Friday, April 22, 2016

S is for Stories of Slavery

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.

How do we tell stories of slavery? Every semester, I spend a class talking about how history is told, and I usually learn 2 things:
1. That almost none of my undergraduate students know what Uncle Remus tales are, and
2. That many of my undergraduate students would "rather talk about something happy."

This is not unique to students, however. Several articles have addressed the issue recently, pointing out how the history of slavery is often:

1. Sanitized (e.g. slaves called "workers" in textbooks)
2. Focused on white saviors
3. Presented as something that "wasn't so bad."
The fact that people don't know how talk about slavery is reflected in this hilarious YouTube series by a historical interpreter who portrays a slave character at Mr. Vernon, titled "Ask a Slave." Pay attention to the questions people ask her.

So, what do storytellers have to add to all of this?
Books. The stories are there. The books are there. Here is a list of some of the best ones:

People could fly
An American black folktale, published in a gorgeous book by Virginia Hamilton. The book contains several black folktales of slavery and freedom. The story that is named in the title talks about people finding their innate powers to fly, and flying away from a plantation to freedom.
(Read it the book with the same title. I also included a version in my own book, because it beautifully illustrates why people dream of superpowers in the first place)

Old Master and John
A group of folktales about John, the clever slave, tricking the Old Master. There are several of them, in several sources, portraying the endless struggle of power between oppression and resistance.
(You can read an entire chapter full of these stories in African American Folktales)

Adventures of High John the Conqueror
High John the Conqueror is an African-American folk hero surrounded by legends, folktales, and traditions. He is a trickster figure that looks out for his people, and plays the slaveholders for fools. There are many stories about him.
(Read them in this book of the same title)

Uncle Remus tales
Usually known as cute, funny animal tales, these stories were collected from slave communities, who told them as a form of subtle resistance, keeping their traditions, and making fun of the people in power through symbolism and metaphors.
(Read the book here)

You can also find several slavery-era American folktales and anecdotes in:
An Anthology of American folktales and legends
American folktales from the Library of Congress
American Negro Folktales
African American Folktales
A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore
Monsters, Tricksters, and Sacred Cows

In addition to folktales and historical legends from America, there are also some older stories involving slaves that are worth mentioning - because they are good stories. I tell my versions of both of them frequently, and they are always a great experience.

One of the earliest appearances of the Cinderella tale type takes us back to Ancient Greece and Egypt. Rhodopis was a beautiful Thracian slave girl, bought and sold multiple times until she ended up in Egypt, and became a courtesan. It is not clear that the Cinderella story that follows (an eagle stealing her sandal and the pharaoh searching for her) is about her or another Egyptian courtesan named Rhodopis... but it is still a fascinating piece of story. Added bonus that for a while Rhodopis was a slave in the same household as Aesop, one of the most famous storytellers in Antiquity.
(Read about Rhodopis here)

Dionysus and the Pirates
A group of Tyrrhenian pirates decide to kidnap Dionysus, God of Wine and Pleasure (thinking he's just a pretty boy) and sell him into slavery. The deity wreaks havoc on their ship, burying it in vines and summoning wild animals, until finally all the pirates jump into the sea and turn into dolphins.
(Read the story here)

Also, for true stories of slavery, check out the amazing Finding Eliza blog, participating in the A to Z Challenge for the past 4 years!

What other books or stories should I add to the list?


  1. What a treasure trove of stories. I will certainly try and get hold of Uncle Remus Tales and Rhodopis.

  2. Slave stories sound intense... the first few atleast. I love the story of Dionysus ... that seems like a fun read :)

    Whimsical Medley
    Twinkle Eyed Traveller

  3. This book seems fascinating. This helps us to understand the current political, historical and social strata.
    [@samantha_rjsdr] from
    Whimsical Compass

  4. Mistaking Dionysus as just a pretty is not a mistake anyone would make twice I take it. I can understand why people would "rather talk about something happy", but can also see why lots of other stories need to be told as well. Amazing selection as always.
    Tasha's Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

  5. Oh wow. Those were some really clueless questions to ask the slave. Did those people all sleep through history class?

  6. Thank you for mentioning my blog in this collection. I have read "The People Could Fly". Good book. And I have enjoyed the clueless questions in the youtube. Much more enjoyable and funny on the youtube than the same would be/are in real life. :/
    Finding Eliza

  7. Even when I was little the Uncle Remus stories made me uncomfortable though I never knew why. Thank you for your comments. You are so brilliant.

    Meet My Imaginary Friends

  8. the folk tales are amazing. i've read some of uncle remus and rhodopis.

    then there are the historical stories brought into light in movie form like the memoirs in Twelve Years a Slave, the plight of the captured africans in Amistad, and the black regiment in Glory.

  9. I remember when Roots came on TV I was in awe of the story and couldn't wait until the next chapter came on. It was a great show.

  10. Not a book to add but I have to say that I dislike "Uncle Tom's Cabin" about slavery. Feels like propaganda.

    Joy @ The Joyous Living

  11. I think it's important to portray history as accurately as possible, lest we forget and we all know what that leads to.

    How perfect that the folk tales slaves told were all about one upping the man without him knowing.

  12. It's so different when you read some of the old stories after learning what they were really about. History's there in many of them, and it's not always pretty.

    Harriet Beecher Stowe was mentioned yesterday in a talk at Stanford. The professor said her book was one major force in changing the attitude toward slavery. Stories do have power.

  13. Sanitizing history is a bad thing, in my opinion. We have to understand the past to forge the future, yes?

  14. I get upset when I read articles about parents who object to certain aspects of history being taught to their children. History is what it is and turning it into a Disney-esque adventure is a crime.

  15. My guess is that most modern young people haven't heard any Uncle Remus tales because Disney is pretending The Song of the South doesn't exist. I saw it during its last theatrical re-release, in late 1986, and still have my ticket stub. All these years later, I was surprised to learn it had live-action segments, since all I remembered from childhood were the cartoons about Br'er Rabbit and Br'er Bear. I don't have the greatest hopes for Disney admitting the film exists and releasing it on DVD for its 70th anniversary this year.

  16. Ah, the two last stories are just fantastic!

    Thanks so much for sharing this. As I'm talking about early jazz in my challenge, I've noticed too that some race-connected matters seem to be very sensitive on sections of audience.
    But it is history. We shouldn't be afraid of rememebring hsitory. We should be afraid to forget it.

    The Old Shelter - Jazz Age Jazz

  17. Ah, the two last stories are just fantastic!

    Thanks so much for sharing this. As I'm talking about early jazz in my challenge, I've noticed too that some race-connected matters seem to be very sensitive on sections of audience.
    But it is history. We shouldn't be afraid of rememebring hsitory. We should be afraid to forget it.

    The Old Shelter - Jazz Age Jazz

  18. Even though Song of the South is beyong problematic, the reason for creating it - to keep the Uncle Remus stories in the collective mind - was a good one. Such a shame that the creators found it necesarry to whitewash (in both senses of the word) the historical context so badly. In my opinion the animated segments of the movie should get more air time in cartoon specials.