African American Folktales

Stories from Black Traditions in the New World

Full of life, wisdom, and humor, these tales range from the earthy comedy of tricksters to accounts of how the world was created and got to be the way it is to moral fables that tell of encounters between masters and slaves. They include stories set down in nineteenth-century travelers' reports and plantation journals, tales gathered by collectors such as Joel Chandler Harris and Zora Neale Hurston, and narratives tape-recorded by Roger Abrahams himself during extensive expeditions throughout the American South and the Caribbean.

With black-and-white illustrations throughout
Part of the Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folkore Library
ROGER D. ABRAHAMS (1933-2017) was the Hum Rosen Professor of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania, president of the American Folklore Society, and the author of many books, monographs, and articles on African American, Creole, Caribbean, and American culture. View titles by Roger Abrahams
PREFACE • xv
INTRODUCTION • 3
 
PART I. Getting Things Started: How the World Got Put Together That Way • 37
1. Never Seen His Equal • 41
2. The Man Makes and the Woman Takes • 42
3. Bringing Men and Women Together • 45
4. The Fight Over Life • 46
5. The Wind and the Water Fighting • 47
6. The Word the Devil Made up • 48
7. The Knee-High Man Tries to Get Sizable • 49
8. Pig’s Long Nose and Greedy Mouth • 50
9. Getting Common Sense • 52
10. Hankering for a Long Tail • 53
11. The Devil’s Doing • 62
12. The John Crows Lost Their Hair • 63
13. Tadpole Loses His Tail • 65
14. The Owl Never Sleeps at Night • 66
15. Why Hens are Afraid of Owls • 68
16. The Gifts of Dipper and Cowhide • 69
17. Buh Nansi Scares Buh Lion • 72
18. Testing the Good Lord • 74
19. Mr. Possum Loves Peace • 75
20. Get Back, Get Back • 77
21. No Justice on Earth • 78
 
PART II. Minding Somebody Else’s Business and Sometimes Making It Your Own • 81
22. Meeting the King of the World • 85
23. Mr. Bamancoo Gets Dropped • 87
24. The Tug-of-War between Elephant and Whale • 89
25. Tiger Becomes a Riding Horse • 91
26. The Telltale Pepper Bush • 94
27. Making the Stone Smoke • 97
28. The Latest Song • 99
29. The Signifying Monkey • 101
30. The Singing Bones • 105
31. A Boarhog for a Husband • 108
32. The Woman Who Was a Bird • 111
33. My Mother Killed Me, My Father Ate Me • 113
 
PART III. Getting a Comeuppance: How (and How Not) to Act Stories • 115
34. What Makes Brer Wasp Have a Short Patience • 119
35. Between the Fiddler and the Dancer • 121
36. Being Greedy Chokes Anansi • 122
37. The Doings and Undoings of the Dogoshes • 123
38. Spreading Fingers for Friendship • 124
39. Don’t Shoot Me, Dyer, Don’t Shoot Me • 125
40. Little Eight John • 128
41. The Poor Man and the Snake • 130
42. The Little Bird Grows • 132
43. Tricking All the Kings • 136
44. The Feast on the Mountain and the Feast Under the Water • 140
45. Hide Anger Until Tomorrow • 141
46. Buying Two Empty Hands • 142
47. Cutta Cord-La • 144
48. Brer Bear’s Grapevine • 147
49. A Foolish Mother • 149
50. Old Granny Grinny Granny • 151
51. You Never Know What Trouble Is Until It Finds You • 153
52. He Pays for the Provisions • 159
53. The Cunning Cockroach • 163
54. Little Boy-Bear Nurses the Alligator Children • 164
55. The Girl Made of Butter • 167
56. Poppa Stole the Deacon’s Bull • 169
57. The Trouble with Helping Out • 173
58. The Rooster Goes Away in a Huff • 175
 
PART IV. How Clever Can You Get? Tales of Trickery and Its Consequences • 177
59. Why They Name the Stories for Anansi • 182
60. Brother Rabbit Takes a Walk • 183
61. The Lion in the Well • 185
62. A License to Steal • 192
63. The Race between Toad and Donkey • 194
64. Crawling into the Elephant’s Belly • 197
65. A Strange Way to Sleep • 199
66. Goobers Gone, Rabbit Gone • 200
67. Assaulting All the Senses • 202
68. Brer Rabbit’s Riddle • 203
69. The Horned Animals’ Party • 206
70. Anansi Plays Dead • 207
71. Anansi Climbs the Wall • 210
72. Dancing to the River • 211
73. “Trouble” Coming Down the Road • 214
74. No Chicken Tonight • 216
 
