African American Traditions:
Cameroonian and African-American Folktales

DIRECTIONS: Read the overview below, then click on a link to go to a folktale tale. The introduction includes suggested activities.

The Owl Never Sleeps At Night
Why the Lizard Often Nods
Tappin, the Land Turtle
The Invisible Tortoise
Final Project
Myths, legends, and folktales are all literary forms that reveal the "soul" of any society; they express its wishes, desires, hopes, and beliefs about the world. In any country these forms of literature show what the society thinks is important about life. These literature forms are often ancient and come directly from the groups that now make up modern society.

Folktales differ from myths and legends because they do not always have a religious aspect and do not always find a basis in historical truth. Folktales, which are literally "stories of the people," involve fictitious characters and situations. Most were oral traditions before they were written down.

In the African-American tradition, we find that all Africans brought a rich and diverse folklore tradition with them when they came during the long period of slavery. Their folktales reflect not only the huge number of different backgrounds they came from but also the new and various relationships they formed in the United States. It is this tradition combined with that of the American Indians that make the folklore of the United States one of the richest in the world. In many ways the diversity of our folklore helps us understand the complex idea of America's "melting pot" and shows us what it means to be American.

One type of folktale explains why animals look or behave the way they do. These kinds of tales are popular in every culture and often give amusing or outrageous reasons to explain common animal behaviors human beings cannot understand. The Owl Never Sleeps At Night and Why the Lizard Often Nods are two examples of such folktales which also happen to contain some lessons about good behavior for both animals and humans.

Another type of folktale is called a "how-and-why" story. These stories have hidden messages, or morals, throughout. In Tappin, the Land Turtle we will see references to the brutality of slavery and how humor and hope can make the situation more bearable. In The Invisible Tortoise we will learn a lesson about honesty through the personification of a society of animals.

All folktales are meant to be read aloud so that the storyteller can highlight the lesson through vocal expression.

Reading the Folktales

Following each of the tales I am including the basic comprehension and interpretation questions I use. The purpose of reading these selections, however, is not to recall exactly what happened but to understand the essential parts of a folktale.

Depending on the time allowed, I suggest a jigsaw activity where each small group is assigned only one story. First each student should read the tale silently. Next the group should read the tale out loud with one narrator or round robin--whatever works in that group. Then groups should prepare a written summary of the tale along with the answers to the provided questions. Finally, groups present their work to the whole class so that everyone is exposed to all four tales.

As closure to this activity, brainstorm with the class what parts of the stories show what it means to be American. There are no wrong answers here.

Sample responses include: Owls and turtles are animals all Americans recognize. Honesty is an admirable trait. It is easy to resent those who have more or do the right thing.

Then point out that all these tales originated in Africa so we can't be all that much different deep down. (The point is powerful enough and doesn't need to be drawn out much. Students will usually begin to think about its implications on their own.)