Thursday, December 30, 2010

Chapter 38: In Which I Discuss Black Folklore

"Everybody's got a laughin' place, a laughin' place, to go-o-oh..."

The two stories in my collection that have gotten the most effusive responses when I do readings are the ones based out of black folklore. People get excited by the concepts and archetypes used in this particular style. I've been happy to provide what, for some people, is their first introduction to a forgotten American art form.

The stories are called "When the Law Come" and "How Brother Roy Lost His Dog, Twice." The first one is a collection of vignettes, structured sort of like the way folktale collections are structured, except there's an overarching narrative. The other is a straightforward ghost story told in black folklore style. Both employ the supernatural, trickster motifs, humor, and use the language of oral storytelling. I started writing "When the Law Come" in the summer of 2008, right before I dropped out of the University of Maryland. It was shopped extensively at the Berkeley Writers Circle, then published in The Dirty Napkin in summer 2009. I began "Brother Roy" in late 2007/early 2008, as I recall. Out of all the stories in the collection, these two changed the least between inception and their final published form. The main critique I always received was "less dialect."

The use of dialect is what attracted me to these narratives in the first place. The idea that not only is the plot magical, with turpins and wolves all running about, but the language itself is askew: it's English, but not the type you typically see in a book. It pops out at you, it has energy, and there's a feeling of oral telling in it that makes people pay attention. My introduction to the stories were Joel Chandler Harris' Brer Rabbit tales. These are amazing pieces, with all the drama and violence that mark your average fairy tale, plus the humor of Afro-American folklore. What a lot of people don't know is just how thick the dialect is in the Uncle Remus stories. Trying to read it in your head is like reading Chaucer. The only way to translate meaning from them is to read them out loud.

What also attracted me was the fantastic. Sure, there are talking animal stories, but there's also a religious aspect. God and the Devil enter frequently. This isn't Satan as an all-powerful source of evil, but the Satan who appears in a lot of European fairy tales: an active participant in the story who, for all his power, acts as a pretty local demi-god, and can be tricked by the wily protagonist. It's absolutely cool to see the Judeo-Christian mythological characters alongside West African animalism, sort of a storytelling Santeria. Black folklore is a cultural mishmash if ever there was one. The popular book Little Black Sambo, with its notorious pickaninny imagery, was an East Indian folktale adapted to America. As a kid, I was simply blown away by the idea of a child in the American South encountering tigers.

The other thing that struck me is the humor. Much of black folklore (like a lot of white folk cycles) revolves around off-color jokes. I remember a particularly long one about a black, a Jew and a Mexican going to Hell, and them arranging with the Devil to get let out. It's an extremely long set-up for a punchline about black people being cheap. All sorts of stereotypes pop up in these stories about crackers and Yankees and Jews. There's also black stereotypes: the mammy, the northern dandy, the shiftless coon. Plenty of self-deprectating humor to go around. I can see where humor developed: if you're a slave or living during Reconstruction, you have to have something to get you through. I have to wonder, though, if blacks added all the negro stereotypes, or if they were added to the folktales by white writers.

As with Hans Christian Andersen, I went back to these tales when I was older. I had been writing urban fantasy for a while, and was looking to expand the styles I used. This led me more towards fairy stories, the inspiration for urban fantasy (and Tolkien and Dunsany and all those guys). Black folklore is amazing because you can see the immediate relevance. All of these tales were transcribed less that 200 years ago, and fit within a uniquely American perspective. Needless to say, I had to write my own.

"How Brother Roy Lost His Dog, Twice" was a blast to write. I loved the characters and I loved the setting: 1920s Florida, which was at the time still a fontier. When I was young, I read a Remus story called "Why the Nigger's Palms are White," in which a slave master gets upset at an uppity slave, so he pretends to be a ghost and scares the slave so bad his palms lose their color. Years later, I write a story where a black laborer scares his boss with a real ghost. Inspiration? Maybe.

"When the Law Come" offered me a chance to blend mythologies, adding some Greek and Arthurian legend. Inspired by the folklore I was reading, I wrote the different vignettes in pretty short succession, putting down all the crazy ideas that popped into my head. One thing that always caught me about the old tales is the theme of black empowerment. Put in the context of slavery, this makes so much sense. Brer Rabbit does the kind of thing every slave wished they could do, roaming the countryside freely, giving grief to the Powers That Be. Blacks in the 19th century developed fok heroes, uniquely American heroes with American names, like Petey Wheatstraw. "When the Law Come" has a theme of independence which I think is in keeping with the original tales.

The introduction to these stories for many people was the film Song of the South, which has been famously banned from DVD release by Disney. Meanwhile, the horribly anti-indigenous Peter Pan gets a 2-disc special edition. I'm sure the Arab-phobic Aladdin did as well. Disney works under the popular notion that the best way to overcome the sins of the past is to pretend like it never happened. This is of course nonsense, and seems to be a type of nonsense targeted primarily at blacks (for instance, we are told often and loudly to forget Jim Crow, but tell a Jew to forget the Holocaust and you're automatically marked as the asshole you are). So Song of the South gets banned. Never mind that it's one of the few movies out there about black folktales, and it does so beautifully. The animation is exemplary of Disney from that period and James Baskett kills it as Uncle Remus.

