Why Are African American Folktales So Important?
Like most of us, when young children are attracted to a particular book, they are typically drawn to the book cover, a main character (protagonist) they can relate to, or a theme that is interesting to them. In today’s diverse world, it’s more important than ever to offer a wide variety of books for kids, not only so that children can experience characters who look like them, but also so that children can explore the lives of characters who may be very different from their experience.
To gain a better understanding of the impact that the African oral tradition has on young, emerging readers, let’s look at some specific examples from the rich legacy of African American and African folktales.
One of the most popular characters from African folklore is Anansi the Trickster Spider. Typically, Anansi’s poor decisions lead him to take impulsive actions that result in negative but hilarious consequences. Anansi allows himself to be driven by immediate gratification, particularly around food. Kids instantly recognize how his misguided thinking leads to embarrassing situations in a range of Anansi stories.
Anansi and the Pot of Beans, takes place at Anansi’s grandmother’s house, where the scent of his grandmother’s steaming pot of beans gets the best of him. Unfortunately for Anansi, he tries to hide his impulsive decision from his friends by hiding the hot beans on top of his head, under his cap, where they continue to steam. What could go wrong? You can imagine where that decision leads.
Another example is, Anansi Goes to Lunch, when Anansi is invited to three parties. Naturally, Anansi accepts all three invitations and gives each host a rope to tug when it’s time to eat. Then Anansi ties the other end of the rope around his waist. Unfortunately, lunch is ready at the same time, something that Anansi never considered, and the tugging begins. Anansi’s short-sighted decisions once again lead him to unwanted consequences. These stories use humor to demonstrate important life lessons about how trying to have it all, inevitably leads to poor decision making with awkward consequences.
Fortunately, the Anansi stories are full of whimsy and his poorly thought-out decision making is not only entertaining for kids, the plotlines also model the importance of thinking through potential consequences – before taking action.
The website for We Need Diverse Books reinforces the importance of providing books with strong protagonists from diverse backgrounds. It includes a passage that reads, “Imagine a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.” Since the main character or protagonist can have such a strong influence on whether a child is attracted to a book, you might ask yourself some of the following questions:
Could the child easily see herself/himself in the protagonist?
Does the main character look similar or seem familiar?
Is the character’s background like the child’s?
Is the character someone roughly their age or a few years older?
Could the child easily relate to the character’s values or point of view?
Is the protagonist someone the child might want to emulate?
Not only does African folklore open doors into another culture with other ways of looking at life, the stories also help children appreciate the many similarities and differences of people who don’t look the same, speak with the same accent, or whose families come from a distant part of the world. Learning to respect and appreciate these differences through stories is an easy and entertaining way to develop empathy for other people.
Books like The Adventures of High John the Conqueror and The Natural Man, the True Story of John Henry, not only provide compelling role models for African American children, they also provide important examples of perseverance and bravery for any child.
Much like the Greek slave Aesop in Aesop’s Fables, High John was a trickster slave who uses his creativity to outsmart the “Old Master”. These whimsical stories are highly engaging and highlight how a clever “underdog” can outwit a more powerful, oppressor. These tall tales of High John's exploits flourished during slavery, but after emancipation they fell out of circulation and his inventive antics were all but forgotten. These timeless life-lesson are still relevant for kids today who sometimes feel oppressed or overwhelmed by the world they experience.
The character, John Henry, from A Natural Man, the True Story of John Henry has played a unique role American folklore for over a century. Steve Stanfield’s timeless version of A Natural Man provides a strong African American protagonist who demonstrates bravery and perseverance when confronted by overwhelming odds. Born with a hammer in his hand, John Henry was a steel-driving man who inevitably met his match in a race against a steam drill that provided a powerful metaphor for the disruption and loss of innocence created by the industrial age. Not only is John Henry’s bravery a powerful example of determination for young African American children, his courage in the face of overwhelming odds is meaningful to all children, regardless of their ethnic background.
The story of John Henry (link to https://www.augusthouse.com/single-post/john-henry-as-an-educational-tool) provides an excellent introduction to the form and structure commonly used in folk lore. A Natural Man playfully infers facts without adding mystical explanations of John Henry’s legendary strength. The story also helps children identify the story of John Henry as an epic saga that distinguishes it from the magical actions often found in fairy tales. In fact, several states continue to celebrate annual John Henry festivals (including Alabama, Oregon, and West Virginia).
Children are frequently attracted to “underdog” characters who must survive by using their wits to defeat their bigger, more powerful opponents. Non-traditional trickster characters are often featured in folklore and they play major roles in stories like Pickin’ Peas and Billy Brown and the Belly Button Beastie.
In Pickin’ Peas, a singing rabbit matches wits with a young, African American girl in her garden. This story of resourcefulness, adapted by Margaret Read MacDonald from two folktales originating in Alabama and Virginia, offers potent examples of perseverance, wit, and courage that are still very relevant in today’s chaotic world.
Another African American character who provides a powerful role model for courage and perseverance is Billy Brown. This contemporary story celebrates a young boy who courageously outwits a more powerful opponent. Co-authors Bobby and Sherry Norfolk adapted and updated Billy Brown and the Belly Button Beastie from a Japanese folktale. In Bobby and Sherry’s version of this story, Billy Brown continues to kick off his covers at night and ignore his mother’s warnings about the Belly Button Beastie stealing his round, brown belly button. Imagine the ensuing chaos when he discovers the Belly Button Beastie is real! Finally, Billy and his classmates devise a plan to get his belly button back and break the monster of this vile habit.
We originally positioned this version of the story so it would appeal to young boys of color who were 5-8 years old. However, after the book was published, we were surprised to learn (from our research data) that the children who were most attracted to this story were actually young girls (4-6 years of age) with no specific ethnicity.
Although this example is based on only one story, the fact that young girls were attracted to Billy Brown, who doesn’t look or behave like them reinforces not only the value of choosing diverse books, but also the surprising outcomes that may occur when kids are immersed in highly engaging stories featuring characters with a different perspective.
The point is that all of us are attracted to a variety of characters for a number of reasons. By reading a wide range of diverse books from other cultures, sometimes with challenging perspectives, kids can easily explore different points of view and different places from the pages of a book. How can children learn to expand their world view or learn about other cultures if they are only exposed to a limited range of characters who are just like them?
Children develop a stronger sense of tolerance for other people with different life experiences by reading about a broad range of characters from other cultures. As a result, these stories play a unique role by giving kids a greater sense of the world they live in and the society they’ll ultimately inherit as adults. This knowledge is invaluable in broadening their outlook and nurturing their natural curiosity.
As Bobby Norfolk, the author of the Anansi stories explains about the unique contributions of African folktales, “Not only do they change children’s minds, it changes their hearts.” With Bobby’s message in mind, when we fail to expose children to these rich cultural traditions, we inevitably limit their ability to thrive in a world where people have so many different life experiences.
Every February, the United States celebrates Black History Month by recognizing the achievements that African Americans have accomplished throughout U.S. History. While it’s important to emphasize the many unique contributions of Black Americans during the month of February, it also makes sense to honor the African American experience every day.
One way to celebrate these contributions is to make sure that kids have on-going access to a broad range of stories that include resilient and brave protagonists of color. These stories help showcase the underrepresented voices that are sometimes overlooked, as well as writers with insights and talents who might get lost in the pace of today’s frenzied world. For a list of other African American reading resources, please visit our blog at https://www.augusthouse.com/single-post/john-henry-as-an-educational-tool or download our African American Reading List