Author Archives: Bailey Abedon

The First American President Was Actually Black

Main Piece:

Subject: I was talking to this one guy because my grandfather wanted me to talk to him. He was involved in the Orangeburg Massacre that happened in South Carolina state in the 60’s or whatever. And then he brought back into my memory this thing- he mentioned it because he believed it… But he starts out by saying, “I always knew Abraham Lincoln was black.” And then that segwayed into him saying something that I heard as a kid, which is that the first president of America was black and wasn’t George Washington… and that you can find him on the back of a twenty dollar bill. 

Interviewer: And can you?

Subject: I mean the idea is that… it’s fucking black and white on green paper, so people are like, “You see this man right here? That’s a black man.” And it’s like yeah! Because in the 1700’s all the slave owners, and an economy built on slavery… they definitely would have elected and let a black man run the country. 

Interviewer: And could just reiterate who told you this idea?

Subject: This is folklore I have heard from various black people. It came back to my memory because I was talking to someone my Grandfather knows. But yeah… it’s just this belief that there is actually a long lost black president who was the first president before George Washington. And the only reason why we don’t know is because they erased it from our history books. You know the really simple phrase. “It’s not in the history books. They rewrote history.” That shit. Which does happen but not in this case. None of the logic follows through. What specifically gripped me about the second time around when I was talking to this guy… He basically was the catalyst for the South Carolina State Massacre. It started as a bowling alley that was segregated. He was the guy that broke the color line there. He was like, “Fuck this shit I want to go bowling.” So we’re talking… and I didn’t know this before talking to him. We talked at length about the massacre and why he wanted to talk about it. But for him to later say in the conversation, “I’ve learned more on the internet in the past five years than I have in the past sixty years.” This guy has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry! This is a smart man. He’s seen racism because that involved people dying. He understands how that looks in real time and how it operates in South Carolina. And yet… he somehow through the internet… he somehow believes that Abraham Lincoln was black. Even though we have pictures of him. And also believes there was a first black president. Which is antithetical to how racism works in America for that to ever be a possibility. In this person’s mind, how does that work? How do you separate those two and how do they overlap. Because I’m sure that’s a massive part of your life! 

Interviewer: I feel like I’ve heard that theory before… that the first president of America was actually black.

Subject: I’m not quite sure how popular it is. I think it could be pretty popular. But no one talks about it because it’s not believable! I heard it from various black men. They say, “Yeah the first president was black. Look at the back of your twenty dollar bill. They erased it from the history books. They don’t want you to know it.” It’s like, how do square that? It’s weird.

Context: The subject is a 20-year-old African American male in his sophomore year at Columbia University studying creative writing. The subject and I were best friends in high school, and we are both currently quarantined in our homes in Charleston. I asked the subject if he would like to meet up for a six-feet-apart walk one evening, and asked him if he had heard any folklore he could share with me, and he told me this fascinating folk belief regarding American history.

Interpretation: I have heard this folk legend before, and the theorized first black president of America was supposedly a man named John Hanson. Though the subject said he could be found on the back of $20 bill, many sources make the claim it is on the back of the $2 bill. On the back of the $2 bill, there is the image of the Second Continental Congress, and supposedly there is a man seated in the back who was believed to be Hanson, the first black president. As the subject alludes, it is a controversial belief. On one hand, I could see it is a legend that in away seeks to reclaim black history where so much of it has been erased and destroyed. On the other hand, the subject noted his frustration with it, in that it might subsequently, unintentionally undermine or downplay the racist foundation of which America was built. I see this legend as being very nuanced. The subject saying that the person who told him this folklore was a very educated, intelligent man makes me think that there is a romantic and poetic element to the legend more than a logical or factual one.

The Crooked Man- Nursery Rhyme

Main Piece:

Subject: (Singing) There was a crooked man, who walked a crooked mile. He found a crooked six pence against a crooked stile. He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse. And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

Interviewer: That is so spooky… where did you hear this?

Subject: My mother would sing it to me before I went to sleep when I was younger and I never forgot it.

Interviewer: Did that make you scared?

