USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘african american’
Customs
general
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Kwanzaa Traditions

Context: The informant, a 19 year old college student, was engaged in a conversation about Kwanzaa and how her family celebrates this holiday.

Piece:

Informant: Um, ok. So, Kwanzaa. Um, I have celebrated it before. Um, it’s a family thing, my family celebrates Kwanzaa. Uh, I’m black, um ‘cause you can’t see me on the audio so just to make that… clear to all the listeners. Um, so basically it takes place the day after Christmas and it ends on January 1st. And it’s my favorite way to close out the year and basically it’s kinda a reflection on the whole year and each day it’s a different principle where you remind yourself of like um basically like whether or not you really perform those principles or not. One of them is Kujichagulia which is self-determination, they are all in Swahili um so yeah that’s a word we explore for a day— like how well do you fulfill your own personal goals. There’s also Umoja which is unity, um there’s seven of them yeah. So the traditions that happen are that every single night the whole family gets together and you eat a meal and you set the meal on an mkeka which is like a straw mat. And you eat specific foods— some foods we eat are corn, red beans and rice, soul food— things like that. And then we talk about the principle and then we light a candle on the thing— there is also a Swahili name for it.

Collector: So why is this tradition important to you?

Informant: Kwanzaa is important to me because um well for one it’s a way for me to connect to my African ancestry, which is something I don’t do in my daily life because slavery took that away from me. And on another hand, because um it’s one of the very few traditions my family has, we don’t do a lot of things every year, but like Kwanzaa and celebrating with the people at my church is something we have done consistently and so I value that we have kept that up

And uh yeah Kwanzaa was created in the 60s by a guy who is now shamed in the black community because he was put on trial for very brutally abusing women and he was a professor at some school in California, some university, I kinda wanna say it was CalState Longbeach or something like that. Um, but he no longer is a professor there and now is under harsh scrutiny from the black community and he is bad but Kwanzaa is good. A lot of people celebrate Kwanzaa but a lot of people shit on that man. And it was really big in the 60s because of the civil rights movement, and afterwards people stopped celebrating as much but I still do because of my family and my church.

Background: This informant is a black female college student at USC who celebrates Kwanzaa with her family regularly. She loves celebrating Kwanzaa because it connects her back to her African roots. She has often said that she feels the pressure from society and people around her to be “less black” and this holiday helps her celebrate just that.

Analysis:Kwanzaa is celebrated throughout the United States but because I am not part of the celebrating community, I was never taught about the traditions. This holiday in particular lends itself to folklore as the entire holiday revolves around the preservation of African culture and tradition. The fact that Kwanzaa champions principles is interesting as it passes along ideals through the traditions, emphasizing what people should focus on and influencing Kwanzaa celebrators’ everyday lives.

For other traditions practiced during Kwanzaa, see: Pleck, Elizabeth. “Kwanzaa: The Making of a Black Nationalist Tradition, 1966-1990.” Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 20, no. 4, 2001, pp. 3–28. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27502744.

general
Legends
Narrative
Protection

The Witch of Yazoo

(Setup)

Storyteller:

“On my dad’s side of the family…he grew up in a town called Yazoo City, Mississippi. And did you ever see a movie called My Dog Skip?

Me: “No”

Storyteller: “Okay, so it’s a movie..based on a book about an author who grew up in the same town as my dad did. A white author who grew up there. And in the movie, they portray this legend which is the Witch of Yazoo. And supposedly, people are like ‘well he invented that for the book.’ On the black side of town…because it is Mississippi so there is still a very distinct black side of town. On the black side of town, the Witch of Yazoo was a preexisting legend. And again, whether it was a story he coopted or whatever, I don’t know. But I know that I heard about this form my aunt and uncle before I ever heard of this author or My Dog Skip or anything.”

(Here is the chunk of the story)

Storyteller: “And so, basically the story is that there was this woman and she was…and I’m going to try to remember it as accurately  as I can. I believe she was having… an affair with a man in town and it was either an affair…or some sort of family drama. I don’t remember specifically that part of it. But she ends up being murdered essentially by the man in her life in a fire. And then they bury her and everyone forgets about it. And then at a certain point fairly soon after…or it may have bene close to the anniversary of the death, half the town burnt down. And everyone was like wtf, like what happened. And her grave had been dug up.”

Me: “Oh My God!”

Storyteller: “And so people were like…’It was her! She came back and she did it’. And of course people were like ‘that’s crazy.’ But also people were like ‘um maybe?’ So they built a chain that goes around her grave that is supposed to keep her inside.”

