Originally I had been planning to create a set of illustrations to accompany Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but our discussion in class around Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada, the quote “Why isn’t Edgar Allan Poe recognized as the principal biographer of that strange war? Fiction, you say? Where does fact begin and fiction leave off?,” and a comment someone made about the new horror film Get Out, got me thinking about instances of African American horror stories and folktales, and how there are so many fewer than there are white American urban legends and ghost stories. If Edgar Allan Poe was a sort of ethnographer of the antebellum American South, recording racial tensions in gothic horror, where were the black writers, directly experiencing that horror and channeling it into imaginative prose? What does an African American horror tradition look like, or, at least, where did it begin?
Multiple books on our syllabus investigate what horror means to a white audience. These stories are either explicitly disturbing — The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the chapter “An Authentic Ghost Story” in Uncle Tom’s Cabin — or satirical — Chapters 20 and 21 of Flight to Canada — but all investigate a distinctly white horror: in Gordon Pym a general distrust and fear of the savage other, and in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Flight to Canada it is a fear of the past and past indiscretions that appear as ghosts, real or imagined, to kill their perpetrator-turned-victim. I wonder if the proliferation of white horror stories is because, so often, the African American experience was, and continues to be for so many, a horror story. A slave narrative or novel like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, although eventually redemptive, depicted a brutal, horrible reality. Any slave narrative, from The History of Mary Prince, to Incidents in the Live of a Slave Girl, to The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, a true account, contains many instances of violence and abuse horrifying to get a modern slasher film an R-rating.
For my final project I’m hoping to investigate one corner of the African American folktale tradition, looking specifically at stories of ghosts or the supernatural, trying to get a sense of how a group experiencing very real every day horror of slavery, and later living under the post-war umbrella of institutionalized racism, turned their fear into fiction. I want to curate an anthology of African-American ghost stories, gathered from existing anthologies of African-American folktales. Depending on what I uncover in my research I’ll either combine and rewrite various versions of the same tales into my own “definitive” draft, or write my own, inspired by the existing tradition. This has a precedent — Patricia C. McKissack wrote The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural in 2001, which was composed of a handful of original ghost stories inspired by African American history from 19th century through the 1960s, and folktales, an inherently oral tradition, are always in a way retold when anthologized.
There are many existing collections of African-American folktales, and many of Southern ghost stories, but relatively few that look specifically at African American ghost stories, and none, as far as I’ve found, that look at African American horror through an academic or historical lens, and, as logically follows, none that compare black and white horror in the United States, and how racial and cultural histories can affect what a group finds to be horrifying.
Two potential issues are the time constraint of this project, and my own lack of knowledge regarding the large category of African-American folk lore. There simply aren’t the hours in a semester to do a comprehensive survey, and so there will always be the possibility that I’m failing to include essential stories in my research. Additionally, I am neither an anthropologist nor a folklorist nor a historian, and so it is also possible I will be unable to fully or appropriately analyze the pieces I encounter, or I’ll be unable to tell the authentic from the interpretive or fabricated. Still, by making sure to select tales that I see repeated in multiple collections, or that are vouched for by established folklorists and anthropologists, I hope to treat this project with thought and care.
My research thus far (and my reading list for the rest of the semester) can be divided into five categories: 1) existing collections of African-American folktales and ghost stories and 2) collections of Southern ghost stories with no reference to race — from which I will draw the bulk of stories from the anthology — 3) academic essays looking at the origins of African American folklore, 4) academic essays on American ghost stories in the past two hundred years, and 5) explorations of the horror genre generally, and as it pertains to black people, all of which will help me develop a unifying theory of African American folk horror, and organizing principles for my own anthology.
Texts from the first two categories (existing collections of African-American folktales and ghost stories and collections of Southern ghost stories with no reference to race):
Abrahams, Roger D. African-American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World. New York (N.Y.): Pantheon, 1999. Print.
Brown, Alan. Shadows and Cypress: Southern Ghost Stories. Jackson, MS: U of Mississippi, 2000. Print.