Subject: Um… no not really. I didn’t notice any, uh, I guess, sinister tones in the lyrics or the purpose of the song until I got older. Then I sung it again and I was like wait. That’s pretty creepy.

Interviewer: Yeah like the same thing happened to me. Something about it is just weird.

Subject: Yeah it’s amazing what we don’t pick up on when we’re kids right?

Context: The subject is my 17-year-old younger brother in his senior year of high school. We have been quarantined together due to the Coronavirus pandemic and staying at our home in Charleston, South Carolina. After dinner, we were sitting in the dark in the living room and I asked him to tell me any folklore he learned when he was a child. He proceeded to sing this nursery rhyme.

Interpretation: I am familiar with this particular nursery rhyme in the same way my brother is. My mother used to sing it around the house. When I got older and recounted it with my siblings, we all had the same realization that it was quite an unsettling tune. We clearly are not the only one to pick up on its creepiness, because the nursery rhyme was featured in the horror film “The Conjuring 2” in 2016. And later in the same year, the nursery rhyme actually got a movie solely inspired from it, titled “The Crooked Man”, about a nursery rhyme that awakens a demonic figure. So I was curious about the origins of the nursery rhyme, what the lyrics are really about, and if they intended to be creepy. Upon research, I discovered the rhyme is actually about Scotland gaining political and religious freedom England. The “crooked man” is about the general who signed the agreement and the “crooked stile” supposedly refers to the border between England and Scotland. I found it super fascinating that a nursery rhyme about a historical event could be interpreted and appropriated so differently as a horrifying tune.

The Jigsaw Puzzle

Main Piece:

Interviewer: So tell me this scary story you’ve heard of.

Subject: Okay so… there’s this girl and she’s home alone. She goes into the attic and she finds a puzzle that she hasn’t seen before… she has no idea where it comes from. She’s bord so she’s like “okay, I’ll make this puzzle.” So she goes down to her kitchen and she starts making this puzzle. There’s no picture on the box or anything! It’s just in like an old box. She has no clue what’s up. But she starts to put the pieces of the puzzle together she realizes that it is her kitchen. And as she goes around the edges she realizes that she is also in the puzzle. Finally she completes the puzzle… except for one last piece. And on the last piece is her kitchen window with a horrifying twisted demonic face… in the window. And slowly she puts the piece into place… and then the window slams open! 

Interviewer: Wow that is terrifying. Where did you hear this story?

Subject: A friend. A friend and I were trying to tell each other scary stories to scare the other out of falling asleep.

Interviewer: And did it work?

Subject: Definitely.

Context: The subject is my 17-year-old younger brother who is in his senior year of high school. We have been quarantined together due to the Coronavirus pandemic and staying at our home in Charleston, South Carolina. After dinner, we were sitting in the dark in the living room and I asked him to tell me the scariest story he had ever heard. He was ready to accept that challenge, particularly because he was riddled with boredom.

Interpretation: This legend scared me in a deeply unsettling way. I think it is the slow build of the story, how it starts with something as seemingly trivial as a girl finding a puzzle, then escalates into terror. I had never heard this scary story before, and upon doing some research, I found out this is a fairly popular internet urban legend. Different renderings of it were featured in a number of anthologies of scary stories, as well as in a few pieces of authored literature, like the movie “The Dead Poet’s Society”.  I could not find a tie to the legend of any specific culture, heritage, or nationality beyond varying internet groups.

The Unlucky Number Thirteen

Main Piece

Subject: So Grandma Gordon was a very superstitious woman. She believed in many of the superstitions that have been passed along from the “Old Country” and carried forth through generations.

Interviewer: The Old Country? That would be Russia?

Subject: Yeah Russia. That’s probably ultimately where it came from. People really believed in a lot of things. Like thirteen was a really bad number. And even to this day, I still have that in my head that there is something about thirteen. So Grandma Gordon wouldn’t live in a building that had a thirteenth floor. So the building that they lived in interestingly, in Fort Lauderdale, didn’t have a thirteenth floor. It was almost a thirty story building but it didn’t have a thirteenth floor. And they built the buildings that way because they were trying to sell to people who really believed in these things that wouldn’t live in a building that had that thirteenth floor. So it went twelve… fourteen.

