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Inspired by Tradition

Author writing a book

February 24, 2020

About 25 years ago, a friend and I had the opportunity to talk with filmmaker Charles Burnett.  His film, Killer of Sheep, had been selected by the Library of Congress in 1990 to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry because it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” That same year, Burnett came out with To Sleep with Anger, which was added to the Registry in 2017. But that morning, Burnett was telling my friend and me about how African American oral tradition, specifically folktales, influenced his art. 

Make no mistake; folktales are much more than stories told to children. They are essential, complex cultural expressions that are communicated in various, dynamic ways—in film, by word-of-mouth, and in writing. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Maria Tatar quoted Zora Neale Hurston as saying in The Annotated African American Folktales, “Folklore is the boiled-down juice of human living.” 

You’ll find Gates’ and Tatar's collection of nearly 150 African American stories in The Story Center Collection, the special collection that supports The Story Center's mission to help people create stories, share those stories, and connect with the stories of others. You’ll also find other collections of tales, including African American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World and Affrilachian Tales: Folktales from the African-American Appalachian Tradition. 

Zora Neale Hurston's collection of short stories, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, which was published posthumously last month, again spotlights her talents as a fiction writer. Her famous novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is included on Time Magazine's list of the “100 Best Novels.” The book draws on Hurston's experiences as a folklorist and anthropologist who researched and documented African American folklore. You'll also find her nonfiction collections, Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-Tales from the Gulf States and Mules and Men, in The Story Center Collection

Perhaps the stories that Charles Burnett and Zora Neale Hurston created in film and on the page, and the stories from African American oral tradition that inspired these two acclaimed artists, will inspire you too. 

Mark L.
The Story Center

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