tradition of oral story telling. In my experience, the story teller is usually an older person, like a grandmother or grandfather, who exuberantly narrates and voices the characters of the tale. The full effect of the story is really only achieved through oral delivery, in my opinion, but in recent history (the late 19th and early 20th centuries) these tales have been copied to paper.
Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby as depicted in Virginia Hamilton's The People Could Fly.

There are countless stories and characters but each story generally contains a moral or lesson, much like most tales and legends. The underlying theme of many Black folktales is that of hope and overcoming. Many stories, such as "The People Could Fly" speak figuratively of overcoming the bonds of slavery. As a coastal South Carolina native, I grew up with the Br'er Rabbit stories told from the Gullah tradition. Br'er Rabbit is a trickster character similar to Anansi the Spider (who is of West African origin). 

In the past, storytelling served as a way to retain our history during a time when it was illegal for Blacks to read or write, as well as a form of entertainment to lift the spirit. Today, storytelling is an honored tradition that still continues in some Black families. Below is a YouTube video of storyteller Jan Brown preforming, links containing more information on Black Folk Tales, as well as a list of some of my favorite tales.

Jan Brown, Storyteller

References / Folktale Anthologies

  1. The Virginian-Pilot. Black Storytelling Festival in Hampton". YouTube. November 19, 2013
  2. S.E. Schlosser. "Br'er Rabbit". American Folklore; visited 2015
  3. Virginia Hamilton. The People Could Fly. 1985

My Favorite Black Folktales

  • Wiley His Mama and the Hairy Man
  • Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Bay
  • John and the Devil's Daughter


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