Blog #1 — Haunting & Cultural Memory
Preparing for the April 6th “Mini-Festival,” I began to do readings into the history of African-American folklore, its cultural and personal, and, specifically, its relationship to ghosts. Although my initial question was “what does and African American horror tradition look like,” I quickly narrowed my focus. Instead of generally considering “horror,” I would look instead at ghosts and concepts of haunting, both of which operate as a site of terror in the present, while reaching back to the horrors of the past. Most “horror stories” tend to focus on ghosts, or spirits, or reincarnation, so this is less of a tightening of my purview and more of a clarifying of language.
Although ghosts appear in many (most?) cultures, American ghosts are directly tied into historical memory. In his essay “‘Haints’: American Ghosts, Ethnic Memory, and Contemporary Fiction,” Arthur Redding quotes D.H. Lawrence, who wrote, “America hurts because it has a powerful disintegrative effect on the white psyche. It is full of grinning, unappeased aboriginal demons, too, ghosts, and it persecutes the white men” (165). Of course, this is why white America is haunted, but I wonder if black American has similar ghosts. Maybe the demons aren’t coming back for retributions against wrongs done by the literal master class, but maybe they’re memories of a collective trauma?
Why is haunting significant? I look to Avery Gordon (quoted in Redding) who writes in her book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, “haunting rather than history (or historicism) best captures the constellation of connections that charges any ‘time of the now’ with the debts of the past and the expense of the present” (142).
Ghosts, for her, for Redding, for many passing on the tradition of African American folktales, and for me, convey both baseless terror and some kind of message. In her essay “American Stories of Cultural Haunting: Tales of Heirs and Ethnographers,” Kathleen Brogan discusses the implications of haunting. She argues that the most “most dreadful of these implications is that the haunting is not entirely voluntary; we can’t always choose our ghosts. The attractive possibility of adopting beneficent ancestors might suggest that ethnicity is freely and consciously constructed, but in fact these choices are often experienced as mysterious mandates. Haunting metaphors forcefully convey the reality that cultural transmission operates partly on a subrational level.” (161).
In his essay “‘Haints’: American Ghosts, Ethnic Memory, and Contemporary Fiction,” Redding begins with an epigraph from an Adrienne Rich poem “What Ghosts Can Say.” This excerpt, which introduces his piece concludes her. After the central figure of her poem sees a ghost of his father Rich wonders what the meaning of such an encounter is. She writes,
…What ghosts can say—
Even the ghosts of fathers —comes obscurely.
What if the terror stays without the meaning ?
This is maybe the most terrifying thing about being haunted (or about being a presence that haunts): the lack of agency. Redding paradoxically describes ghosts as “powerful figures of powerlessness” (165), in the same way the living dealing with a spirit has agency over their lives and bodies, but not over their supernatural visitor.
Blog #2: — Why (folklore) & How (to best represent it)
A short note about my own insecurity: Although instinctually I felt that folklore was the right lens through which to approach this project, I felt some anxiety regarding the fact that I am not a folklorist, nor am I an ethnographer nor am I an anthropologist. I’m an English major which means I’m qualified to close read, but not do any large cultural analyses or draw conclusions about ethnic groups based on the content of their stories. Thinking about this project ethically, I think it fails some basic tests: I don’t have time to do a broad survey of previously recorded tales, and so the ones I choose will be representative only of the few dozen works I’ve examined. I also don’t know enough to talk about region distinctions, or even antebellum / post-bellum changes in tales, which, to be fair, no one has, as there were not many ethnographers in the mid 19th century interested enough African American folktales to create a base of stories to then compare to WPA and later attempts to gather oral lore. This is all to acknowledge early this proposal is more ambitious than I had initially thought (back when I still knew it to be ambitious but I was thinking more of the volume of stories than the complex job of an ethnographer).
Back to the blog: I still believe folklore is the best place to start when looking at an African American literary tradition. In his essay “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Folklore, Folkloristics, and African American Literary Criticism” Anand Prahlad quotes Trudier Harris, an English professor at UNC who argues “African-American folklore is arguably the basis for most African-American literature” (565).
Professor Tolagbe Ogunleye writes in her essay “African American Folklore: Its Role in Reconstructing African American History” that “African American folklore offers researchers an invaluable framework for insight into the history and worldview of African Americans” (435) and includes in this categorization of folklore and folktales all orally transmitted lore — myths, storytelling, recollections, ballads, songs, and raps. She quotes Molefi K. Asante “no art form reflects the tremendous impact of our presence in America more powerfully or eloquently than does folk poetry in the storytelling tradition” (435) and Zora Neale Hurston who described folklore as “boiled-down juice of human living.”
Ogunleye continues her argument, writng, “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.” (436).
Regarding the representation of folktales, an oral tradition, in text, the scholars I’ve been reading have much to say. Prahlad argues, “Folklore is worlds away from representational texts found in collections. Rather, it is a part of the body, the unconscious and conscious mind, the spirit, the air that is breathed, the smells, sounds, sensations, and the totality of elements found in given moments of dynamic social interaction. It is a corporeally based, expressive, and artful language and system of thought of which spoken or written words are only a part” (167). Given this, he uses Daniel Barnes’s argument from “Toward the Establishment of Principles for the Study of Folklore and Literature,” where he writes argues that by transcribing folktales we reduce them, and that “The text of a folktale is not ‘the folktale’: but the transcription of an oral performance” (9, Prahland 165).
