In the final installment of a series of posts, Midwest BSFA member Renee Tecco discusses African American folklore as it relates to Black speculative fiction.
The modern day retelling of a Boo Hag story is the 2020 Hulu movie Bad Hair. A young Black woman with natural (hair that is tightly coiled and untouched by chemical process) learns that to get ahead she needs to make her hair more “presentable,” so she goes to a recommended hairstylist to have a weave put in. Soon after, she learns the hair moves without the help of wind. She recalls the folk tale of her childhood about the moss haired girl, a girl who wanted hair so much like her masters that she put Black moss on her hair only to discover that the moss is imbued with the souls of witches who plot to take over the wearer’s body.
Last, we look at Golliwogs. Although Golliwogs aren’t an African American invention but a character in a children’s book created by British cartoonist and author Florence Kate Upton, it’s been something used recently by Bayou creator Jeremy Love and the writing team of HBO’s Lovecraft Country, a story set in the 1950s post World War II-era Chicago. The Golliwog has pitch black skin, a wide smile, and an Afro. The doll is a picaninny, a pejorative term for Black children.
In current culture, we see two examples of golliwog/picaninny torturing Black girls. The first example is in Jeremy Love’s graphic novel Bayou, when the golliwog tries to drag the heroine to her death in the water. The second example from Lovecraft Country is when the young girl Diane (Dee) Freeman stands up to a police officer who was harassing her. The officer curses her and Dee is beset with scary dancing piccaninnies that only she can see.
This is a part of African American folklore that is being re-appropriated by African American authors to reclaim Black childhood and look critically at the way narratives are used against us. Which is the point of stories.
Stories remind us who we were, who we are and who we can become. Stories remind us that we aren’t alone in this journey. Stories help us create worlds when it seems that one ones we live in are falling apart or can’t.
We look back to find light
That can lead the way forward
We don’t know what we’ll find
But hope that it is toward
Here is a list of books about African American folklore:
Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales and True Tales by Virginia Hamilton
The Annotated African American Folktales by Henry Louis Gates and Maria Tartar
Talk That Talk: An Anthology of African American Storytelling edited by Linda Goss and Marian T Barnes
The Best of the Brownies Book edited by Diane Johnson-Feeling