Me: “Oh My God, that’s terrifying”

Storyteller: “And in the movie, if you see the movie My Dog Skip, it’s like a crypt that’s there…but in the black cemetery there was a grave because we went to see my grandmothers grave and I asked about it and my aunt was like ‘oh girl lemme tell you this story.’ So either there is one for the black side of town…because you know it used to be very segregated. Or it was a thing that happened on the black side of town originally and it just got coopted on the other side of town…I have NO idea. But it is this hilarious thing because it was this chain with GIANT weights and I was like ‘what the hell is that?!’ And yeah, so the inspect the chain…or at least they used to supposedly…they inspect it so she couldn’t come back.”

Me: “So this was true and it became a movie? Or what?”

Storyteller: “The thing is I have no idea…my aunt tells that story as if it is gospel truth right? But then when the movie came out and I looked it up, all this stuff online said it came from the book. But my aunt told me that story without ever having read that book. Because I asked her and she was like ‘what are you talking about?’ And she knew the guy (the author) but she had never read the book. So I don’t…I have no idea if it’s just one of those local stories that people know so he used it in the book or what…But it’s the south and it’s full of ridiculous scary stories. Really I think all these stories are made to just keep us from doing bad stuff or whatever.”

 

Background: The storyteller is form the south and her dad’s side of the family is from the city where this legend takes place. After listening to her other story that she shared with me, it is clear that her family has passed down many stories that are unique to the south. The storyteller is a professional writer and has used some of these stories and filled in the gaps to write short stories upon the narrative.

Context: I asked her if I could interview her for this project. I knew that she was from the south and after collecting a couple stories from people who grew up in the south, I was fascinated with them and wanted to hear more. She gave me three stories…a couple were stories from New Orleans and the other was this one. Both occurring in the south. I drove back home to meet her for some coffee before diving into the interview (along with another storyteller who is in a different post)

Thoughts:  I think that the stories that come from the south are fascinating. I don’t know what it is that draws me and so many other people to them. Perhaps it’s because the stories are incredibly rich or perhaps it’s the stories’ attention to details that make the stories so real. There are a lot of stories about revenge in the south and once again, I believe that this is the case because there is a lot of unsettled business. There have been a lot of wrong done in the south and the only way for people to cope with what happened may be to create stories that serve a small percentage of justice to those that were killed or unfairly harmed.

 

 

Festival
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Juneteenth Festival

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old female college student who was enrolled in the ANTH 333 during a prior semester, was eager to participate in my folklore collection. She shared some folklore with me that she has collected throughout her childhood and her time at USC. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant described a cultural festival that she has taken part in every summer since she was a child.

Text:

Informant: Okay, so one thing that I think is particularly interesting is that every summer there’s a festival called the Juneteenth Festival. Basically, it’s called Juneteenth because it’s for black Americans and basically June 19th was the day the slaves were freed, but because slaves couldn’t say June 19th, they started saying Juneteenth and nobody ever changed the name of the festival. So, it’s been like going on  since then and so now we celebrate it as “Juneteenth.”  It’s a really cool way for me to personally feel a connection with my African heritage because that’s not something that I normally practice because I have a very American identity. But Juneteenth, what happens at a Juneteenth festival? So there’s a lot of dancing, a lot of praise dancing that happens. A lot of it like revolves around a lot of gospel music and there’s also… gosh there’s like Swahili that’s spoken at a lot of them. A lot of it intersects with Christianity, which is interesting and it’s probably where the gospel music comes from. But yeah, usually they are in parks and there’s usually jazz music. We celebrate a lot of black American culture, so there’s like jazz music and Hip-Hop and… black things. And yeah, it’s a family-friendly event. I think it’s really popular in the south. My dad was the one who made us go to every Juneteenth Festival because it’s really popular in Oklahoma, and that’s where he’s from. And my mom, who’s from Louisiana, knew about Juneteenth and celebrated that there, so I think it’s a really big thing in the south. But there’s a Los Angeles Juneteenth Festival that’s held every summer, which is the one that I went to, and I originally started going to because my dad is a bass player and he always played at the Juneteenth Festivals.

Informant’s relationship to this item: The Juneteenth festival holds a lot of personal significance for the informant because she attends it every year with her family. The informant described how the festival helps her feel connected to her Black American identity, from which she typically feels more removed. The entire festival serves as a reminder of the black experience in America, including the languages that are spoken there, the genres of music that are played, and even the festival’s name, which originated from the speech patterns of American slaves. The festival is also an important event for the informant’s family, as the informant’s father — a professional bass player — plays music as part of the festivities.

