The only thing slave masters knew was what degree of brute force would best subdue them. Slave songs and stories that survived were the ones most often repeated by the slaves and the most satisfying. Slave folklore was largely unknown until a collection of folksongs was published in 1867.Then it also became known that slaves sang most when they were most unhappy-songs reflecting sorrow of their hearts--songs bringing relief in the way an aching heart is relieved by its tears. While viewed as unmeaning jargon to Whites, slave songs sung as a chorus were full of hidden meaning to themselves: "I am going away to the Great House Farm! O, yea! O, yea! O!" (Fishel, The American Negro, p116).
As a result of Uncle Remus stories collected in 1880 by the European Joel Chandler Harris, slave animal tales were presented to the world. Furthermore, of the many types of slave folktales the most popular ones on the plantations were of the trickster type. Many folklore survivals cast animals in the roles of speaking humans-and with all their virtues and foibles. Directed toward evil Europeans, they were a most significant way the slaves released their chronic anger regarding being enslaved as well as their inhumane treatment. Brer Rabbit, in most folktales, speaks the part of the slave-both having to live by their wits, not their strength. A typical folktale theme was the struggle for mastery between the trickster-usually a small but sly, weak but wily animal (such as Brer Rabbit) and his bigger and more powerful adversary. The trickster invariably outwits and thereby defeats his rival. It gratified the powerless slaves to follow the clever little animal's cheerfully devious expertise in manipulating his enemies. And the slaves forgave all manner of their animal heroes deceit in the noble cause of confounding the more powerful creatures and bringing ridicule upon them (Elsie Parsons, Folk-Lore of the Sea Islands of South Carolina, 1923, pp 26-27, 66-67; Rose, History of Slavery, p517).
Although the slaves' didactic tales attempted to inculcate elements of proper conduct and righteous living, they were likewise filled with strategies for offensive and defensive survival. Whites suspected that strategies were somehow being transmitted but were constantly frustrated in trying to figure out how. The answer is that the slaves' folklore was in allegory form-i.e. a hidden story within an obvious story. Besides fable trickster tales, the next most popular with the slaves were human trickster stories featuring the slave John and his never-ending contests with the master. Here, slaves used language by manipulating, arranging, and rearranging words that defined their world. Meanwhile, they symbolically turned the meanings inside out and upside down so that only they could understand what was also heard by Whites. This was a clever and masterful trait brought out of Africa which prevented Whites from being able to extract the fact that they were symbolically being assaulted-(Levine, Black Culture p105).
Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D.
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