Summary of initial concept:
The very first iteration of this project was an anthology of folktales that examined what exactly an African-American horror tradition would look like. After reading The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which includes the chapter “An Authentic Ghost Story”, both of which represent a kind of white nightmare of the past and of the nonwhite other, I started theorizing about ways in which what we think of as American horror is actually white American horror. Both Arthur Gordon Pym and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are canonical American texts, the first investigating a fear of the nonwhite other, the second exploring a fear of past misdeeds, both personal and systematic. A quotation I’ve returned to over the course of this project is from D.H. Lawrence, who writes,
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. (qtd. in Redding 165)
Although this is simplistic, it’s fair to say that white Americans fear persecution from the other that they, historically, have persecuted — whether this takes the form of ghosts, monsters, or serial killers (there are, as I mentioned in an earlier blog posts, many other genres of horror, like gorey tales, psychological thrillers, and zombie apocalypses, but I do not have a theory of their relation to whiteness at the present time). Consider works like The Shining, where the haunting is a result of an Indian Burial Ground, or Amityville Horror and Pet Semetary, which use the same trope. Many other stories of haunting and possession are centered around ghosts who have been wronged in the past, and so take vengeance on the new occupants of the house — here we can look to novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (although this is, to be fair, not supernatural and instead a kind of gaslighting), or many of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, or recent horror films like Drag Me to Hell (in which the white female protagonist is haunted by an ambiguously racialized older woman after denying her a loan), or American imports of originally Japanese films like The Grudge or The Ring, in which women who were wronged in life, terrorize the living in death.
This is all to say there is a robust white horror tradition, but I wondered if Black Americans, had their own distinct cultural fears, and if these would manifest in some kind of literature. As this is a class on American Literature, I did not look to films (notably, African Americans have historically been underrepresented in film. In his foreword to Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films, Steven Torriano Berry jokes “Why are there no Black people in horror movies?…Because when the ominous voice says, ‘GET OUT!,’ we do!”), nor did I look to novels. Instead, I turned to folktales. I justified this choice in two ways. Firstly, it is easier to read almost one hundred folktales, as I did for this project, than it is to read one hundred novels. Secondly, many theorists have argued that folktales and folklore are, in fact, the basis of much of African American culture and fiction. In an earlier blog post I quoted Trudier Harris, an English professor at UNC who argues “African-American folklore is arguably the basis for most African-American literature” (qtd. in Prahlad 565) and Molefi K. Asante who writes, “no art form reflects the tremendous impact of our presence in America more powerfully or eloquently than does folk poetry in the storytelling tradition” (qtd. in Tolagbe Ogunleye 435). What I hoped to find was some unifying theory of African-American ghost stories.
Overview of Project:
At the start of the project I intended to write my own versions of short stories I found in multiple collections, creating an anthology with my own definitive versions of regionally specific tales. As the project progressed, and I read more folklorists, I decided the project should be oral instead of written. As I discussed in Blog #2,
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 (Prahlad, 167)
and “the text of a folktale is not ‘the folktale’: but the transcription of an oral performance” (Daniel Barnes qtd. in Prahland 165). If I was going to rewrite stories anyway, why not present them in a new (old) way: as a series of podcasts, one per story, each containing the text of a story, either a composite I’d created or the direct text from one of the various anthologies I’d collected, and some background information. I intended these recordings to be informational, informal and fun, artifacts that could be listened to casually, played for children, or used by students and scholars.
For this project I read over eighty stories from five collections, most of which pulled their tales from dozens of conversations and oral interviews. I tracked common themes and story structures, and eventually settled on seven basic stories and story types I wanted to record (although in the end I only created three recordings). It is important to say that these are not the only seven types of stories; instead, I focused on tales that fell into easy to define clusters and appeared multiple times across the anthologies, or that were especially indicative of a specific motif or tone, even if the story itself was unique.
The Stories Themselves:
I made three audio recordings — two about specific story clusters, and a third I felt compelled to include because of an essay I read connecting it to Igbo ethnic group, arguing that the “African” in African American folktales can be carefully traced across the Atlantic.