Interpretation: The Juneteenth festival is an example of a festival that has spatial and temporal significance. The festival typically takes place in parks in order to emphasize its family-friendly message. Additionally, it takes place on June 19 every year because that is the date in which slaves were freed in America. Thus, the date holds a lot of cultural significance to Black Americans and is a fitting date for a celebration of the African American experience. The festivals appear to have a prescribed syntax, or order of events. The informant described several events that regularly take place at Juneteenth festivals, specifically folk music and dances that always occur. Festivals also usually take place in order to project a certain message to both insiders and outsiders. In this case, the Juneteenth festival appears to communicate pride, resilience, and determination in the context of the history black America and the current experiences of black citizens.

 

general
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Hanish Family Pie Tradition

Background: Lila is my best friend from high school. She has a tradition with her dad, Jon, and her younger sister, Sydney, to hand make apple pies for Thanksgiving together. They have been inviting me to be part of this tradition for the past 3 years.

Context: I called Lila over FaceTime because she attends Drexel University in Philadelphia. I recorded our conversation and transcribed it below.

“Honestly I don’t know when this tradition started but for as long as I can remember when it’s Thanksgiving time we always go to my cousin’s house in Orange County. Everyone in my family brings something because there are so many people, like first and second cousins. Me and my dad and my sister have a tradition every year to make the apple pies. My dad makes sure that a day or two before Thanksgiving me and my sister are home for the night to make apple pies with him. When we got older it became a thing to invite friends. It’s fun and one of those cute little traditions your family has. I don’t know how it started but yeah. My dad found some recipe online or something but we make the dough fresh every year. We start by skinning the apples… or wait we make the dough first and put it in the fridge. Then we do the whole apples and cinnamon for the filling. Then we make the top crust. For the past year or two we’ve started to make a berry pie too. We’ll make a few apple pies and then a berry pie too. My parents have started to buy extra ingredients so that our friends can take pies home with them to take to their Thanksgiving dinners.”

IMG_0576

 

Apple and berry pie at the Hanish household, Thanksgiving 2017.

 

Humor
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

La-a (pronounced “Ladasha”)

The informant told me about this joke when I asked him about some good jokes he had heard.

Informant: “So this is a joke I’ve heard from many people, some of them have claimed it to be true. The joke goes: ‘I heard about this person named Ladasha, and her name is spelled La-a. So it’s “Laa”, but it’s pronounced Ladasha. And I’ve heard this as a joke from some people. But one person who told me, actually insisted that they knew someone who knew Ladasha. Which is obviously not true.”

Collector: “Why is this a joke, what’s the funny part about it?”

Informant: “Oh, its just typography”

Collector: “When did you hear this first?”

Informant: “High school I believe, a couple years ago. I would hear about it every couple months or so. It was a thing people knew about.”

Collector: “Why do you think specifically the name Ladasha?”

Informant: “Because its funny and it sounds like a real name”

Collector: “It sounds like an African American name. Is there any reason why that is?”

Informant: “Some of those names I’ve seen do have vanity punctuation”

Collector: “So do you think this is poking fun at that?”

Informant: “Probably. I think there’s a Tiana in my high school (T’ana) so it’d be like, ‘T’ana’ so that was a vanity punctuation”

Collector: “So Ladasha could be a real name”

Informant: “Yes. But more likely I think is that someone named their baby that after they heard the joke”

This joke, in my opinion, is likely to indeed be poking fun at some African American names with unconventional punctuation, or as my informant called it, “vanity punctuation.”

general
Tales /märchen

The Man and the Snake

Context:
I had asked my friend if he had any stories or tales from his childhood that his family would tell. He comes from an area of Kansas City, Missouri that is traditionally an African-American community, and he told me a tale, a fable, that his mother used to tell him when he was growing up.

