Harvard scholars Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar celebrate their collaborative book project “The Annotated African American Folktales.”

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

African-American folklore inspires meeting of the minds

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Gates and Tatar discuss origins, ambition of annotated volume

“The Annotated African American Folktales,” a collaboration between Harvard scholars Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar, illuminates and celebrates a narrative spirit both intimate and expansive. Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center, was guided in the project in part by personal history, while Tatar, John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literature and of Folklore and Mythology, drew on deep experience studying traditions of storytelling.

Published by the Norton imprint Liveright in November, the book was recently honored with an NAACP Image Award for outstanding literary achievement.


Henry Louis Gates Jr. & Maria Tatar

GAZETTE: Tell me about the collaboration. How did it happen?

GATES: Maria is the queen of annotated folk tales worldwide.

TATAR: And Skip is the dean of African-American studies. And our editor, Bob Weil, proposed a partnership. And here we are. We were both astonished that so little attention had been paid to these stories. The tales have defied the odds and are still here, but no one had really provided a roadmap and created an archive on the same scale.

GATES: The most important development, without a doubt, in my interest in black folklore occurred when I was still a graduate student at Cambridge, doing a bit of teaching at Yale, and trying to write my own dissertation. That’s when the Zora Neale Hurston revolution took place. Her books came back into print, but one that never really went out of print was “Mules and Men,” her stunningly important collection of African-American folklore. This book played a major role in my own interpretation of Hurston’s fiction and in my larger conception of a vernacular-based theory of African-American literary practices. It would take me a while to realize that the roots of my interest in the black vernacular actually could be traced to my childhood, and more particularly to my dad.

All during my childhood, a, copy of Joel Chandler Harris’ “Tales of Uncle Remus” sat on a shelf in our small bookcase right alongside “Mother Goose.” My father loved to tell Uncle Remus stories. He wouldn’t read the tales; he just knew the tales and told them in his own way. Br’er Rabbit — everyone loved the fact this little rabbit was tricking this wily fox who was stronger and perpetually lethal. Somehow Br’er Rabbit was always getting into trouble but he’d always escape. There were obvious reasons black people liked that plotline, both in slavery time and in the ’50s and ’60s, when I was growing up. It’s the same logic of attraction — you’re a minority, you’re subjugated, but through your wit and wiliness you not only survive, but you can trick the oppressor. That was my “discursive universe,” as we might say today. These tales were always part of my life.

TATAR: These stories show how connected we all are. I can remember one day looking at folk tales collected in the 19th century by African missionaries and anthropologists. Suddenly I recognized motifs and plot features from “The Juniper Tree,” a story considered European at its core. The Grimms have a version of that story in dialect, and they saw it as a quintessentially German tale. But here was “The Juniper Tree,” as part of an oral storytelling culture in Africa. What we think of as European stories are not so European after all.

GATES: Many black Americans were not “African” in origin. Some were European, some Native American. It’s hard, in some cases, to date or place originality.

TATAR: Impossible. One thing I’ve learned as a folklorist: Give up the idea of reconstructing the original. Oral traditions were rarely documented. All you will find when you look for the “original” is the first version written down. So, oddly, a story like “Tar Baby” is traced to India, just because someone there decided earlier than anyone else to write down a tale about a “sticky trap.”

GATES: The oral tradition is so fascinating if you are studying black culture because enslaved people were uneducated, living among the worst conditions humanly imaginable, and yet they were reinventing stories from European and African traditions and making them their own. Allegory, metaphor, analogy, and indirection — these were all crucial to the survival of being enslaved Africans living in the New World.

When the written tradition developed, the oral tradition played a role in its shaping. In fact, the written was constructed on a foundation that was oral. Frederick Douglass, in his slave narrative published in 1845, talked about the curious way that slaves would sing what we now call the spirituals, and in the process, “the thought that came up, came out,” if not in the words then in the melody. That’s a beautiful way to express the history of black creativity.

TATAR: These stories are ephemeral cultural property, part of an oral tradition that can vanish unless it is cultivated by storytellers and preserved between the covers of a book by scholars. But folklore also has a strange way of never really going away. It makes its way into new media, finding a path into novels, films, artworks, or plays, always made new but somehow still the same old story. I love what you have to say about cultural memory, Skip. With folklore, you’re making something from nothing or, rather, nothing material. You have to listen to the ancestry, as Toni Morrison says. Each generation adds a new layer, making the story new, exciting, compelling, and culturally relevant. I always think in this context of the story of two bundles. God puts two bundles in the road. The white man rushes out and takes the little one, which has the instruments of writing in it. And the black man then goes for the big bundle and there are tools in it — the hoe and the shovel. What a story, deceptively simple in its way but speaking volumes. It gets you talking immediately and takes you back to the social context for these stories. How did a story like that of the two bundles serve as a point of departure for asking about how you strategize and survive when deprived of the instruments of writing?

GAZETTE: Is that a goal for the book — to be an incredible story for a child and to also serve scholars in their work?

GATES: Yes, I’d say both. What we are trying to establish for our generation is a canon, a foundation for building upon and expanding. There are a zillion more black folk tales that have been collected, but the ones we chose are those we thought should be canonized in a Norton anthology. Decisions for inclusions in an anthology, even one as large as this one, are always arbitrary, but sometimes the case for inclusion is overwhelmingly compelling. For one example, let’s consider opposition between the intellect and manual labor found in “Two Bundles,” to which Maria just alluded. It turns out that this is a motif throughout Western culture, ostensibly describing the relationship between the long history of literacy among white people as opposed to what was mistakenly argued as the long history of non-literacy among black people.

