Hist(or)ic(al) Traditions

Brief Note on Oral Tradition

Many of the myths inherent to African American cultural history fragmented in their voyage across the sea. With no written record, oral tradition remains vital to a rapidly fading heritage. Consider those lost myths of other migrant peoples and how their various accountings exist in parallel diffusions of similar plotlines. Think on Grimm’s Fairytales and its various translations or the conflicting, overlapping translations and interpretations of Olde English legends. Even written down, narrative disparities remain.

The necessity of oral tradition permeates from past to present. Modernity’s irreverence of every fleeting moment, what with its digital vines of seconds-long videos on various platforms, needs the sanctity of heritage from old stories. As recently as the last 30 years, scholars recognize the importance of disappearing histories. Turner remarks on Alex Haley, author of Roots and interviewer of Malcolm X, and his struggle to define the past,

“…he never would have confirmed his exact origin if he had not been helped by an African who could recite the history of the village until it reached generations into the past, back to the moment at which Haley ‘s ancestor was named as part of that history. The written records of civilization had guided Haley only to the dim past. It was oral history that illuminated that past” (7).

Oral history persists as the vitality of humanity’s memory. It is the firing of synapses around our collective, cultural consciousness. We remember ourselves using the stories that we tell, and sometimes those stories just happen to be true. African Americans are no different. In fact, their fractured histories rely more heavily upon a strong oral tradition. If Haley’s case is not evidence enough, recall the mythical figure we examined a few weeks ago.

Interpretations of his character, abilities, and personality evolve and devolve with rapidity. As Gaiman so beautifully articulates in American Gods, the gods of our memories change when we change. Either they grow with us or die without us. As is the case for the cultural explanation of existential phenomena via muthos, oral tradition records actual events, too, not just predecessory imaginings. With regards, to slavery and the suppression of the enslaved, their oral tradition became cultural lifeblood.

Storytelling and Cultural Preservation

Imagine knowing nothing of your parentage or people. You don’t know how to read or write. Those who claim to own you treat you worse than dirt. Your name was chosen for you. You’re forced to bear children or see your loved ones bear your tormentors’ children. You starve, thirst, bleed, and mourn. Yet you sing. You hear stories. You learn to play a cobbled-together instrument. Your words are not of joy, but the world you know. You sing and speak of shadows on walls which are your reality. You are the one chained down and forced to see only a cruel, razor-thin slice of reality.

Slavery did this to many people. As Frederick Douglass realized again and again, it was the not-knowing which kept his people in chains. Their lack of knowledge limited their chances for belief in something outside of shadows and shackles. Eventually, after years of wearing away at his own forced ignorance, he found himself free. This was done through years of secretly learning to read and write.

When methods for recording truth are kept from you, humanity finds a way. African Americans turned to storytelling and song to preserve their lives. What they couldn’t record on paper they stored in memory. African American folktales serve to explain their pain and dreams. They are the songs of caged birds. As Cunningham notes, various animals, often smaller ones, outwitted stronger ones. He suggests this represents the slave and the master. Over time, folktales and oral tradition changed. Beginning with Nommo and griots in Africa to hodgepodge spirituals of fellow slaves to the spoken words, slam poetry, and hip hop of today, oral tradition remains highly influential in African American today (Hamlet).


Cunningham, David. “African American Folktale”. Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, 2019.

Hamlet, Janice D. “Word! The African American Oral Tradition and Its Rhetorical Impact on American Popular Culture.” Black History Bulletin, vol. 74, no. 1, 2011, pp. 27–31. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24759732.

Turner, Darwin T. “African-American History And The Oral Tradition”. Books At Iowa, vol 53, no. 1, 1990, pp. 7-12., doi:https://doi.org/10.17077/0006-7474.1186. Accessed 25 Feb 2019.

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