Tale:
This is a story that my mother reiterated to me many times during her lifetime and when I was a child. There was a man in Africa, walking up a mountain. Halfway up the mountain, it starts to get cold, even though it is hot at the bottom of the mountain. Halfway up the mountain it is kind of frigid. Halfway up the mountain, this man happens upon…a very sickly snake. And the snake is sitting there in this cold climate and its basically freezing and it looks up to the man and says, “Please, sir, please, will you carry me down the mountain?”
And the man is going down the mountain, and he looks at the snake and he says, “But you’re a snake. Not only are you a snake, but you are a very poisonous snake. If I pick you up you will surely bite me!”
And the snake says, “Silly man, now why would I do that? I – I need your help. If – if I stay here I will surely die. If you carry me past the peak of the mountain, and down to the warm foothills, I will not bite you. I will be forever grateful.”
So the man thinks about it. And being a good man, an honest man, decides to help the snake. So he picks the snake up and he walks toward the peak. And he starts to walk on toward the peak and as it gets colder, the snake gets very, very still. But finally they pass the peak and they slowly get down and the weather starts to get warmer and the snake starts to move around. And as they go down the mountain, all of a sudden the frost clears, there’s green foliage and the snake is slithering happily as the man is carrying it in his arms. And finally, they are almost to the foothills and the man feels a sharp pain. Bam! The snake has bitten him. And he falls to his knees as the poison takes hold and he looks at the snake and he goes, “Snake, I’ve helped you, I’ve saved your life, and you promised me that you wouldn’t bite me.” And he goes, “Why!? Why!?”
The snake slithers off, takes a moment to pause as he decides to answer. And he looks back at the man taking his last breaths, and he says, “You knew what I was when you picked me up.” And he slithers off.

Analysis:
This tale is a fable that has a clear moral, like most fables, which is that you should not offer your help, your aid, to someone or something that you know to be dangerous. This tale is also serving as a warning to not trust the promises of a desperate man, and to be wary of those who might stab you in the back. This is the kind of tale that would be told, and is told, to children. After all, the informant’s mother would often tell this story to him when he was growing up. The fact that the informant grew up in a traditionally African-American part of the city he lived in, would suggest that this tale is African in origin.

Legends
Narrative

The Legend of Ibo Landing

This is a legend in the African American community, and the name of the island is occasionally spelled differently: Ebo, Ibo, Igbo.

“It’s sort of this coastal—this island off the coast of south Carolina and Georgia, kinda in between. Kay, so, the story goes that there was a slave ship that was coming—oh wait, let me start over. In Africa, there were this group of, like, native Africans and they were enjoying life in Africa and one of them had a wife who was pregnant. And, you know, the guy loved his wife and loved his child and he was looking forward to having a family, and then one day his wife was sleeping and he was just up doing whatever and he thought he heard the unborn child say “the water will bring you home”. And he was really confused because he didn’t really know what that meant… but it kind of stayed on his mind. Okay, and so later he was walking through, like, the savannas or the jungles of Africa and he was with some other Africans and they all got kidnapped by this slave trader, and so then they embarked on the middle passage and were on the ship headed to America and they were all really scared, of course. They didn’t know where they were going they didn’t know what was going on, they were shackled in these miserable conditions and people were dying, there was disease, like you know all that gross middle passage stuff you hear about. Finally they get to the island of Ibo Landing and they get off the slave ship and they’re led, and then, like, the slave–okay, hold on. They’re led around and then the slave trader just sorta looks at them and says okay this is where you’ll be staying–except less hospitable because it’s not like they’re at a hotel–and so then the slaves look around and they’re like oh no, we’re not staying here, or they’re still Africans, I guess they didn’t really become slaves. And so the main one who had the child gets an idea and he suddenly remembers the phrase “the water will bring you home”. And so, you know, all the Africans are shackled together but they turn, so starting with the native the main guy with the child he whispers a message to the guy standing next to him and then that guy does that to the guy next to him and to the guy next to him and so on and so on until they get to the end of the line. And so then when the slave traders aren’t looking or are preoccupied with something, the Africans turn around and walk back into the water. And it’s just like the child said, the water will bring you home. So the story goes that they never became slaves and that they walked across the water all the way back to Africa. And of course, it depends on who is telling the story because some people are like well they turned around and drowned and others are like they walked all the way back to the continent of Africa so you can take your pick which version you like better.”

This is an extraordinarily meaningful legend on many levels. One of the messages, according to the informant, was the notion of controlling one’s own destiny and doing the impossible to avoid a fate put on someone. The imagery also comes out of the Bible, with Jesus walking on water and telling Peter that he too could walk on water if his faith was strong enough. Clearly, the faith of these Africans was strong enough (or not, depending on the teller) to bring them back home. It also stresses the importance of family, as it is family ties that bring the slaves back home and the unborn child that gives them the idea to do it. All of it happens during a period of change in their lives, a liminal period, in which anything could happen (thus explaining the mysticism). Mysticism is also common in African tales and tribal religions, thus emphasizing that legacy as well.

