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The Story of Black Storytelling - Part 2
2/25/2015 3:31:01 PM

Interior of Slave Cabin where many stories were often told
By Professor Damon L. Fordham, M.A.

Part 2 of a 2-part series

About the same time, a white Georgian named Joel Chandler Harris was writing a planation newspaper and befriended an enslaved storyteller named George Terrell. Terrell told stories similar to those told by Prince Baskin. In the 1870s, Harris created a character of an elderly ex-slave named Uncle Remus who told the stories of Terrell and other slaves Harris met about “Brer Rabbit”, who outsmarted stronger beasts. Harris’ tales were collected in Uncle Remus-His Songs and His Sayings in 1880. This book was a success and introduced the richness of black folklore to a worldwide audience. Walt Disney, who read the Uncle Remus tales as a boy, filmed them as Song of the South in 1946.

Harris’ success encouraged other white writers to publish collections of black folktales. In 1888, Georgia historian Charles Comstock Jones Jr. wrote Negro Myths from the Georgia Coast, a collection of animal fables which was the first volume of tales written exclusively in Gullah. A Charlestonian named DuBose Heyward read a story from the News and Courier’s March 25, 1924 edition about Samuel Smalls, a disabled African American beggar who shot at a woman named Maggie Barnes. This inspired him to write the novel Porgy, which evolved into his famous collaboration with George Gershwin, Porgy and Bess. John Bennett, a white Ohioan who moved to Charleston in the 1890s, collected fascinating stories from local blacks into his collection The Doctor to the Dead.

However, few black authors published books of such stories in those days. As black professor Thomas Talley of Fisk University explained in his book The Negro Traditions, few blacks who were raised in slavery would candidly tell white interviewers anything other than what they wanted to hear. Secondly, most educated blacks of that time wanted nothing to do with memories of slavery, superstition, and the plantation background, so few of these early books were written from views that were inside of the culture of which they spoke.

This feeling soon began to change. An editorial in Columbia’s black newspaper The Palmetto Leader on February 19, 1930, challenged black writers. “For the person of real ability, there is much to be discovered right here in South Carolina. Think of all the white people who have gained fame by writing about South Carolina Negroes! If our naiveté must be exploited, why not exploit it ourselves?” As early as 1899, a black North Carolinian named Charles Chesnutt wrote stories of the superstitions of his native state and those he heard while teaching near Spartanburg, SC. His book The Conjure Woman told of Uncle Julius, a reverse Uncle Remus who told trickster tales of slaves who used folk magic to overcome their oppressors. The poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar was perhaps the first successful black male poet in the early 1900s from his poems about life among former slaves. In 1935, a black writer from Eatonville, Florida named Zora Neale Hurston collected the folk tales she grew up hearing at local gatherings into her book Mules and Men.

An important black writer was Charleston’s Augustus Ladson. In the 1930s and 40s, he also conducted interviews with local blacks regarding stories of “Hags” (witchlike women who were said to sit on one’s person in bed to keep the victim paralyzed, a process known in Gullah folklore as “hag riding”), ghost stories, tales of events such as the 1919 Charleston Race Riots, and interviews with former Lowcountry slaves. Ladson’s race made his subjects feel comfortable enough to reveal some candid and fascinating insight into local slave culture. His interview with Elijah Green preserved such local lore as the story of the “hanging tree” used to execute blacks on Ashley Avenue and the legend of John C. Calhoun’s statue pointing downward to say, “keep the Negroes down.” Such tales were commonly heard among older black Charlestonians, but were largely unknown to whites.

J. Mason Brewer was another black story collector. In 1944, he organized the South Carolina Negro Folklore Guild at Claflin and South Carolina State Colleges. Brewer and other Guild members collected interesting folktales throughout the state in Humorous Folk Tales of the South Carolina Negro (1945). Among the many gems in that volume was a tale about Senator Ben Tillman, whose 1895 Constitutional Convention in Columbia deprived the State’s blacks of their voting rights and established legal segregation in South Carolina. One of the last remaining black representatives after Reconstruction was said to have been getting the better of Tillman during the debates over these measures. “You black rascal,” shouted Tillman, “I’ll swallow you alive!” “If you do,” replied the African American representative, “you’ll have more brains in your belly than you do in your head!”

By the 1960s, these tales fell out of fashion with the general public. Many Americans, black and white rejected these stories as old fashioned relics and reminders of slavery. Today, attitudes are changing and more blacks are beginning to embrace this folklore as a part of their heritage. A revival is happening where local black storytellers are finding fame by keeping alive the stories of their ancestors.

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