'Annotated African American Folktales' Reclaims Stories Passed Down From Slavery | WYPR

'Annotated African American Folktales' Reclaims Stories Passed Down From Slavery

Nov 10, 2017
Originally published on November 11, 2017 2:29 am

Browsing through a weighty new anthology called The Annotated African American Folk Tales is a journey across space and time. In one chapter called "Defiance and Desire," there's a section devoted to flying Africans, where there's a lyric that I was familiar with from a song Paul Robeson recorded many years ago — "All God's Chillun Got Wings."

There were also folktales told by slaves of newly arrived Africans — who, unlike the slaves, had not yet lost the ability to fly; stories of Africans who escaped slavery by flying back to Africa. The anthology is edited by two Harvard professors: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Maria Tatar.

"[These folktales] have that magical quality," Tatar says. "They give us mysteries wrapped in enigmas inside riddles. We have to respond to them. We have to figure them out."


Interview Highlights

On the importance of flying Africans in folktales

Gates: The relationship between flying, freedom, and death is one of the curious things about the African-American oral tradition, that you would fly away, as Paul Robeson just so beautifully sang, but you fly away after death to heaven. You know, it wasn't a kind of magic carpet when you go to another world and then return to your previous life. It was a transition in the literal sense of going from one realm of existence to another, and these stories are told with an enormous amount of admiration and respect, but also it's a musing about a form of suicide — that it was better to will yourself back home to Africa, will yourself back to the other side of the Atlantic, than to live the social death of human bondage here in the United States.

On the complicated history of Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories

Gates: Joel Chandler Harris did an enormous service. We can debate the fact that, well, he certainly wasn't a black man, and we could debate what his motivation was, and we can wonder, did African-Americans receive any percentage or share of the enormous profit that he made? The answer is absolutely not. But on the other hand, a lot of these tales would have been lost without Joel Chandler Harris.

Tatar: I was going to present the counter argument that is, did he kill African-American folklore? Because after all, if you look at the framed narrative, who is Uncle Remus telling the stories to? A little white boy, and so suddenly this entire tradition has been appropriated for white audiences, and made charming rather than subversive and perilous, dangerous — stories that could be told only at nighttime when the masters were not listening.

Gates: But think about it this way: It came into my parlor, it came into my bedroom, through the lips of a black man, my father, who would have us read the Uncle Remus tales but within a whole different context, and my father, can we say, re-breathed blackness into those folktales. So it's a very complicated legacy.

On the continued legacy of these folktales

Gates: It's like links in a chain, and these chains go back hundreds of years from, starting today, back through the written tradition, crossing over to the oral tradition. And our job, people like us, people like Maria and me, our job is to put them in a form in which they can be consumed by a whole new generation.

Tatar: I see these stories as a way of listening to the ancestry, as Toni Morrison would put it. And then I hope that this book will be a platform for making the stories new, making them our own again.

Gates: And that's precisely why we have two sets of dedications, Maria's and mine. And my dedication says "This volume is dedicated to Eleanor Margaret Gates-Hatley: L'dor va'dor," meaning generation to generation. That's my three-year-old granddaughter, and I want these tales to be hers just like my father made these tales mine.

This story was edited for radio by Fatma Tanis and Emily Kopp, and adapted for the Web by Sydnee Monday and Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Browsing through a weighty new anthology called "The Annotated African American Folktales" is a journey across space and time. In one chapter called Defiance and Desire, there's a section devoted to flying Africans where there's a lyric that I was familiar with. It's a song Paul Robeson recorded many years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL GOD'S CHILLUN GOT WINGS")

PAUL ROBESON: (Singing) I got wings. You got wings. All of God's children got wings. When I get to heaven, going to hitch on my wings. I'm going to fly all over God's heaven, heaven, heaven...

SIEGEL: There are also folk tales told by slaves of newly arrived Africans who, unlike the slaves, had not yet lost the ability to fly and stories of Africans who escaped slavery by flying back to Africa. "The Annotated African American Folktales" is edited by two Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, who's a professor of English and African and African-American literature, and Maria Tatar, who's a professor of folklore and mythology and Germanic languages and literature. Welcome to both of you.

HENRY LOUIS GATES: Thanks so much, Robert.

MARIA TATAR: Thanks for having us.

SIEGEL: And professor Tatar, you have edited in the past "The Annotated Brothers Grimm." Compared to that work, was there a special challenge in editing a collection of African-American folk tales?

TATAR: Well, I would say that these are stories that have the same high coefficient of weirdness. They have that magical quality. They give us mysteries wrapped in enigmas inside riddles. They are - we have to respond to them. We have to figure them out.

SIEGEL: Henry Louis Gates, those flying Africans would be (laughter) - would be an example of that magical weirdness in folk life. It's kind of surprising to me.