Although originally I wanted to rewrite amalgamated folktales from other collections, I think, in this, the age of podcasting, it would be appropriate to record myself reading from folktales. I don’t know at this point if that will mean writing my own based on existing ones, or just reading from existing texts. In some ways the perfect presentation of these tales would be a podcast or recording that I prepared for, by memorizing the key points of the story, but consisted of me recounting the story from memory, in a conversational tone. This would be more “true” to the way folktales were originally disseminated, although my concern would be that I would leave out key elements, or that they would be rambling, or that they would not be fun to listen to. As I begin to look at the folktales themselves I’ll consider length, complexity, and my own storytelling abilities, which will help me determine exactly what form my final project will take.
Blog #3 — What we talk about when we talk about horror
(A digression but useful for my own conceptualization of this project)
Working on this project I realized I had never clearly defined horror, moving instead from horror to ghosts without really investigating what that meant. “Haunting” is a useful way of defining the scope of my project, but I’ve been using it as a stand in for all scary stories, and realized it might be useful to consider the ways in which this is and is not accurate — there are many types of scary stories, and seeing how what I’m describing as “the African American Horror Tradition” is useful for my project.
Using the Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_fiction) listing for literary horror subgenres (and filtering out erotica and genres based around a nationality) the major subgenres are:
Dark fantasy, Body horror, Ghost story, Giallo (thriller, slasher, crime), Gothic, Grotesquerie, Horror-of-demonic, Horror-of-personality, List of werewolf fiction, Lovecraftian horror, Macabre, Monster , Psychological horror, Splatter film, Supernatural fiction, Survival horror, Werewolf, Zombie
Netflix (http://ogres-crypt.com/public/NetFlix-Streaming-Genres2.html), which is known for its specific sub-categorization of film genres, defines Horror genres (again, discounting nationality):
B-Horror Movies , Creature Features, Horror Movies, Deep Sea Horror Movies, Horror Comedy, Monster Movies, Slasher and Serial Killer Movies, Supernatural, Teen Screams, Vampire Horror Movies, Werewolf Horror Movies, Zombie Horror, Movies, Satanic Stories
Horror on Screen, a website dedicated to horror movies, has made a flow chart that breaks horror down into five primary categories: Gore, Psychological, Killer, Monster, and Paranormal (they also include twelve “unsortable” categories including “Creepy Children,” “Gothic,” and “Body Horror,” all categories I would argue could be fit into the five primary categories). This is my favorite breakdown, although I would argue a story can cross boundaries. Paranormal stories often have a Psychological element (Consider Edgar Allen Poe, or Charlotte Gilman Perkins, or anything in the gothic category, which is primarily psychological, with threats of the supernatural).
Maybe more useful is a list of elements from which to shape a work of horror. Instead of a story being defined by a restrictive genre, a story could be described as a scary tale with elements of the paranormal and gore.
The folktales I’m looking at are fairly bloodess, but contain elements of ghost stories, the gothic, demonic horror, psychological horror, possession and the supernatural. Some contain violence, but most contain non-violent encounters with the devil and the dead.
Blog #4 — An annotated bibliography
I’ve begun looking at the folktales themselves! Some books I already know I can return to the library:
African-American Folktales for Young Readers by Richard Young and Judy Dockrey Young is not useful; the stories have been modernized, and it is difficult to tell what elements are “original.”
African-American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World by Roger Abrahams is also unhelpful. Although it has many well categorized and well told tales it didn’t have any that could be classified as “scary.”
I have five others that I haven’t read, but seem promising. Talk That Talk: A Anthology of African-American Storytelling by Linda Goss and Marian E. Barnes has a section called “The Bogey Man’s Gonna Git You: Tales of Ghosts and Witches”; African American Folktales edited by Thomas A. Green has a section on the supernatural; American Negro Folktales, compiled by Richard Dorson, has five relevant sections, “Hoodos and Two-Heads,” “Spirits and Hants,” “The Lord and the Devil,” “Horrors,” and “Scare Tales”; Courlander’s A Treasury of African-American Folklore has sections titled “Justice, Injustice, and Ghosts in the Swamps of the Congaree,” and “Testing Wits: Human Versus Demon”; and finally Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly has “John and the Devil’s Daughter and Other Tales of the Supernatural.” I’m excited to start reading!
I was interested reading from Dorson’s prefaces to his sections, especially his note on “Horror,” which mirrors some of my thinking when I began this project. Dorson writes about how, when asking story tellers to share “local traditions, family history, and personal experiences…sometimes these localized and personalized narratives prove to be folktales in disguise.” And how many Southern Black men and women understandably often turn to slavery when they discuss family history. He writes, “Brutal and inhuman acts of slave masters still burn in the breasts of generations born to freedom, fanned by the bellows of tradition (not that all memories of slavery life rankle, but shocking events live longest in the folk mind). Emancipation failed of course to end the injustice of white man to black…and the intimidation of freedmen and their children formed new atrocity stories…any sensationalist crime attracts the folk historian…” (283). I like his separation of real ancestral memories of historical horror, and ghosts, goblins, and scary stories. I’m excited to start reading and see in what ways these categories do and do not overlap.