In the first of a series of posts, Midwest BSFA member Renee Tecco discusses African American folklore as it relates to Black speculative fiction.

It was the late 1980s and we were watching Michael Jordan fly through the air of his own volition. We would watch him float through the air towards the basket in awe. He just lifted up and flew across the court, going over the heads of his opponents. Rumors were he was descended from the tribe of enslaved Africans who could fly.  Watching him play it was easy to believe.

The fable of the people who could fly is an African American folktale. In the story, enslaved Africans are working in the fields when someone says the word “freedom” and all the Black people in the field take flight and float away. In her novel Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison has a character who flies away, leaving behind a wife and dropping his child as he takes to the air for freedom.

African American folktales are an American heritage but aren’t as widely known as the German tales of the Brothers Grimm or the Danish Hans Christian Andersen. Although home grown, the stories of African American folktales aren’t part of the American fabric when it comes to storytelling. Aside from Song of the South (which was deemed racist for depiction of “happy” slaves and has been indefinitely locked in the vault), Disney has not tackled the stories of African Americans since.

These stories have become passed down to us in African American culture, whether it’s oral storytelling from elders or a found book at a garage sale. The trickster Anansi traveled from Western African countries and became the Bruh (Brer/Breh) Rabbit in our New World. The stories of Brother Rabbit, Brother Fox and Brother Bear were collected into books by Joel Chandler Harris with a fictional freedman named Uncle Remus as the narrator. But later notable African American authors Zora Neale Hurston (Every Tongue Got to Confess) and Virginia Hamilton (HerStories and The People Who Could Fly) collected the stories of African American folklore. Renowned poet Sterling A. Brown taught classes on the subject and November 1893 saw the creation of the Negro Folklore Society at Hampton University. In the early 20th century, WEB Dubois and Jesse Redmon Fauset created a children’s magazine for African American children with stories including fairytales and folktales written by African Americans.

For today’s storytellers, although these stories aren’t told in the same way, there are echoes of them in current Black speculative fiction.


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