Black people would also tell stories that made fun of themselves. Take the Creation story. Why are black people darker? God gives the races of the world a choice of various characteristics. One man, a lazy man, goes to sleep in the sun while his three or four human rivals for colors busily go about the task that God has assigned to them. When he wakes up, he has been scorched, and that is why African people are black. Same thing for big lips, etc. It’s a tale about human characteristics that white people devalued, a tale told by black people at the expense of black people. A great deal of irony abounds here: Black people would humorously describe the origins of so-called “black” physical characteristics that were used by white people to oppress them or mock them or stereotype them. It was a way of fighting back against being deemed “ugly” or inferior. It was a courageous narrative device, one might say, but it was also exhausting, I imagine, to be forced, even subconsciously, into doing this to justify one’s own appearance. Lots of black humor plays with negative black stereotypes, in order to reverse them.

TATAR: Stories do that. They overdo stereotypes in order to undo them. I think of the African dilemma tales, which are so powerful because they ask about how you can continue to think more and strategize when you don’t have pen and paper, when you can’t record. You tell stories that are deeply philosophical, self-reflexive, that get you thinking in a communal setting. No one is writing it down, but people start talking about a story and the consequences of its premises.

GATES: Thomas Jefferson wrote a book called “Notes on the State of Virginia” and in Query 14, he says that he never met a black person who could utter a thought above the level above plain narration, meaning that black people, by nature, cannot reflect on their own actions, or their own being. It’s the second order of reflection when you can comment on a comment, as it were. Jefferson would say the real mark of a human being is the second order of reflection. And of course, black people cannot reflect.

I’ll give you another example. When I was 5 years old, I loved playing marbles. We’d play in the dirt, draw a circle in the dirt. I was playing with my cousins Greg Hill and Jerry Price. All of a sudden, I was floating, watching us playing marbles. It wasn’t like the Holy Ghost showed up here and fire and brimstone. I asked Greg, “Do you every feel like you’re watching yourself play marbles?” and he said, “What are you talking about?” I went home and told my mother. And she said, “If that happens again, don’t tell anyone else, just come home and tell me.” But I knew being able to do that was something unusual, at least among the friends playing marbles! Later I would learn that the great scholar W.E.B. Du Bois would define double consciousness as the capacity to do a thing and watch yourself doing the same thing. Well, what’s the relevance to our anthology? Every page of our collection of African-American folklore shows people of African descent could do a thing and reflect on doing their doing that thing; these storytellers were constantly reflecting on their “being in the world.”

TATAR: I think of Hurston’s “Mules and Men” and the brilliance of her work because she not only gives you the tales, but also the social context. One of the great things she tells us is to take each story one story at a time. The story is supposed to enable you to think about its terms and have conversations about it. You’re not supposed to go from one to the next, but stop and wonder. Wonder is the beginning of philosophy after all. Why did this happen in the story? Why did it turn out this way? And how could it be different, and how can I retell this story and make it relevant for the next generation?

GATES: And what is my being in the world all about? What are my three score and 10, as the Bible says? How do I fit in — not only as a race, but as an individual? The other thing I find remarkable about these tales is the absence of self-pity. There are very few tales that we might think of as “woe is me” because the white man is so evil, and I have no hope of liberating myself or my people. There are stories about people making bad choices, but not that you don’t have choices, just because — or even if — you are a slave. I find that interesting because I believe in the power of choice to shape fate, even though I recognize the hugely important role that social structures play in limiting one’s choices. It is the heart of the debate between Ralph Ellison, who stressed the role of choice, of agency for black people, and Richard Wright, who stressed the determining and deleterious effects of socio-economic structure.

GAZETTE: There are 150 stories in the book. What didn’t make the cut and what was necessary to include?

TATAR: Oh, it’s painful to think of everything that is left out. Sometimes it was for reasons of copyright. I’d say there was an oddly natural evolution. At the beginning, I felt we had a gigantic blank canvas. Skip’s slate wasn’t blank. I felt as if mine was. It was as if I had before me a gigantic jigsaw puzzle with millions of tiny pieces, and then came the question: How do you construct the big picture? We read broadly, immersing ourselves in the material — all the anthologies and everything available in magazines, newspapers, autobiographical accounts, fiction, and so on.

GATES: We had the text set and then we found some more tales in the Southern Workman newspaper, after I read the work of the scholars Donald Waters and Shirley Moody-Turner. It was the last thing we added to our table of contents. Black folk tales are scattered everywhere. My dream is for Maria and me to create a website that would aggregate all these folk tales, both printed versions and recorded ones, serving as a living index and aggregation point, a portal to the black vernacular, as it were.

Hurston writes that when she was trying to collect folk tales, she went down to Eatonville, Fla., and said, “Tell me some tales.” [Points to a photograph of his father on the wall in his office.] If I asked my dad to tell Maria a story, he’d say, “I don’t know any.” But if he was at the barbershop or watching a baseball game with his buddies, they’d just start telling stories, simply by talking. In these contexts, ritual contexts, as it were, there is no one — no outsider — to make them self-conscious about it. It was like jazz musicians performing after hours, improvising and riffing among themselves, for themselves. It was one of the greatest pleasures of my life to hear these stories told, but they were never told under the context of “Gather around. Today is storytelling day and we are going to tell some stories.” They just told stories. It was a language.

Interview was edited for clarity and length.