PART V. The Strong Ones and the Clever: Contests and Confrontations • 219
75. Golden Breasts, Diamond Navel, Chain of Gold • 223
76. The Flying Contest • 230
77. Loggerhead • 232
78. Trying to Get the Goldstone • 234
79. Stackolee • 238
80. Escaping, Slowly • 240
81. Turning into Nóuna—Nothing • 241
82. The Old Bull and the Young One • 244
83. Fasting for the Hand of the Queen’s Daughter • 251
84. Weak in the Day and Strong at Night • 253
85. Jack Beats the Devil • 255
86. Three Killed Florrie, Florrie Killed Ten
 
PART VI. Getting Around Old Master (Most of the Time) • 263
87. They Both Had Dead Horses • 270
88. You Talk Too Much, Anyhow • 274
89. Making the Eyes Run • 275
90. Making a Wagon from a Wheelbarrow • 276
91. The One-Legged Turkey • 277
92. John Outruns the Lord • 278
93. A Flying Fook • 280
94. Horses Stay Outside • 281
95. The Sinking of the Titanic • 282
96. Competition for Laziness • 283
97. John Outwits Mr. Berkeley • 284
98. Black Jack and White Jack • 288
99. Philanewyork • 291
100. The Barn is Burning • 293
 
PART VII. In the End, Nonsense • 297
101. Big-Gut, Big-Head, Stringy-Leg • 300
102. A Chain of Won’ts • 300
103. Animal Talk • 301
104. A Comic Conversation • 302
105. A Smoking Story • 303
106. The Things That Talked • 304
107. Endings • 305
 
APPENDIX: Sources, Annotations, and Index of Tales • 307
BIBLIOGRAPHY • 321
PERMISSIONS ACKNOWLEDGMENTS • 325
1. NEVER SEEN HIS EQUAL
 
“I have seen something that God has never seen. What is it?”
 
“Now that could never be, for God has seen everything. He made the world and everything that’s in it. Now if you call yourself smart, tell me something that God has never seen.”
 
“Well, I have seen my equal, and that’s something God has never seen!”
 
“You’re right there. There never has been a man who has seen his equal. But there was this one time when the Devil tried to be equal with God, too. The Devil was a chorister, you know, a leader of angels in Heaven, a pretty angel if there ever was one, and God when he created man made the Devil into his Overlord. But Lucifer tried to give the orders himself and had eaten of the Tree of Knowledge. Then Adam and Ever were so ashamed they were named that they went and pinned fig leaves on themselves. The Devil came to them in the form of a serpent and told Eve when she asked, ‘Oh no, you surely won’t die if you eat now. God knows that the day you eat of this you will know good from evil and be his equal in that way.’
 
“So she ate, and God gave her the curse that she should have childbirth and that man would be her boss ever after. And Adam had to eat by the sweat of his brow and till the earth—until he could die and return to the earth.”
 
Michigan
"Roger D. Abrahams is one of the preeminent scholars of African American vernacular culture."
—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

"The text rolls along easily and amusingly. The rales are divided into types—trickster stories, moral example stories, old master stories—so that you can find the right sort of story for your taste or mood. Skipping about, in fact, is the way to enjoy the book and to appreciate the variety of background, tone, and narrative structure that it reveals."
—The Atlantic

"In spite of the scholarly fullness of this book, the earthiness and zestful wit of the tales themselves are uncompromised . . . Abrahams' thesis—that the black storytelling tradition is an incredibly rich and affirmative one—is well served by this extraordinary book, which is likely to become a standard text in the field."
Choice

"Earthy and comedic . . . a rousing good read . . . I suspect Mr. Abraham's book will be read a generation hence."
—The New York Times Book Review

"Another masterful addition and accessible introduction to the captured myths of what the Mede calls 'God's Chiefdom' . . . Sweeping across the continent . . . the juxtaposition of tribes and pacing of story lengths make for lively reading."
—The Washington Post Book World

About

Full of life, wisdom, and humor, these tales range from the earthy comedy of tricksters to accounts of how the world was created and got to be the way it is to moral fables that tell of encounters between masters and slaves. They include stories set down in nineteenth-century travelers' reports and plantation journals, tales gathered by collectors such as Joel Chandler Harris and Zora Neale Hurston, and narratives tape-recorded by Roger Abrahams himself during extensive expeditions throughout the American South and the Caribbean.