Dorson, Richard M. American Negro Folktales: Collected with Introduction and Notes. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2015. Print.
“Folk-Tales from Students in Tuskegee Institute, Alabama.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 32, no. 125, 1919, pp. 397–401., www.jstor.org/stable/535075.
Green, Thomas A. African American Folktales. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2009. Print.
Hamilton, Virginia. Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales and True Tales. New York: Blue Sky, 1995. Print.
Hamilton, Virginia, Leo Dillon, and Diane Dillon. The People Could Fly: The Picture Book. New York: Dragonfly , an Imprint of Random House Children’s, 2015. Print.
Haskins, James, and Felicia Marshall. Moaning Bones: African-American Ghost Stories. New York: Morrow Junior, 1999. Print.
Haskins, James, and Ben Otero. The Headless Haunt and Other African-American Ghost Stories. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. Print.
Haynes, David. Retold African-American Folktales. Logan, IA: Perfection Learning, 1997. Print.
Jones, Bessie, and Bess Lomax. Hawes. Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs, and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage. Athens: U of Georgia, 2000. Print.
Lyons, Mary E. Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural. New York: Atheneum for Young Readers, 1991. Print.
Young, Richard, and Judy Dockrey Young. African-American Folktales for Young Readers: Including Favorite Stories from African and African-American Storytellers. Little Rock: August House, 1993. Print.
Academic essays on the origins of African American folklore:
Brooks, Wanda, and Jonda C. McNair. “‘But This Story of Mine Is Not Unique’: A Review of Research on African American Children’s Literature.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 79, no. 1, 2009, pp. 125–162., www.jstor.org/stable/40071163.
Dundes, Alan. “African and Afro-American Tales.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 7, no. 2, 1976, pp. 181–199., www.jstor.org/stable/3818715.
Hildebrand, Jennifer. “‘Dere Were No Place in Heaven for Him, an’ He Were Not Desired in Hell’: Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 91, no. 2, 2006, pp. 127–152., www.jstor.org/stable/20064067.
Hobbs, Sandy. “The Folk Tale as News.” Oral History, vol. 6, no. 2, 1978, pp. 74–86., www.jstor.org/stable/40178530.
Ogunleye, Tolagbe. “African American Folklore: Its Role in Reconstructing African American History.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 27, no. 4, 1997, pp. 435–455., www.jstor.org/stable/2784725.
Piersen, William D. “An African Background for American Negro Folktales?” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 84, no. 332, 1971, pp. 204–214., www.jstor.org/stable/538990.
Academic essays on American ghost stories:
Backus, E. M. “Negro Ghost Stories.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 9, no. 34, 1896, pp. 228–230., www.jstor.org/stable/533414.
Bann, Jennifer. “Ghostly Hands and Ghostly Agency: The Changing Figure of the Nineteenth-Century Specter.” Victorian Studies, vol. 51, no. 4, 2009, pp. 663–685., www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/vic.2009.51.4.663.
Brogan, Kathleen. “American Stories of Cultural Haunting: Tales of Heirs and Ethnographers.” College English, vol. 57, no. 2, 1995, pp. 149–165., www.jstor.org/stable/378807.
Fick, Thomas H. “Authentic Ghosts and Real Bodies: Negotiating Power in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Ghost Stories.” South Atlantic Review, vol. 64, no. 2, 1999, pp. 81–97., www.jstor.org/stable/3201983.
Harlow, Ilana. “Unravelling Stories: Exploring the Juncture of Ghost Story and Local Tragedy.” Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 30, no. 2/3, 1993, pp. 177–200., www.jstor.org/stable/3814315.
Redding, Arthur. “‘Haints’: American Ghosts, Ethnic Memory, and Contemporary Fiction.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, vol. 34, no. 4, 2001, pp. 163–182., www.jstor.org/stable/44029928.
Schur, Richard. “Dream or Nightmare? Roth, Morrison, and America.” Philip Roth Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2005, pp. 19–36., www.jstor.org/stable/42922095.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage , a Division of Random House, 2015. Print.
R., Means Coleman Robin. Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present London: Routledge, 2011. Print.