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African-American folktales are the storytelling and oral history of enslaved African Americans during the 1700s-1900s. Prevalent themes in African-American folktales include tricksters, life lessons, heartwarming tales, and slavery. African Americans created folktales that spoke about the hardships of slavery and told stories of folk spirits that could outwit their slaveholders and defeat their enemies. These folk stories gave hope to enslaved people that folk spirits would liberate them from slavery. One of these heroes that they looked up to was the charming High John the Conqueror, who was a cunning trickster against his slave masters. He often empowered newly freed slaves, saying that if they needed him, his spirit would be in a local root. Other common figures in African-American folktales include Anansi, Brer Rabbit, and Uncle Monday. Many folktales are unique to African-American culture, while others are influenced by African, European, and Native American tales.
African-American folktales are a storytelling tradition based in Africa containing a rich oral tradition that expanded as Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves. In general, most African-American Folktales fall into one of eight categories: tales of origin, tales of trickery and trouble, tales of triumph over natural or supernatural evils, comic heartwarming tales, tales of God and the devil, tales teaching life lessons, tales of ghosts and spirits, and tales of slaves and their slave-owners. Many revolve around anthropomorphic animals with the same morals and shortcomings as humans do, which makes the stories relatable. New tales tell of the African experience in the Americas, however, many tales still maintain the traditional style and tell of their African roots. Although many of the original stories evolved since Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves, their meaning and life lessons have remained the same.
African-American tales center around beginnings and transformations whether focused on a character, event, or creation of the world. Some examples of origin stories include "How Jackal Became an Outcast" and "Terrapin's Magic Dipper and Whip", which respectively explain the solitary nature of jackals and why turtles have shells.
Tricksters in folk stories are commonly amoral characters, both human and non-human animals, who 'succeed' based on deception and taking advantage of other's weaknesses. They tend to use their wits to resolve conflict and/or achieve their goals. Two examples of African-American tricksters are Brer Rabbit and Anansi.
Tricksters in African-American folktales take a comedic approach and contain an underlying theme of inequality, compared to other folktales that label their tricksters as menaces. The National Humanities Center notes that trickster stories "contain serious commentary on the inequities of existence in a country where the promises of democracy were denied to a large portion of the citizenry, a pattern that becomes even clearer in the literary adaptations of trickster figures".
African-American folktales don't always contain an actual 'trickster' but a theme of trickery tactics. For example, Charles Chesnutt collected a series of stories and created The Conjure Woman (1899). One of the trickster's tactics in the story is "how an enslaved man is spared being sent from one plantation to another by having his wife, who is a conjure woman, turn him into a tree...the trickery works until a local sawmill selects that particular tree to cut". In other tales the personified animals try to imitate the trickster, however, it backfires on them. An example of this is in Crawling Into the Elephant's Belly, in which Yawarri, an anteater, follows Anansi, the trickster, and blackmails him to be brought to the king's elephants. Yawarri's family is starving, and he is upset at Anansi because of all the elephant meat Anansi is eating that is the property of the king. After jumping the wall Anansi instructs Yawarri on how to get inside the elephant, telling him only to take a small piece of meat from the elephant so the king will not notice. However, since Yawarri is starving, he eats at the inside of the elephant until it is dead, and as the sun rises the king finds him in the belly of the beast and kills him.This shows how an ordinary citizen can get wrapped up in the scheme of a trickster. Other tales that display this theme are "Why They Name the Stories for Anansi" and "A License to Steal", although there are many more.
Comic and heartwarming African-American folktales “stimulate the imagination with wonders, and are told to remind us of the perils and the possibilities”. The stories are about heroes, heroines, villains, and fools. One story, The Red Feather, is a response to the intertwining of cultures, ending with heroes bringing forth gifts. Rabbit Rides Wolf is a story that represents the amalgamation of African and Creek descent where a hero emerges during a time of conflict.
