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African-American Folktales

African-American Folktales

Although I grew up with the traditional Grimm fairy tales, when my son was young, it was folktales that we read most often.  Passed down from the oral tradition, they’re perfect for children either as a read aloud or a story you retell together.  In honor of Black History Month here are a few of my favorite from the African-American tradition.

Although a picture book, “The People Could Fly” by Virginia Hamilton, is recommended for older children and teens.  The narrator tells us that in Africa, some of the people “would walk up on the air like climbin on a gate,”  but when they were captured, they forgot that magic.  Sarah, a young woman in the fields, was “standin tall, yet afraid” and had “a babe tied to her back.”  That didn’t stop the cruelty of the Overseer or the one who called himself their Master and she turned to fellow slave, Toby, for help.  He told her, “go, as you know how to go” and Sarah “lifted one foot on the air; then the other.  She flew clumsily at first...then she felt the magic, the African mystery” and was gone.  The next day, a young man fell from the heat.  Toby came and spoke words to him and he flew away.  One after the other, slaves fell and there was Toby helping them soar like birds, towards freedom.  Of course, the Overseer came after him, but Toby just laughed and said “we are the ones who fly” and a group of slaves rose and “flew in a flock that was black against the heavenly blue” with old Toby flying behind them towards freedom.  

Leo and Diane Dillon’s award winning illustrations are a beautiful addition to this tale of triumph over inhumanity.  There’s a stunning  portrait of Toby in a field of cotton, face raised heavenward as he helps those in need  Even the end pages are remarkable; black paper filled with glossy black feathers.  Those who appreciate this story should also seek out Hamilton’s folktale collection with the same name.

The Talking Eggs” by Robert San Souci, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, is similar to Cinderella. Blanche and Rose live with their mother “on a farm so poor, it looked like the tail end of bad luck.” Blanche was kind and sweet, while her sister, though cross and mean, was their mother’s favorite.  While Blanche worked, they would sit on the porch “talking foolishness about getting rich and moving to the city.”  One day Blanche gave an old woman some water.  As a thank you, she offered to take a beleaguered Blanche home for some rest if she promised not to laugh at anything she saw.  Blanche kept her promise, even when she saw cows with corkscrew horns and multi-colored chickens that whistled like mockingbirds.  The next morning, the old woman sent Blanche to the hen house, inviting her to take any egg that said, “take me.”  On her way home, Blanche threw the eggs over her shoulder as instructed, and one by one they turned into riches.  Her mother, wanting more, sent Rose to find the old woman.  Despite her promises, Rose laughed at the chickens and when choosing eggs, ignored the plain ones saying, “take me,” and greedily grabbed jeweled ones instead.  When she threw them over her shoulder, snakes and yellow jackets emerged and chased mother and daughter.  When they finally escaped, they discovered Blanche had gone to live in the city like a grand lady.          

Wiley and the Hairy Man” retold by Judy Sierra is a classic tale of the weak overcoming the strong.  The first time Wiley outsmarts the Hairy Man, he’s cornered in a tree, his dogs tied up at home.  Thinking fast, he challenges the Hairy Man to make his rope belt disappear. As Wiley  hoped, the Hairy Man’s pride drives him further, and he makes “every rope in this here county” disappear.  Wiley’s dogs are freed and chase him back into the “swamp lickety-split.”  This is the first of three times Wiley outwits him until the Hairy Man recognizes his defeat and never bothers Wiley again.

This article originally was published in the 2/20 Free Lance-Star newspaper.