Context: The subject is a white middle-aged male of Ashkenazi and Eastern-European descent. He was born and raised in Tiverton, Rhode Island with his parents and two siblings. He also happens to be my father, and we are currently quarantined together at our home in Charleston, South Carolina. After dinner one night, I was sitting with him in my dimly lit living room, and I asked if he would share with me any folk beliefs he had heard passed through the family.

Interpretation: I am very familiar with superstition that the number thirteen is extremely unlucky, but I had no idea of its ties to “The Old Country.” Upon further research, I found that the number thirteen is considered unlucky across many religions and cultures. The superstition is also tied to the measure of time. Sumerians built the ancient calendar using the number twelve. There are two sets of twelve hours in a day, twelve months in a year. Because twelve was considered the perfect number, thirteen was considered unlucky. Additionally, in Christianity, it is considered unlucky because at the Last Supper, there were thirteen people sitting at the table and one of them, Judas, ended up betraying Jesus. This seemed to be the most common source of thirteen’s unluckiness. I suspect the superstition’s spread in Russia to have originated from a variety of origins. Furthermore, I found that the number thirteen is significant but not considered unlucky in some cultures. In Judaism, thirteen is the year where a young Jewish boy or girl becomes a bar or bat mitzvah. I find it so interesting that despite my being Jewish, my father, and his grandmother, the belief that thirteen is still very unlucky is ingrained in their brains. 

Lizzie Borden – Nursery Rhyme

Main Piece:

Subject: I grew up in the town next to Lizzie Borden… where Lizzie Borden was. Lizzie Borden was from Fall River and I was from Tiverton, the town over. And I can remember I took pottery classes right near Lizzie Borden’s house. We all knew the story of Lizzie Borden. That she took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. She didn’t really like her mother apparently. But when she saw how sad it made her dad, she gave her father forty-one. 

*Singing* Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, gave her father forty-one. 

It was a nursery rhyme! As kids you know… because it happened so close to where we all lived and grew up… that was sort of scary. Somebody would smack their parent with an axe forty times… and then do it again forty-one times! Lizzie Borden!

Context: The subject is a white middle-aged male of Ashkenazi and Eastern-European descent. He was born and raised in Tiverton, Rhode Island with his parents and two siblings. He also happens to be my father, and we are currently quarantined together at our home in Charleston, South Carolina. After dinner one night, I was sitting with him in my dimly lit living room, and I asked if he would share with me any folk beliefs he had heard through his family.

Interpretation: I first discovered the Lizzie Borden nursery rhyme when I watched the biographical film Lizzie starring Kristen Stewart and Chloe Sevigny. It was a sort of feminist approach to the Lizzie Borden story. Lizzie falls in love with a woman and her parents are depicted as emotionally abusive and controlling. Though I’m not certain of the historical accuracy of the film, because it was my introduction to Lizzie Borden, whenever I heard the nursery rhyme, I always felt a bit defensive over her. The nursery rhyme obviously does not leave much room for nuance. Lizzie is a horrifying figure in it. Hearing my father’s account of how afraid he was of Lizzie, and how villainous she was to him as a child made me think about what other nursery rhymes have a more complicated background than how they are interpreted.

The Golem – Jewish Folk Tale

Main Piece:

Subject: Have I ever told you about the golem before?

Interviewer: Um… I feel like I remember hearing about it at some point when I was a kid but like… I don’t recall any of the details.

Subject: Okay well the golem is Jewish folklore as I’m sure you know. It’s a clay monster… like a muddy mass if you can picture that. And um… it’s like a Frankenstein-esque figure. It was created to do the deeds of its master but in all the stories I’ve heard about it, it always turns against the master and disobeys them. So the myth goes that there was this Rabbi- don’t ask me who or where- who took these blocks of clay and mud and formed them into this creature… and then brought it to life using Jewish magic… like Hebrew spells. And the rabbi made him with the intention that he would defend the Jewish people against anti-semitism and attacks. You know, there’s a lot of that going on with the Jews all the time. Everybody wants to kill us! *laughter* Um… I’m pretty sure the way it goes is the rabbi gets the golem to stop doing his deeds and rein him in by writing this magic word on the golem’s forehead in Hebrew. And at the end of the day, the rabbi would remove one letter of the word, that would change the word to mean “death.” And that would subsequently like, switch the golem off for the day. And the rabbi would do this every day like clockwork. Until one day, he forgets to change the letter of the word, and the golem goes nuts and starts killing a bunch of people… he’s just out of control! So the rabbi finds him eventually after he’s already murdered a bunch of people. But he finds him and takes out the letter and the golem dies. But then the twist on that is that the golem is still sitting around somewhere just waiting to be resurrected again. 