African folklore is a means to hand down traditions and duties through generations. Stories are often passed down orally at gatherings by groups of children and elders. This type of gathering was known as Tales by Midnight and contained cultural lessons that prepared children for their future. These anthropomorphic animals made the stories compelling to the young children and included singing and dancing or themes such as greediness, honesty, and loyalty.
One example used by generations for African children is the Tale of The Midnight Goat Thief which originated in Zimbabwe. The Midnight Goat Thief is a tale of misplaced trust. A hare betrays the trust of a loyal baboon, framing him for the death of a goat. After Baboon's friend Jackal hears about what happened to him, he tries to replicate what Hare did to Baboon to get revenge. However, hare outwits Jackal and figures out a way to counter his actions. Then as the sun rises Jackal is caught red-handed with the blood he was trying to frame Hare with! The moral of the story is to be loyal and honest, and not copy the ways of the cunning, as they may outwit you. 
African-American tales of ghosts and spirits were commonly told of a spook or “haint”  or “haunt,” referring to repeated visits by ghosts or spirits that keep one awake at night. The story Possessed of Two Spirits is a personal experience in conjuring magic powers in both the living and the spiritual world common in African-American folklore. The story Married to a Boar Hog emerged during the American Revolution against the British. The story is of a young woman who marries a supernatural entity, such as a boar, and is saved from her disease, such as leprosy, club foot, or yaws. Married to a Boar Hog is passed down from British Caribbean slaves in reference to their African Origin and the hardships they endured.
Although many slaves during this time could not read or write they could recite folktales as a way to communicate information with each other. Giving each other vital information that would help them survive. In African-American tales, slavery often uses rhetoric that can seem uncommon to the modern era as the language passed down through generations deviates from the standard for racial narrative. When having to face the reality of slavery, African-American folktales became a means to cope with the reality of the situation, and ultimately record their history of slavery in America. An example of a work that conveys the African-American slave experience in America is The Conjure Woman. This book of tales deals with racial identity and was written by the African-American author, Charles W. Chesnutt, from the perspective of a freed slave.
Chesnutt's tales represent the struggles freed slaves faced during the post-war era in the South. The author's tales provide a pensive perspective on the challenges of being left behind.
Chesnutt's language surrounding African-American folklore derived from the standards of the racial narrative of his era. By using vernacular language, Chesnutt was able to deviate from the racial norms and formulate a new, more valorized message of folk heroes. Chesnutt writes "on the other side" of standard racial narratives, effectively refuting them by evoking a different kind of "racial project" in his fictional work.”
African-American folktales show how the world was formed and the foundations of morality. Supernatural conflicts between God and the Devil are often the main focus of these tales, however, man versus man, and slave versus master are also popular disputes. There is typically a "negotiator" in these tales who is actively trying to persuade "the judge" to side with their position. However, if the judge, or God, does not like the outcome of the situation they will often invoke a countermeasure to bring order to the situation. In these tales, the God, or gods, are inherently good and do not invoke wrath upon the people, even if the subject veers off the path of righteousness. Additionally, there is often a transaction between God and man in these tales, one in which God is willing to help man, but only if the man is "offering sacrifices and performing rites and ceremonies in a manner acceptable to the god".
An example of one of these tales is Never Seen His Equal. The initial dialogue of this tale discusses how only man has seen his equal, but God has not. It then goes on to describe how the devil is in opposition to God and, in Genesis, manifests himself in the form of a serpent to trick Adam and Eve in the Garden. This tells the story of the fall of man through Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit when tempted by the serpent, and how women now have to have pain in childbirth and men have to work for survival.