- “Waiting Tales” — There are a number of stories with essentially the same plot, and just a few key details altered each time: a man is traveling, and spends the night in a house. As the night progresses three strange creatures, each larger than the last come to see him. After each one arrives it remarks it is “waiting for [ ],” — a name which is sometimes Emmett, sometimes Martin, sometimes Rufus, or, as Hamilton writes in her version, occasionally John, Caleb, Whalem-Balem, or Willy. The man in the house gets increasingly disturbed, and finally leaves, never meeting the story’s central entity. Versions of this story are “Better Wait Till Martin Comes” from The People Could Fly, “Waiting for Rufus” and “Waiting for Martin” from American Negro Folktales, and “Wait Til Emmet Comes” from African American Folktales. Dorson categorizes these are “Scare Tales,” and describes the anticipated response, how “The armchair listener laughs hugely at [the protagonist’s] increasing trepidation…because he, the listener, is far away” (320).
- “Eating Tails” — Unlike the “Waiting” cluster, which is tense but in the end humorous, I found this cluster to be genuinely spooky. Two stories that genuinely belong are “Taily Po” in Talk That Talk and “The Peculiar Such Thing” from The People Could Fly, but I’ve also included “Eating the Baby” from American Negro Folktales, which centers around the consumption of a different body part, but follows the same basic rhythms as the other two tales. These stories all involve the protagonist consuming some body part (or, in “Eating the Baby”, an entire child), only to have the consumed individual return to reclaim its lost limb. In the first two stories an unnamed monster loses its tail to the protagonists dinner, and in the third a mother, who has prematurely eaten the raccoons her husband brought home for dinner, cooks their baby to avoid censure. In the first two stories the monster returns for its tail night after night, and eventually claws to pieces the man who ate it. In “Eating the Baby” the woman’s husband discovers her deceit, and kill her. Dorson writes how “Eating the Baby” is an international tale, although this tale type, described as “My Mother Slew Me; My Father Ate Me,” specifically resonated with African Americans. I was reminded immediately of “The Juniper Tree,” a German fairy tale, which includes the refrain, “My mother, she killed me, / My father, he ate me, / My sister Marlene, / Gathered all my bones” (http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm047.html), a refrain similar to that present in “Eating the Baby” (“My mama kilt me/My papa ate me /My sister going bury my bones”) and those in “Taily Po” and “The Peculiar Such Thing,” where the monster chants, “Taily Po, Taily Po, I’m coming to get my Taily Po,” (Goss) and “You know you got it. I know you know. Give me back my tailypo” (Hamilton).
- “The Yellow Crane” — The last of the stories is “The Yellow Crane,” in which a mulatto doctor who had experimented on and killed his black patients dies, and his is soul captured in the body of an enormous crane. Although I only encountered this story once as a folktale, I encountered it before in Jennifer Hildebrand’s essay, “’Dere Were No Place in Heaven for Him, an’ He Were Not Desired in Hell’: Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions”, which argues that elements of the Igbo ethnic group’s culture was transmitted across the Atlantic and remained embedded in African American culture. Hildebrand writes, that the transmigration of the spirit from a human body to an animal “represented and reinforced the spiritual worldview that was unique to the Igbo ethnic group, encompassing birth, death, reincarnation, the world of the ancestors, and the fate of individuals who violated the rules of the community” (131). Stories like this served as a warning. Hildebrand continues,
“The Igbo people believed in reincarnation … However, this privilege was not guaranteed; one must have lived a good life and died a good death. After death, the soul of a good person generally became a spirit and traveled to the world of spirits to await reincarnation within the souls of kinfolk. This helps to explain Igbos’ strong emphasis upon community: they maintained a strong connection to their clan because they expected to return to it. Since reincarnation was a privilege not extended to all, however, there had to be an explanation of what happened to spirits not reincarnated. One possibility was that, for any number of reasons, the body that had previously housed the spirit did not receive a proper burial, dooming the spirit to wander as a ghost. The Igbo also believed that as a punishment for extreme sins against the community, a man’s spirit could transmigrate, or transfer, into the body of an animal rather than being reborn in human form. Each of the four tales considered here contains a significant indicator of the presence of the Igbo belief in transmigration, namely the depiction of a recognizably human spirit trapped inside an animal as a punishment for wickedness in his most recent life” (133).