Interviewer: I really like that. Something about hearing about Jewish monsters… it feels like, rare. Um… Who told you that?

Subject: Yeah, yeah. There’s lots of them though. But definitely my mother. Or I learned about it in Sunday School when I was little. Yeah I was always a fan of the story and I’ll tell you what else… We could use a golem these days. *laughter* I shouldn’t say that.

Interviewer: *laughter* Yeah you may be right about that.

Context: The subject- my mother- is a 51-year-old white woman of Ashkenazi Jewish and Russian descent. She is from Lexington, Massachusetts and currently lives in Charleston, South Carolina. We are currently quarantined together in Charleston. One day, late morning, I specifically asked her if she had any Jewish folklore she could share with me. She proceeded to share this folk tale.

Interpretation: The nuance of this folklore was interesting to me. The golem seems to be both a figure of protection and a figure of defense. I remember hearing the folk tale about the golem when I was younger, and his only being described to me as an evil figure. But the subject seemed to pose him as a fighter for the Jewish people. I really love learning about Jewish folk monsters and “fairy tales”, because at least with the experience of my Jewish education, they felt rare to hear about. Generally, I also love hearing about Jewish mysticism and spells. The tale reminds me quite a bit of the story of Frankenstein. A monster is created with good intention, and ends up being the cause of unpredictable destruction. Both the Golem and Frankenstein’s downfall seem to be caused by societal forces, rather than any inherent evil within them. They are both reflections of humanity.

Holding Your Breath As You Pass A Cemetery

Main Piece:

Subject: Well. Whenever I pass cemetery, I hold my breath because I don’t want to disrespect the spirits who aren’t as lucky as I am to breathe. Because then they might come and haunt me.

Interviewer: Where did you hear that?

Subject: Um… from my older sister. Yeah you do it because you don’t want to disrespect the ghosts as you pass by. They’ll literally haunt you. Because they’re like, “Fuck you. You can breathe and I can’t.” You’ll piss off the spirits. I also used to think that you could like literally breathe them into your lungs. Like if you inhaled when you went past a cemetery, then they would enter you through your lungs.

Context: The subject is my 17-year-old younger brother in his senior year of high school. He is supposed to attend Yale in Fall of 2020. He is of Ashkenazi Jewish and Russian descent. We have been quarantined together due to the Coronavirus pandemic and staying at our home in Charleston, South Carolina. After dinner, we were sitting in the dark in the living room and I asked him to tell me any folklore he could think of off the top of his head.

Interpretation: I remember being taught this superstition from my older sister as well. It was a very appealing superstition as a kid because it felt like a game. Whenever I would pass a particularly large cemetery, it was a great challenge between my siblings and I of who could hold our breath the longest. Related to this superstition is the act of covering your mouth when we yawn. Breath has always been associated with life and spirit, so it makes perfect sense that breathing when you passed the dead would be offensive. I thought it was interesting how this superstition seems to specifically in the context of driving in a car. It’s not realistic for a person to hold their breath as they walk past a cemetery, so it suggests that this superstition practice is modern. The old version of the superstition seems to go back to The Black Plague, when it was believed that the illness could be transmitted from dead bodies because of people inhaling as they passed by. The “spirit” that possessed people was actually the plague.