GATES: The relationship between flying, freedom and death is one of the curious things about the African-American oral tradition - that you would fly away, as Paul Robeson just so beautifully sang, but you fly away after death to heaven. You know, it wasn't a kind of magic carpet when you go to another world and then return to your previous life. It was a transition in the literal sense of going from one realm of existence to another.

And these stories are told with an enormous amount of admiration and respect. But also, it's a musing about a form of suicide, that it was better to will yourself back home to Africa, will yourself back to the other side of the Atlantic than to live the social death of human bondage here in the United States.

SIEGEL: In addition to African folk tales and dozens of stories and illustrations that fill over 600 pages, Gates and Tatar have devoted a chapter to Joel Chandler Harris. He was the white Georgia newspaperman who collected the folk tales of southern blacks. His Uncle Remus stories introduced generations of readers, many white readers to Br'er Rabbit and Br'er Fox.

Gates and Tatar do note that Joel Chandler Harris was a spokesman for what's been called the Arcadian South of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. His stories were later adapted by Disney for the movie "Song Of The South." And I asked the editors of this new anthology about including African-American folk tales that had been repurposed very profitably for white audiences.

GATES: Joel Chandler Harris did an enormous service. We can debate the fact that - well, he certainly wasn't a black man, and we could debate what his motivation was. And we could wonder, did African-Americans receive any percentage or share of the enormous profit that he made? The answer is absolutely not. But on the other hand, a lot of these tales would have been lost without Joel Chandler Harris.

TATAR: I was going to present the counter-argument. That is, did he kill African-American folklore because after all, if you look at the frame narrative, who is Uncle Remus telling the stories to - a little white boy. And so suddenly this entire tradition has been appropriated for white audiences and made sort of charming rather than, you know, subversive and perilous, dangerous, stories that could be told only at nighttime when the masters were not listening.

GATES: But think about it this way. It came into my parlor. It came into my bedroom through the lips of a black man - my father - who would have us read the Uncle Remus tales but within a whole different context. And my father would - can we say, re-breath blackness into those folk tales.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

TATAR: Fair enough.

GATES: So it's a very complicated legacy.

SIEGEL: There is a chapter of the book that is devoted to ballads, including John Henry, Railroad Bill and this song that was recorded by everyone from Lead Belly to Mae West to, in this instance, Taj Mahal. It's either "Frankie And Johnny" or "Frankie And Albert" depending on...

GATES: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...On the choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRANKIE AND ALBERT")

TAJ MAHAL: (Singing) Frankie and Albert were sweethearts. Lordy, how they could love - vowed to love one another, baby, beneath the stars above. It was her man, and he was doing her wrong.

SIEGEL: But he did her wrong.

GATES: He did her wrong (laughter).

SIEGEL: He did her wrong. A - not a folk song. I mean, is it just a very old, popular song, no?

TATAR: Well, it was inspired by an actual story. And these ballads really give us stories about people who break the law, who are transgressive, who do terrible things. They are full of melodrama, treachery, betrayal. And again, all the - it's a story. The story of "Frankie And Johnny" gets us talking about this relationship, about murder, about how marriage is an institution. Well, let's say even relationships are haunted by the threat of murder. There is violence at the core of these stories.

GATES: And I think it was Leslie Fiedler, if I'm remembering correctly, who said basically the two great themes of literature were love and death (laughter). And love and death return over and over again not only in the folktales but in the ballads - in the ballads that are all about - I'm in love; I used to be in love; I love my baby, and my baby doesn't love me, and so I'm going to kill somebody.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

TATAR: I'm going to get my revenge, yeah.

GATES: I'm going to get my revenge.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: That's the completely reductionist version of an anthology of...

GATES: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...Of ballads.

GATES: But it's true - and that they live through different iterations. And I love it. It's like links in a chain. And these chains go back hundreds of years from - starting today back through the written tradition, crossing over the - to the oral tradition. And people like Maria and me - our job is to put them in a form in which they can be consumed by a whole new generation.

TATAR: I see these stories as a way of listening to the ancestry, as Toni Morrison would put it. And then I hope that this book will be a platform for making the stories new, making them our own again.

GATES: And that's precisely why we have two sets of dedications - Maria's and mine. And my dedication says, this volume is dedicated to Eleanor Margaret Gates-Hatley - l'dor va'dor, meaning generation to generation. That's my 3-year-old granddaughter (laughter). And I want these tales to be hers just like my father made these tales mine.

SIEGEL: Maria Tatar and Skip Gates - Henry Louis Gates Jr. - editors of "The Annotated African American Folk Tales," thanks so much for talking with us today.

GATES: Thank you, good brother.

TATAR: Thanks for inviting us.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAJ MAHAL SONG, "FRANKIE AND ALBERT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.