The book, Mojo Workin: The Old African American Hoodoo System, discusses the folk spirit High John the Conqueror whose spirit resides in the "High John the Conqueror root" in the Hoodoo tradition. In African-American folk stories, High John the Conqueror was an African prince who was kidnapped from Africa and enslaved in the United States. He was a trickster, and used his charm to deceive and outsmart his slaveholders. After the American Civil War, before High John the Conqueror returned to Africa, he told the newly freed slaves that if they ever needed his spirit for freedom his spirit would reside in a root they could use. According to some scholars, the origin of High John the Conqueror may have originated from African male deities such as Elegua who is a trickster spirit in West Africa. Zora Neal Hurston documented some history about High John the Conqueror from her discussions with African Americans in the South in her book, The Sanctified Church. Some African Americans believed High John the Conqueror freed the slaves, and that President Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War did not bring freedom for Black people. According to one woman, Aunt Shady Anne Sutton interviewed by Hurston, she said: "These young Negroes reads they books and talk about the war freeing the Negroes, by Aye Lord! A heap sees, but a few knows. 'Course, the war was a lot of help, but how come the war took place? They think they knows, but they don't. John de Conqueror had done put it into the white folks to give us our freedom." Anne Sutton said the spirit of High John de Conqueror taught Black people about freedom and to prepare for their freedom in an upcoming war. The High John the Conqueror root used by African Americans prevented whippings from slaveholders and provided freedom from chattel slavery. The root given to Frederick Douglass was a High John root that prevented Douglass from being whipped and beaten by a slave-breaker. Former slave Henry Bibb used the High John root to protect himself by chewing and spitting the root towards his enslaver.
Flying Africans of legend escaped enslavement by a magical flight over the ocean back to Africa. Novelist Toni Morrison makes references to African American spirituality in her literature, and in her 1977 novel Song of Solomon published in 1977, tells the story of the character Milkman an African American in search of his African ancestors. Milkman lived in the North but returned to the South in search of his ancestry. By the end of the book Milkman learns he comes from a family of African medicine people and gained his ancestral powers and his soul flew back to Africa after he died. The legend may have been inspired by a historical event in Georgia. In 1803, a slave ship landed on the coast of Georgia in St. Simons Island with captive Africans from Nigeria with a cargo of Igbo people. The Igbo people chose suicide than a life time of slavery by walking into the swamp and drowning. The most common saying from slaves being, "I would rather live on my feet than die on my knees".This location became known as Igbo landing in Georgia. According to African American folklore, the souls of the Igbos that committed suicide flew back to Africa.
In African-American folklore, there is a story about a girl named Sukey meeting a mermaid named Mama Jo. Mama Jo in the story helps and protects Sukey and financially supports her by giving her gold coins. This story comes from the belief in Simbi spirits in West-Central Africa that came to the United States during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In Africa, Simbi nature spirits protect and provide riches to their followers. In West-Central Africa, there are folk stories of people meeting mermaids. Among the Gullah Geechee people in the Carolina Lowcountry and Sea Islands, there is a children's story called Sukey and the Mermaid written by Robert D. San Souci. In the African Diaspora, there are Afro-American folk stories of a little girl meeting a mermaid. During the era of slavery, Simbi folk stories in enslaved black communities provided hope from enslavement. It was believed that Simbi spirits help guide freedom seekers (runaway slaves) to freedom or to maroon communities during their escape from slavery on the Underground Railroad, because Simbi spirits reside in nature.
In African-American folklore Uncle Monday was a conjurer, medicine man, and shapeshifter from Africa enslaved in the Southern United States. Uncle Monday escaped from slavery on the Underground Railroad and traveled through South Carolina and Georgia and made his final stop in Florida living amongst the Seminole people and Black Seminoles. He led a resistance movement against enslavement using his conjure powers. In the folktale, Seminole people and Black Seminoles beat their drums and Uncle Monday danced to the rhythms of Seminole and African music and turned into an alligator. After turning into an alligator, Uncle Monday went to the swamp waters and the other alligators followed him. In his alligator form, he and the others defeated the slaveholders. This folktale added historical accounts of the alliance between the Seminole people and Black Seminoles and their resistance movement against enslavement, and fictional stories about magic and shapeshifting.