Maria Tatar and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Maria Tatar (left) and Henry Louis Gates Jr., co-editors of "The Annotated African American Folktales" (Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer)

Black History Month comes with enlightenment about who we are and the global contributions of Black people. This is what readers receive in a new collection of tales, some that have made us laugh for generations.

“The Annotated African American Folktales” takes us to the beginnings of our storytelling that for a long time our culture tried to deny. Co-edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar, this newly organized collection of nearly 150 African-American tales and poems contains familiar classics such as the “Brer Rabbit” stories and the “Signifying Monkey.”

There are many collections of African-American, Black or Negro folktales, but the back stories for these tales are what makes this volume of treasures different. In January, the book won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in the fiction category.

In researching “The Annotated African American Folktales,” Gates found debates from the 1890s on whether it was a good idea for the “New Negro” to tell their stories about animals, signifying, lying and Africans flying back to Africa. That was just a small part of the “politics” of Negro folklore.

According to Gates, the question among Black folks at the time was, “Is this how the soon-to-be ‘New Negro’ is going to position him or herself vis a vis White racism that was part and parcel of the institution of Jim Crow?”

Another concern associated with suppressing our stories was telling the stories in dialect, considered to be the language of slavery. Acceptance meant moving away from speaking in dialect. Gates saw the attitude about dialect for the “New Negro” not only affected how folktales were told, but also carried over to music of the culture. It was important that Negroes showed they could interpret Western music. Singing spirituals was discouraged.

“The Annotated African American Folktales” is a journey from Africa that delivers in-depth meaning for how Black storytelling evolved. Each section of stories and poems begins with a history lesson on the origin of that group of tales. This book is a mashup of wonderful tales with textbook sensibilities. Get ready to go back to school and graduate with newfound respect for how our stories came to be.

Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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