With black-and-white illustrations throughout
Part of the Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folkore Library

Author

ROGER D. ABRAHAMS (1933-2017) was the Hum Rosen Professor of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania, president of the American Folklore Society, and the author of many books, monographs, and articles on African American, Creole, Caribbean, and American culture. View titles by Roger Abrahams

Table of Contents

PREFACE • xv
INTRODUCTION • 3
 
PART I. Getting Things Started: How the World Got Put Together That Way • 37
1. Never Seen His Equal • 41
2. The Man Makes and the Woman Takes • 42
3. Bringing Men and Women Together • 45
4. The Fight Over Life • 46
5. The Wind and the Water Fighting • 47
6. The Word the Devil Made up • 48
7. The Knee-High Man Tries to Get Sizable • 49
8. Pig’s Long Nose and Greedy Mouth • 50
9. Getting Common Sense • 52
10. Hankering for a Long Tail • 53
11. The Devil’s Doing • 62
12. The John Crows Lost Their Hair • 63
13. Tadpole Loses His Tail • 65
14. The Owl Never Sleeps at Night • 66
15. Why Hens are Afraid of Owls • 68
16. The Gifts of Dipper and Cowhide • 69
17. Buh Nansi Scares Buh Lion • 72
18. Testing the Good Lord • 74
19. Mr. Possum Loves Peace • 75
20. Get Back, Get Back • 77
21. No Justice on Earth • 78
 
PART II. Minding Somebody Else’s Business and Sometimes Making It Your Own • 81
22. Meeting the King of the World • 85
23. Mr. Bamancoo Gets Dropped • 87
24. The Tug-of-War between Elephant and Whale • 89
25. Tiger Becomes a Riding Horse • 91
26. The Telltale Pepper Bush • 94
27. Making the Stone Smoke • 97
28. The Latest Song • 99
29. The Signifying Monkey • 101
30. The Singing Bones • 105
31. A Boarhog for a Husband • 108
32. The Woman Who Was a Bird • 111
33. My Mother Killed Me, My Father Ate Me • 113
 
PART III. Getting a Comeuppance: How (and How Not) to Act Stories • 115
34. What Makes Brer Wasp Have a Short Patience • 119
35. Between the Fiddler and the Dancer • 121
36. Being Greedy Chokes Anansi • 122
37. The Doings and Undoings of the Dogoshes • 123
38. Spreading Fingers for Friendship • 124
39. Don’t Shoot Me, Dyer, Don’t Shoot Me • 125
40. Little Eight John • 128
41. The Poor Man and the Snake • 130
42. The Little Bird Grows • 132
43. Tricking All the Kings • 136
44. The Feast on the Mountain and the Feast Under the Water • 140
45. Hide Anger Until Tomorrow • 141
46. Buying Two Empty Hands • 142
47. Cutta Cord-La • 144
48. Brer Bear’s Grapevine • 147
49. A Foolish Mother • 149
50. Old Granny Grinny Granny • 151
51. You Never Know What Trouble Is Until It Finds You • 153
52. He Pays for the Provisions • 159
53. The Cunning Cockroach • 163
54. Little Boy-Bear Nurses the Alligator Children • 164
55. The Girl Made of Butter • 167
56. Poppa Stole the Deacon’s Bull • 169
57. The Trouble with Helping Out • 173
58. The Rooster Goes Away in a Huff • 175
 
PART IV. How Clever Can You Get? Tales of Trickery and Its Consequences • 177
59. Why They Name the Stories for Anansi • 182
60. Brother Rabbit Takes a Walk • 183
61. The Lion in the Well • 185
62. A License to Steal • 192
63. The Race between Toad and Donkey • 194
64. Crawling into the Elephant’s Belly • 197
65. A Strange Way to Sleep • 199
66. Goobers Gone, Rabbit Gone • 200
67. Assaulting All the Senses • 202
68. Brer Rabbit’s Riddle • 203
69. The Horned Animals’ Party • 206
70. Anansi Plays Dead • 207
71. Anansi Climbs the Wall • 210
72. Dancing to the River • 211
73. “Trouble” Coming Down the Road • 214
74. No Chicken Tonight • 216
 