Buddhist Belief About Food Leftovers

Main Piece:

Subject: When I was little my grandma would always tell me and my cousins that if we had any leftover food in our plate that we’d be forced to eat those when we died in Hell. And it’s not even like you eat these leftover items one by one… No that’s hell. Folks would mix everything and you have to eat it all. The thing is in buddhist belief (which my family is) and especially the Korean and East Asian branch, they say that everyone goes through multiple layers of Hell when you die. No exceptions. Everyone goes through different Hells where you’re judged for different punishments, and that’s why the concept of Hell isn’t that scary to elderly Koreans because like everyone be going. And on top of that my grandma lived through the Korean war she was very little but you ask anyone who lived through that era when food was so scarce, having leftover really is a crime. There is also a very common phrase that’s like “밥그릇 싹싹비우다” which translates to airing out  your rice bowl clean, and it’s used to describe like a delicious meal so in result you would eat all of that food with no leftovers. Older Koreans can be really strict about finishing everything given to you and it’s part of like the general culture to try to finish everything in you plate. In schools and military and people are taught to empty their plates clean, or you’re being wasteful and rude to the cook.

Context: The subject is a 20-year-old Freshman screenwriting major at USC who was born in South Korea, and currently resides in Los Angeles, California. They are a close friend of mine, and we are currently quarantined on opposite coasts of the country. They are in LA, and I am in Charleston, South Carolina. I called them up one afternoon and asked if they had any folklore they would willing to share with me, and this is what they told me.

Interpretation: This folk belief sounded pretty personal to the subject and their family. There are apparently 18 layers of Hell according to Buddhist beliefs. They all seem quite torturous and uncomfortable. I found it interesting that everyone must go through these layers of Hell once they die. As the subject mentioned, there is a sort of comfort to that, and it does take some of the fear away to know that it is a collective experience. One of the major beliefs of Buddhism is that suffering is caused by greed, so it makes sense that it would be encouraged not waste any food, or get more food than is absolutely needed.

Derogatory Joke About Romani People

Main Piece:

Subject: This is more of just like a classic- I think- Old man folklore. My Grandfather was basically like, “Yeah you know, you can’t trust gypsies.” He’s from Alabama. But he said, “You can’t trust gypsies. One time when I was little, we had a gypsy neighbor go around and ask for sugar and what not. So every time he came to my house my mom would give him some sugar. And what he would do is he would take the cup of sugar, he would walk out to the yard and stick his thumb in it so there would be a dent in it. Then he would come back to the house and say, ‘Oh you didn’t fill it all the way.’” And he was like, “Yeah that’s what gypsies will do, you know. They’ll put their thumb in the sugar and take twice.” And I was like, “Huh?”

Interviewer: Huh. Um… Where do you think he picked that up from?

Subject: It was like a joke basically. Definitely from his family members. Like just whatever they talk about or whatever.

Interviewer: Okay and like… How does that.. How does hearing this make you feel? How do you react to hearing this?

Subject: I mean… I took this one time and… actually the original twenty pages of my Senior Thesis that I wrote was a short story about this, that I didn’t end up leaving in the thesis. But that story influenced what I wrote and like… and it was like… as a character…

Interviewer: So you used it in a short story?

Subject: Like this folklore was kind of incorporated into it. I took the story and gave it to another character. So I guess you could say it was intriguing. I obviously understood the implications but I was like, “Okay… Who comes up with this? Why do you tell this?” It’s a joke I get it but… I don’t know. Clever I suppose but I don’t know.

Context: The subject is a 20-year-old African American male in his sophomore year at Columbia University studying creative writing. The subject and I were best friends in high school, and we are both currently quarantined in our homes in Charleston. I asked the subject if he would like to meet up for a six feet apart walk one evening, and asked him if he had heard any folklore he could share with me, and he told me this offensive joke his grandfather used to say.

Interpretation: I am pretty familiar with the use of the derogatory term of “gypsy” against Romani people, as well as the stereotype that they are thieves and swindlers. It was not long ago that I learned the origin of that the expression of getting “gypped”, meaning getting cheated or swindled, is derived from the word gypsy. I was actually hesitant about treating this derogatory joke as folklore, but I think it is significant to acknowledge these stereotypes are still around and still being passed down and taught to younger generations. I think of how antiziganism (Romani discrimination) compares to how antisemitism is viewed. For one, both people groups suffered devastating population death percentages during the Holocaust. But antizagnism is far more widely accepted in society. Just in 2017, a TV show called “Gypsy” was released by Netflix about a white woman’s path of becoming a cheater, manipulator, seductress, etc. She took on all of the horrid stereotypes and assumptions of the word. The term gypsy has only just started to be challenged as a derogatory slur. I think the prejudice, oppression, and discrimination against Romani people has generally been pushed to the side in American public education. People still dress up as “gypsies” for Halloween, the term “gypped” is still extremely common. There does not seem to be much reckoning with the discrimination against this particular group.

