African- American folklore is arguably the basis for most African- American literature. In a country where as late as the 1860's there were laws prohibiting the teaching of slaves, it was necessary for the oral tradition to carry the values the group considered significant. Transition by the word of mouth took the place of pamphlets, poems, and novels. Themes such as the quest for freedom, the nature of evil, and the powerful verses the powerless became the themes of African- American literature. In a book called Fiction and Folklore: the novels of Toni Morrision author Trudier Harris explains that "Early folk beliefs were so powerful a force in the lives of slaves that their masters sought to co-opt that power. Slave masters used such beliefs in an attempt to control the behavior of their slaves"(Harris 2). Masters would place little black coffins outside the cabins of the slaves in a effort to restrain their movements at night; they perpetuated ghost lore and created tales of horrible supernatural animals wondering the outsides of the plantation in order to frighten slaves from escape or trans-plantation visits. Tales of slaves running to the north became legendary. Oral tales of escapes and long journeys north through dangerous terrain were very common among every slave on every plantation. Many of these tales seem to be similar to the universal tales and myths like The Odyssey or Gilgemish. Slaves on every plantation were telling tales that would later be the groundwork for African-American literature.African- American folklore has since been taken to new levels and forms. Writers have adopted these themes and have fit them into contemporary times. Most recently author Toni Morrison has taken the African- American folklore themes and adapted them to fictional literature in her novels. Morrison comments on her use of the African-American oral tradition in an interview with Jane Bakerman. "The ability to be both print and oral literature; to combine those aspects so that the stories can be read in silence, of course, but one should be able to hear them as well. To make a story appear oral, meandering, effortless, spoken. To have the reader work with the authorin construction of the book- is what's important"(Bakerman 122).In all of Morrison's novels it is easy to see her use of African- American folklore along with traditional fiction. In the novels The Bluest Eye and Sula, Morrison creates settings and characters that produce an aura of unreality, that which is directly borrowed from African- American folklore. With the aura of unreality in Morrison's characters and settings, her plots scream with real life themes such as murder, war, poverty, sexual abuse, and racism. In The Bluest Eye and Sula, Morrison combines fiction and folklore to create two chilling stories about black communities struggling to define themselves.The Bluest Eye is not just a story about young impressionable black girls in the Midwest; it is also the story of African- American folk culture in process. The character Claudia MacTeer is the narrator for this folk tale. Claudia gives a voice to Pecola Breedlove's story and to the community. The story is shaped from the beginning with the expectation of reader involvement and with the presumption of an audience. The brief preface that begins "Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941", serves to establish Claudia as the communal rehearser of tragedy. Her first person narration establishes a close relationship between herself and the reader. Like many of Morrison's novels, The Bluest Eye shows the heroic and failed efforts of a struggling black community. With the use of a first person narrator, Morrison is able to make the story seem oral and it also requires the reader to participate with her in the making of the story. Morrison has commented "My writing expects, demands participatory reading, and that I think is what literature is supposed to do. It's not just...
Cited: PageCentury, Douglas. Toni Morrison: Author New York: Chelsea Publishing, 1994
Childress, Alice. "Conversations with Toni Morrison" "Conversation with Alice Childress and Toni Morrison" Black Creation Annual. New York: Library of Congress, 1994. Pages 3-9
Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison Knoxville: The university of Tennessee press, 1991
Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Plume, 1973
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Plume, 1970
Stepto, Robert. "Conversations with Toni Morrison" Intimate Things in Place: A conversation with Toni Morrison. Massachusetts Review. New York: Library of Congress, 1991. Pages 10- 29.
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