African American folklore offers researchers an invaluable framework for insight into the history and worldview of African Americans. Folklore, also called folktales, includes myths, storytelling, recollections, ballads, songs, rap, and other orally transmitted lore. African American folklore, though originally transmitted verbally, assumed a written form in the works of writers such as Charles Chestnutt, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Whatever the genre or form of transmission, folklore is part of the African American's 300-year old oral tradition called "orature" (Asante, 1987). More importantly, folklore embodies larger truths and yields much illumination through its study. Folklore is evidence of the ancient African life force and past that Africans forcibly brought to America, maintained through an expressive sense. In The Afrocentric Idea Molefi K. Asante (1987) argues that the scholar, rhetorician, or historian who undertakes an analysis of the African American past without recognizing the important role that orature has played and continues to play in the lives of African Americans is "treading on intellectual quicksand" (p. 86). According to Asante (1989) "no art form reflects the tremendous impact of our presence in America more powerfully or eloquently than does folk poetry in the storytelling tradition" (p. 491).
Zora Neale Hurston (1995) referred to African American folklore as being the "boiled-down juice of human living" (p. 875). She maintained that folklore is the art of self-discovery as well as the first creative art of a people, shaping and rationalizing the natural laws they found around them. As circumstances developed, African people - like all people - created theories and personalities to explain what they have observed, experienced, or would envision for the future. Hurston also asserted that it was from the folklore of African Americans that prose and other black literary art genres and forms emerged that are characterized by a "long and complicated story with a smashing climax" (p. 881). Asante (1987) has likewise maintained that expressive vocal modalities, such as folklore, predate the development of prose or theories.
In her essay titled "Folklore and music," Hurston (1995) also argued that by studying the folklore of African Americans, we can learn a significant amount of information about the "undreamed geniuses" who lived and died during the Ma'afa, the Holocaust of Enslavement (p. 905). Yet Hurston also asserted that far from being a halcyon tradition frozen in some antique emulsion, folklore is an art form that is still in the making, always in process. Her words still ring true as we watch the emergence of new African American folk heroes such as "Meteor Man" and Philadelphia's Big City Comics' heroic "Brother Man" character (not to be confused, incidentally, with Martin Lawrence's insulting and dislocated "brother man" caricature on his situation comedy).
Folklore represents a line to a vast, interconnected network of meanings, values, and cognitions. Folklore contains seeds of wisdom, problem solving, and prophecy through tales of rebellion, triumph, reasoning, moralizing, and satire. All that African American people value, including the agony enslaved and freed Africans were forced to endure, as well as strategies they used to resist servitude and flee their captors, is discernible in this folk literature. African American folklore is also an historical thread that ties the cultural heritage of Africans in the diaspora and those living on the continent of Africa.
The ultimate strength of folklore resides in its power to communicate the social and cultural identities of the eras. This makes folklore a highly effective medium for teaching African American children about their legacy, as well as the most effective and earnest means of weaving, even thriving, through life's adversities.
A rich accumulation of African American folklore can be found in journals, archival collections, and books. However, one cannot assume that just because a book has the title "African American folklore" written on its cover that it contains the authentic folklore of African American people. There are numerous books and articles whose authors or editors claim to present the traditional folklore of African American people, when in essence, these writers' selections are no more than racist and deceptive propaganda tools. Hurston was the solitary voice to argue that even the dialect found in this literature must be interrogated vis-a-vis its authenticity. Hurston contended (1981) that many white writers have erroneously and callously tried to influence readers into believing that the African Americans' mode of speaking is a "weird thing," full of "ams" and "Ises," and lacking in grammatical rules and patterns that govern its use (p. 67).
Like every other aspect of African American creative art productions, folklore has also been exploited and commodified for capital and cultural gains. Walt Disney reaped millions by capitalizing on African American folklore in his movie titled "Song of the South," not to mention the untold millions his company acquired by allegedly displacing black families and swindling land from poor and uneducated African American property owners. Joel Chandler Harris emerged from obscurity and received fortune and fame through his collection and publication of African American folklore in his book titled, Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings. White minstrels exploited the reservoir of African American folklore to build up their repertoires (Robinson, 1991, p. 217). Restauranteurs have even taken advantage of African American folklore to make money. Consider the white owner of a Floridia barbeque stand who named his place "Diddy-Wah-Diddy" to improve sales (Hurston, 1995, p. 894).
The institutions of higher learning, as well as the academic journals and presses across this nation, must shoulder their fair share of the blame for the roles they have played in perpetuating lies and diffusing false theories related to this body of literature. Fry (1975) states that The Journal of American Folklore, which began in the 19th century, has published numerous articles that purportedly represent the folk beliefs of Africans born in southern portions of the United States during or at the close of the Ma'afa. Rather than echoing the thoughts and opinions of the Africans living in the South, these stories reinforced the prevailing racist theories expounded by apologists for the Holocaust Enslavement, such as Ulrich Phillips, Avery Craven, and Stanley Elkins. This journal was used as a forum to create fabricated folklore that reinforces negative stereotypes about "Black Sambo," "Mammy," "Aunty," "Uncle," African cannibalism and witchcraft, and the docile, fearful, superstitious, and mentally inferior "slave."
Contemporary social theorists have also been granted an arena to exhibit a pseudo-African American folklore that perpetuates false images about African Americans. The collection of tales gathered by Roger D. Abrahams is a prime example of how the work of an academician has been used to envoke pejorative images. As early as 1970, Abrahams argued (in an allegedly earnest fashion) …