Furthermore, I found it interesting how detached the subject seemed to be from his grandfather’s telling of the joke. The way he imitated him was a sort of rambling that pretty clearly revealed his personal attitude towards the joke, this being that he was not a fan. He seemed generally both accustomed and fed up by this rhetoric from his grandfather.

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Coronavirus Pandemic – North Korean Biowarfare Conspiracy

Main Piece:

Subject: Okay… so basically how the Coronavirus started was this- and this is how it was told to me. Basically, if you look on the news, “Why are there no cases in North Korea? Kim Jong Un closed that off, he’s cutting that thing down to zero.” To which I replied, “Well no one can really go to North Korea but… okay.” But he said, “No. North Korea had a relationship with China. It started in China right? What happened was, the North Korean prisoners were let free into China. And you know how when you leave the army or prison you get a vaccine, you get shots, you don’t really question it. Come on if someone said I’ll give you this shot for freedom, or else you’re gonna stay here, then you’re gonna take the shot! You don’t care, you want freedom. So… those North Koreans took the shot or whatever thinking it was a vaccine. Then they went to China. What if that…. was the Coronavirus and they started giving it to people in China…”

Interviewer: Oh… So like biowarfare?

Subject: Exactly! “So China knows what the cure is because they’re friends with North Korea. So some of these Chinese people have the vaccine already… but it’s just spreading to everyone else.”

Interviewer: Wow… Wait who did you hear this from?

Subject: *laughter* My grandfather. But he was telling me, “Here’s another reason why it could be. What do you think about that? What do you think about that?” And I was like, “I don’t know about that.” He was like, “You think it’s possible?” I was like, “No.”

Interviewer: Hmm… Um… Okay. So… how’s that currently affecting your mental state? *laughter*

Subject: Um. When my mom was here- because it’s not just that story specifically. It’s “the 5G towers.” It’s “to protect yourself, breathe in steam.” It’s “get some ginger on your boiling pot and put your face over it…” It’s all these videos that are popping up, and all these whatsapp messages everywhere that are like these nurses who are like, “I worked at a radiation lab and they locked us out of our work places.” Basically like these CSI, Men-In-Black type things. It’s just annoying… the amount of bullshit conspiracy theories that are coming out.

Interviewer: The rare times I go on Facebook, that is all I see. It’s disturbing.

Subject: It’s so annoying. My mom keeps showing me them like not endorsing it but just showing me it. And it’s literally like… other medical people. Apparently. In their PPE. It’s like cat-fishing but with using their authority. It’s such a mistrust it’s annoying. Like I could care less if it was harmless… but the idea that 5G or random other stuff is happening is so annoying. And dangerous.

Context: The subject is a 20-year-old African American male in his sophomore year at Columbia University studying creative writing. The subject and I were best friends in high school, and we are both currently quarantined in our homes in Charleston. I asked the subject if he would like to meet up for a six-feet-apart walk one evening, and asked him if he had heard any folklore regarding the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Interpretation: I have heard many variations of this conspiracy theory regarding the Coronavirus outbreak. Like the subject, I am quite disturbed by the amount of misinformation, conspiracy, and racism that has spread along with the virus. I think times of such uncertainty and fear invite conspiracies. I found it interesting how the theory came from the subject’s grandfather, because while these types of theory are often tied more to the older generation, I have also seen so much of it coming from young people. I have seen so much misinformation and lies coming from people in the twenty to forty age-range, that the hysteria seems widespread across all demographics. Particularly, the racism thrown at China over the Pandemic has been abysmal. The biowarfare accusations have been pretty prominent on the Internet. I think people are just desperate to find a scapegoat when they lose control over a situation.