My main issue with the movie is the one I always had with Harris' writing: the Confederate revisionism inherent in the Uncle Remus character. Harris was a gifted storyteller, but he had a pretty horrific agenda. The Remus stories take place in an idealized Confederate past where the war never happens, presenting a slave who is perfectly happy with his station in life and is treated well by his masters. This doesn't mean Song of the South should be banned. It also doesn't mean that Harris' stories should be put on the back shelf. What I would like to see are more black writers reclaiming these stories. Zora Neale Hurston and Virginia Hamilton do just that. I think it's absolutely imperative that those who actally had (or whose ancestors actually had) these experiences shape the dialogue on the stories. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a great read, but give me a real slave narrative any day.

Uncle Remus was my first introduction to black folklore. This was my second. 

Oh yeah.

Even that image itself holds all kinds of meaning, acknowledging what Warner Brothers never did: Bugs Bunny is an updated version of Brer Rabbit, and so many of those classic cartoons owe a debt to black culture. This movie shook my world up when I was 12 years old. I will be eternally grateful to my father for assuming that all cartoons are for kids and renting this weird, insane, hyper-violent X-rated movie for me about 7 or 8 times. Looking back, I owe so much of my storytelling style to Coonskin (or "Streetfight" as it was called in my day). It's a movie that uses humor and surrealism to excoriate American culture, which I appreciated, and still appreciate.

Like the Uncle Remus stories, Coonskin is black folklore related by a white man: animation master Ralph Bakshi. The same man who had the balls to adapt "Lord of the Rings" back in the 70s. The movie is a satire on black culture based off Song of the South. Anybody who thinks black culture isn't ripe for parody isn't paying attention. Black gangsters, crooked preachers, pimps, hookers, bums and drug addicts are all mocked in this film. Stereotypes are thrown around with alarming regularity. Literally the entire history of the African-American in the U.S. is held up to laugh at. Bakshi got a great deal of grief when this came out, since he was a white man doing what the producers of The Boondocks do every week. Does a New York Jew putting the critical eye on black culture make him a racist? I don't know. The level of satire in the movie is not that simple. Let's say he's a racist. Great film, regardless.

What makes Coonskin great is that it also ridicules the institutions which created blacks' situation in the first place. Bakshi is equal opportunity in his bashing. Cops get dissed, southern crackers, Jews, gays, Italians (a lot). White men and their exotification of black women come up a fair amount, as do condescending white liberals. Jim Crow comes up as well. In an insane world, insanity becomes the norm, and the ugliness of the black characters is par for the course in Bakshi's America. This film is Bakshi's greatest satirical statement, showing why he was one of the foremost humorists of the 70s.

What also makes it interesting is that it is a straight up blaxploitation movie. Blacks are heroes, whites (or, more accurately, white racism) are villains, and blacks win in the end. This is all done in the milieu of 1970s gangster culture. Blaxploitation films are a direct offshoot of folklore. They updated the folk heroes for modern times, sometimes literally; Rudy Ray Moore made a series of fabulously stupid films about Petey Wheatstraw. The stories created by African slaves evolved into urban myths about pimps and pushers; urban folklore of the 1970s reads like a blaxploitation film. As always, the idea of the wily underdog succeeding against explicitly white oppression is key. Shaft is Brer Rabbit is John de Conquer is Anansi the Spider is Sweetback is Superfly. That Ralph Bakshi picked up on this is part of the movie's genius. A large section of the film is dedicated to satirizing The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola's Oscar-winning glorification of sociopaths. The main antagonists of Bakshi's film are more or less the Corleones. At the end of Coonskin, Brother Rabbit deals with his mafioso enemies in a way that brings the melding of blaxploitation and Uncle Remus together wonderfully. Watch the movie. It won't make you feel comfortable. It might even make you feel terrible. Watch it.

Lately I've been reading Appalachian and Ozark folktales. It shares so much overlap with black tales. Brer Rabbit is a trickster character, as is the Scots-Irish character of Jack, as is Coyote of Native American myth. High John de Conquer is a swaggering folk hero, the kind who shows up frequently in white American mythology, only the character is tweaked to be a black liberation hero.  Appalachians also share blacks' fondness for off-color humor. There's something intrinsically human about this; wherever you go, if somebody farts, people will laugh. Africa being the cradle of civilization, you can determine that these archetypes developed over there. It is fascinating to see how they changed after humanity split up and then reconvened on the American continent.

A lot of people assumed that I had read Zora Neil Hurston before writing my own folktales. In fact, I was unfamiliar with her work until I started on the second edition of JDS. "Brother Roy" takes place in Florida, and I wanted my Florida dialect to sound authentic. Thus, I finally read Hurston, and I'm glad I did. She was a very experimental writer, willing too mix genres and write about experiences that were not her own. In order to work on the Mississippi dialect in "Assistant," I read Faulkner and Mildred Taylor. For "When the Law Come," I went back to Uncle Remus. Of course the question comes up: how much dialect do you use? "Well, I is sho' gwine climby up dat dar hill yonder" does not translate easily. Faulkner's dialect is incredibly thick, which I love reading. Ultimately, I went the Mildred Taylor route, using key phrases and certain words to reflect the language of the place, but keeping it decipherable for the uninitiated. As I have read more experimental authors, the thickness of the dialect seems like less of a problem. Somebody like Antunes or Lispector doesn't care if people have to work to understand their language, which is why their books are incredible. It's worth noting that Charles Dickens also used dialect like it was going out of style. I'll see how I feel about it if I ever write another such story again.

Folktales are fascinating in that they are eternal, ever-evolving. Most children nowadays don't know Brer Rabbit, but they certainly know Bugs Bunny. In writing folkloric stories, I feel like I'm going back to the roots of something that never really went away. "When the Law Come' and "Brother Roy" were the last stories I wrote for my collection, and I am exceedingly proud of them.

No comments:

Post a Comment