It exists in a lot of African American popular culture. Toni Morrison uses different themes of it for her books Tar Baby and Song of Solomon, and it is recounted in the film Daughters of the Dust (1991, directed by Julie Dash).

general
Humor
Legends
Narrative
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Stealing Ham Urban Legend

Transcribed Text:

“My friend told me this story. He said his friend was working at this grocery store, and this very large, borderline obese African American woman is walking towards the exit, and her body seems especially lumpy? More so than it would be for a normal obese woman. And all of a sudden, out of her shirt, on to the ground, falls a ham. A big ol’ ham, like you’d have for Christmas dinner. And – and she looks around, and she goes “who threw that at me?” (said in a very sassy voice). And- and it was very obvious that it had just fallen out of her shirt, but she proceeds to play it off like someone just threw a ham at her. And she reacts, and I guess this would supposedly be an appropriate reaction for having a ham thrown at you, by saying “nuh uh. Ya bettta don’t” (said in a very sassy voice with left hand on hip and right hand waving with the index finger. Head bobbing right and left while phrase is said). And, and then she just walks out. And the ham is on the floor and the employees were just standing there, mouth agape”

The informant currently attends the University of Southern California as a student. He says that he heard this story from a friend in high school in New Jersey. It has become a friend of a friend story, and he has told many of his friends the story several times. He normally tells the story after he uses the phrase “nuh uh. Ya betta don’t” in some conversation, and the people who do not know the context of that phrase ask him about it. I first saw him use it when it came up in a conversation on facebook where somebody refused to go look for their wallet to pay for a ticket that was going to be sold out within a few hours. The informant replied to that comment with “Sarah just tried to pull the same shit. Nuh uh. Ya betta don’t” to which he received many questions as to what that meant. Ever since then, he has repeated the story many times, each time receiving laughter regardless of if the audience has heard it before or not.

It is obvious by the way the informant tells the story that he is an active bearer of this now legend. Every time he repeats the story, there are fixed phrases and beats to the narrative. He makes use of the oral formulaic theory also with the final phrase where he imitates the woman. The audience, regardless of if they themselves repeat the story or not, the phrase “nuh uh. Ya betta don’t” has become a phrase that many people have started repeating and using within this group of friends at least. This story is a very amusing narrative, but it is also a bit racist. When the informant was describing how to properly say the phrase, he said that one has to do it with a proper ghetto accent and sass. This plays on the stereotype of African Americans that exists in the USA today, where it is normal and almost expected of the group to talk with a certain accent. This piece of folklore is an urban legend that makes use of the oral formulaic theory in the method that it is performed and Blason Populaire with the content that it contains.

 

 

 

 

Childhood
Folk speech
Protection

“God don’t like ugly.”

This saying was told to my informant  when he would act out of line as a kid. This usually came as a warning prior to some harsh discipline like a spanking or a grounding.  He said one time he had a temper tantrum in the supermarket over a piece of candy. When he wouldn’t stop his mother harshly warned him, “God don’t like ugly.”, and he knew he was in trouble.

Humor
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Joke – Racist – African American/Mexican

Joke – Racist – African American/Mexican

“What kind of baby do you get when a black person and a Mexican person have a baby? A baby that’s too lazy to steal.”

The informant made it very clear that he is “not racist” as he told me this joke, as people often do when telling jokes framed around racial stereotypes and conflict. He also made it very clear, before telling me the joke, that it is “really racist.” The informant is fifty years old and from Texas, and has lived there all of his life. He claims that jokes such as this are still used among close friends, but that “it’s just funny, we’re not racists.” He also claims to have “black friends,” as if that serves as some sort of justification or proof that he is not racist. He claims that jokes such as these stem from the racism that existed in the south during his childhood. The informant told me how he remembers when schools were desegregated in the south, and how “the blacks were brought over in busses” to his school. He stated, “they didn’t want to be there as much as we didn’t want them there.” He claims that much of the conflict was two sided, a kind of mutual racism. Furthermore, he claims that the inclusion of a Mexican individual in this joke probably stems from immigration from Mexico to the United States, often to border states such as California and Texas.
I agree that these jokes stem from a generation that experienced extreme racial conflict, but the fact that they are still used implies that they are still considered humorous. The fact that people still find these jokes humorous hints at the state of racism today, and shows that although it is much less prominent than in previous generations, subtle racism does still exist. The addition of a Mexican individual in this joke exemplifies the discomfort that many people feel toward Mexican immigrants, but the fact that they are portrayed as thieves in this joke conveys the stereotype that many Latinos are criminals. Furthermore, the idea of black people being inherently lazy seems to stem from Affirmative Action. Many people, who are usually white, are against affirmative action and other social programs, and believe it makes people who benefit from these things lazy. On some level, this joke serves as a racist critique of society in the context of immigration and social programs that are intended for minorities.

[geolocation]