PART V. The Strong Ones and the Clever: Contests and Confrontations • 219
75. Golden Breasts, Diamond Navel, Chain of Gold • 223
76. The Flying Contest • 230
77. Loggerhead • 232
78. Trying to Get the Goldstone • 234
79. Stackolee • 238
80. Escaping, Slowly • 240
81. Turning into Nóuna—Nothing • 241
82. The Old Bull and the Young One • 244
83. Fasting for the Hand of the Queen’s Daughter • 251
84. Weak in the Day and Strong at Night • 253
85. Jack Beats the Devil • 255
86. Three Killed Florrie, Florrie Killed Ten
 
PART VI. Getting Around Old Master (Most of the Time) • 263
87. They Both Had Dead Horses • 270
88. You Talk Too Much, Anyhow • 274
89. Making the Eyes Run • 275
90. Making a Wagon from a Wheelbarrow • 276
91. The One-Legged Turkey • 277
92. John Outruns the Lord • 278
93. A Flying Fook • 280
94. Horses Stay Outside • 281
95. The Sinking of the Titanic • 282
96. Competition for Laziness • 283
97. John Outwits Mr. Berkeley • 284
98. Black Jack and White Jack • 288
99. Philanewyork • 291
100. The Barn is Burning • 293
 
PART VII. In the End, Nonsense • 297
101. Big-Gut, Big-Head, Stringy-Leg • 300
102. A Chain of Won’ts • 300
103. Animal Talk • 301
104. A Comic Conversation • 302
105. A Smoking Story • 303
106. The Things That Talked • 304
107. Endings • 305
 
APPENDIX: Sources, Annotations, and Index of Tales • 307
BIBLIOGRAPHY • 321
PERMISSIONS ACKNOWLEDGMENTS • 325

Excerpt

1. NEVER SEEN HIS EQUAL
 
“I have seen something that God has never seen. What is it?”
 
“Now that could never be, for God has seen everything. He made the world and everything that’s in it. Now if you call yourself smart, tell me something that God has never seen.”
 
“Well, I have seen my equal, and that’s something God has never seen!”
 
“You’re right there. There never has been a man who has seen his equal. But there was this one time when the Devil tried to be equal with God, too. The Devil was a chorister, you know, a leader of angels in Heaven, a pretty angel if there ever was one, and God when he created man made the Devil into his Overlord. But Lucifer tried to give the orders himself and had eaten of the Tree of Knowledge. Then Adam and Ever were so ashamed they were named that they went and pinned fig leaves on themselves. The Devil came to them in the form of a serpent and told Eve when she asked, ‘Oh no, you surely won’t die if you eat now. God knows that the day you eat of this you will know good from evil and be his equal in that way.’
 
“So she ate, and God gave her the curse that she should have childbirth and that man would be her boss ever after. And Adam had to eat by the sweat of his brow and till the earth—until he could die and return to the earth.”
 
Michigan

Praise

"Roger D. Abrahams is one of the preeminent scholars of African American vernacular culture."
—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

"The text rolls along easily and amusingly. The rales are divided into types—trickster stories, moral example stories, old master stories—so that you can find the right sort of story for your taste or mood. Skipping about, in fact, is the way to enjoy the book and to appreciate the variety of background, tone, and narrative structure that it reveals."
—The Atlantic

"In spite of the scholarly fullness of this book, the earthiness and zestful wit of the tales themselves are uncompromised . . . Abrahams' thesis—that the black storytelling tradition is an incredibly rich and affirmative one—is well served by this extraordinary book, which is likely to become a standard text in the field."
Choice

"Earthy and comedic . . . a rousing good read . . . I suspect Mr. Abraham's book will be read a generation hence."
—The New York Times Book Review

"Another masterful addition and accessible introduction to the captured myths of what the Mede calls 'God's Chiefdom' . . . Sweeping across the continent . . . the juxtaposition of tribes and pacing of story lengths make for lively reading."
—The Washington Post Book World

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