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The Story of Black Storytelling - Part 1
2/11/2015 5:05:14 PM

Damon Fordham
By Professor Damon L. Fordham, M.A.

Part 1 of a 2-part series

Until very recent times, black elders passed down information through the generations through folk tales told to their children and other community members. This was in part because the poor education given to most blacks during that era lead them to depend more on the spoken word than the written word. The black folklore tradition has played a major role in American culture, best exemplified by the tales of John Henry the steelworker, Samuel Smalls, the local beggar immortalized in Porgy and Bess, and the film and books of the adventures of Brer (brother) Rabbit. 
A major figure in West Africa was the griot (gree-oh), who served as storyteller and historian in his village. The griot would amaze his audiences by reciting stories of the rulers of that area, and would teach lessons through fables. A popular figure in the griot’s stories was the rabbit, who triumphed over stronger animals in analogies that demonstrated the victory of brain versus body. When West Africans were kidnapped into slavery and brought to American shores, some of these stories survived in the black slave culture.
Prince Baskin, who was a slave overseer on a plantation near St. Helena Island, was a grandson of an African storyteller. In the 1860s, he met a white schoolteacher and former abolitionist from Massachusetts named Abbie Holmes Christensen, with whom he shared some of his grandfather’s stories, including a version of what became the most famous of all black folktales.
Baskin told about a wolf who noticed that his crop of corn and peanuts were disappearing and that rabbit tracks were coming in and out of his fields. Realizing that a nearby rabbit was a culprit, the wolf placed a scarecrow near the field, but the rabbit took one look at the scarecrow and said,   “If that Wolf think I scared of you, he must be fool!” So he kicked over the scarecrow, filled his bag with peanuts, and went home to the briar bush.
The next morning, the wolf saw what happened and got an idea. He took some lumps of tar, put clothes on it, and said “Let’s see him knock this down!” When the rabbit saw the tar baby, he said, “That wolf think I fool enough to fall for another scarecrow! I’ll knock ‘em down too!” The rabbit punched the tar baby but his paw was stuck!” He took his other paws to try to free himself from the tar baby, but they were stuck too!
The wolf came by and said, “That’s what you get for trying to teef (steal) my peanuts! Now me and my wife gonna have rabbit soup tonight!”
The hungry wolf start to lick his jaws and tear the rabbit off of the tar baby, and the rabbit  said, “Brother wolf, I don’t blame you for being mad about me teefing your peanuts, but I want to tell you something- you can boil me in that soup as much as you please, you can fry me over an open fire and skin me alive before turning me into soup, but just don’t dare throw me in that briar bush!”
The wolf said. “Oh yeah? Well that’s just what you get!”  He reared back his arm and threw the rabbit clear into the briar bush nearby. The rabbit jumped up and down and yelled, “Hey wolf, you forget that I was born and raised in the briar bush!
The wolf went back to his cave and sadly told Mrs. Wolf, “Well honey, they ain’t gonna be no rabbit soup tonight.”
Christensen later published this tale as “De Rabbit, De Wolf, and De Tar Baby,” which appeared in the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican on June 2, 1874.  


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