Although I did not record podcasts for these stories, I wanted to include in this reflection other folktale clusters that did not make the cut. Were I to continue this project, and create more short episodes, I would definitely discuss the following texts:
- “Running From the Devil” — As exemplified by “Devil’s Daughter” from Dorson’s American Negro Folktales, “The Devil’s Bride Escapes” from Green’s African American Folktales, and “John and the Devil’s Daughter” and “Jack and the Devil,” both from Hamilton’s The People Could Fly. Green notes in his introduction to “The Devil’s Bride Escapes” that it in built around the common theme of a human’s marriage to a supernatural being (this collection also includes the stories “Courted by the Devil” and “Married to a Boar Hog”). Dorson describes the stories as part of a larger genre, “The Devil’s Daughter and Magic Flight” (269), and notes that a primary motif is “obstacle flight,” which I find useful, especially when including “Jack and the Devil,” which does not include the Devil’s daughter nor does it rely upon a marriage plot.
- “Witch Tales” — I was never fully able to describe this category, as many stories have witch characters, some of whom are benevolent, but I was struck by the recurring image of a witch who shed her skin during the night to transform into an animal or spirit and make mischief. Two examples of this are “Ridden by the Night Hag” in Green’s African American Folktales, and “The Ways of a Witch” in Talk That Talk. Green notes that night hags, or witches who come at night, are internationally feared. Night hags are predominantly European, while the shedding of skin is related to African folklore (144).
- “Becoming a Two-Head” — This is a short story, just five sentences long, that nonetheless seemed significant to me. If I were to do a longer project I would want episodes to focus not just on specific folktales, but also on lore generally. To be a “two-head” or possessor of two spirits, was to have a second sight, which meant a person might be able to see sprits, or might have some kind of magic ability. In Dorson’s version, “Two-Heads,” also called “Hoodoos,” learn their magic from the Devil. In contrast, Green presents a story in which power is bestowed to children who are born with a double caul. The origin of supernatural sensitivity is interesting to me, and I’d like to delve deeper.
- “Horrors” — I did not include any of this tales in this category, a subgenre described by Dorson in his anthology. As opposed to the ghost stories I’ve already discussed, these were tales about real life horrors, slavery — whippings, escapes — murders, and suicides, most ostensibly true, beginning with dates and names to add authenticity (“A white fellow from around her, named Demings, committed suicide in his car back in 1939” or “Now this ain’t no joke. It happened in Clarksdale, Mississippi, when I was about sixteen…”). I hoped to find ways in which these “true life” tales intersected with the more traditional stories of ghosts and devils, but unfortunately did not.
I think this was my greatest missed opportunity during the project — I hoped that there would be some clear relationship between the horrors of slavery and horrible tales told for entertainment, but, in fact, there is such a wide range of stories, from supernatural fiction to ostensibly true memories, that I found it impossible to create a single unifying theory of African-American ghost stories.
In Conclusion: Shortcomings & Setbacks & Looking Forward
As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, one of my biggest setbacks has been that I am not an ethnographer. Although this seems obvious now, 20th century African American culture was not homogenous, and even though stories reoccur across time and across region, it is difficult to make sweeping conclusions about a 200+ year story telling tradition. There was also a huge volume of stories, and I didn’t have time to give each one the attention it deserved. Although my research felt extensive, I know I only scratched the surface of available tales.
Based on my initial proposal this project was, technically, a failure. I did not create a unifying theory. However, I think this is only the beginning. I feel confident that there is more work to be done, and that by looking at elements of “true tales” of slavery, and comparing them with more typical ghost stories, some kind of interesting conclusions could be reached, although I have not yet reached them. I think it would also be worth expanding this project to include fiction — Arthur Redding’s wonderful essay considers Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the way it uses African American folk traditions to tell a ghost story about African American history — and see how ideas of Black horror are operating in the present.
As I’ve said, I’d be interested in recording more versions of these stories, and increasing the production quality on those I have recorded. A final form of this project could potentially be a website, with an audio version of the tales embedded, in addition to an annotated transcription, and links to other, similar tales. I’d also like to continue to read, and continue to theorize about how (and if!) we can make any generalizations about the African American horror tradition.