Genesis – The First Black Horror Writers/Storytellers
by Linda Addison
Horror —n: an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear.
Who were the first Black horror writers in a country that made enslaved Africans’ everyday life horrific? How did stories develop and what were their themes?
I wanted to write this because of my own curiosity. I didn’t know where this was going to lead me but the more I dug the more I found. The yellow brick road of discovery took me away from the land of published authors to places unexpected.
Known for my horror poetry collections, I can find horror in unlikely Black publications that publish. My horror poetry isn’t typically blood and guts, but more around the subject of loss, abuse, possession/demons, revenge, etc.
Poetry and fiction written outside the realm of horror publications by Blacks often represent the fears that we live as a minority in America, marginalized and fighting for the acceptance that our lives matter as humans, regardless of our skin color. I’m not surprised to find reflections of fear and shock in our non-genre work.
Certainly there is a solid list of Black writers that do write straight up horror (see lists compiled by Sumiko Saulson, Invisible Universe and others).
My earliest memory of horror came from watching ‘scary’ movies with my family. The first Black horror writer that I met at a World Horror Convention (WHC) was Tananarive Due, who was on the final ballot for a HWA Bram Stoker in 1996. I grew up reading science-fiction and fantasy so I knew some Black authors from that arena. I read speculative Black writers before that like Walter Mosley, Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, but still I wondered who wrote the first scary stories in America. My curiosity pushed me beyond searching for ’Black Horror Writers’.
I looked up Negro folklore, African-American folk tales, voodoo tales, etc. and reached as far back as I could to find myself looking for stories by enslaved Africans in America.
Storytelling is the corner stone in many cultures. For African and African-American communities it’s a way of communicating history, passing on lessons and entertaining. Most of this storytelling was done in oral folktales by those surviving the nightmare of slave ships and a ‘New World’ that forbid their traditional practice.
The folk tales from Africa were modified to be acceptable in a country where anything that sounded aggressive or like strength from slaves could result in torture or death. The first recorded Black folktales I found were from the late nineteenth century. There’s a number of stories with animals where one plays the part of the trickster, but I was looking for monsters, demons, etc.
“Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States”, Black folklore collected by Zora Neale Hurston in the late 1920s documented almost 500 folktales from 122 Black workers, farmers, and artisans by traveling to places like Alabama, Florida and New Orleans. Besides themes of religion, family and other social concepts I also found two sections named: “Devil Tales” and “Witch and Hant Tales” (Hant means “haunt” or “ghost”).
The tales and storytellers from the two sections (some stories didn’t have titles so I listed a few words from the beginning of the story between single quotes):
Devil Tales section of “Every Tongue Got to Confess”:
“The’ passed the communion cup to a woman…” by Jerry Bennett
The Woman and the Devil by Geneva Woods
‘Once I wuz travelin’ uh job tuh work,…’ by Julius Henry
Woman Smarter than Devil by M. C. Ford
‘Once there was a man going with the devil’s daughter…’ by Arther Hopkins
‘These people was vast rich…’ by L. O. Taylor
‘A Negro and de devil had a bet…’ by Jonathan Hines
‘You know de devil don’t do everything they say…’ by W. M. Richardson
Why We Say “Unh Hunh” by Mack C. Ford
Witch and Hant* Tales section; (Hant means “haunt” or “ghost”) of “Every Tongue Got to Confess”:
Five tales by A. D. Frazier:
De Witch Woman
The Four Story Lost Lot
‘The old fortune-teller woman…’
‘A man sold hisself to de high chief devil…’
High Walker and Bloody Bones
One tale by Hattie Reeves, born on Island of Grand Command
The Orphan Boy and Girl and the Witches
These stories were transcribed in the dialects of the storytellers which presented a challenge for Hurston getting the work published. She fought to maintain the original language and made the smallest corrections possible.
I bought the book for my kindle (and a paper version is coming in the mail in the week—how could I not have this in my bookcase!). In reading the stories the sense of oral literature is strong. The beginning of “De Witch Woman” by A. D. Frazier:
‘There was a witch woman wid a saddle-cat who could git out her skin and go ride people she didn’t like. She had a great big looking-glass. When she git ready to go out she’d git befo dat glass naked.’
As a poet I easily released my inner editor and simply let the words flow, but I can imagine the difficulty of convincing Hurston’s white supporters to publish a book without ‘correct’ english, but now reading the stories as they were told is perfect.
One of the storytellers, A. D. Frazier, had almost all of the tales in Hurston’s ‘Devil Tales’ section. Further searching led to a site with content and analysis of “Mules and Men” by Zora Neale Hurston: a collection of American folk-takes and Hoodoo material from New Orleans published in 1935 with tales from Frazier [http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma01/grand-jean/hurston/chapters/Chapter10.html]
Reading this book there is the strong sense that telling a story was just something Black folks did, not as a vocation but to entertain, to make a point. In Chapter 10, Hurston and others were at a community center and held a lying contest.
It seems that A.D. Frazier was known for telling scary tales/lies. The following is after Frazier had just finished telling one tale:
“What make you love tuh tell dem skeery lies, A.D.?” Clarence Beale asked.
… “Youse jus’ all right, A.D. If you know another one skeerier than dat one, Ah’ll give yuh five dollars tuh tell it …”
So A.D. told another one which began:
This wuz uh man. His name was High Walker. He walked into a boneyard with skull-heads and other bones. So he would call them, “Rise up bloody bones and shake Yo’self.” And de bones would rise up and come together, and shake theirselves and part and lay back down. Then he would say to hisself, “High Walker,” and de bones would say “Be walkin’.”
I found the concept of lying as a description of telling tales. There was two meaning to telling stories in my house. One meant actually not telling the truth when you were supposed to and the other was the honorable idea of telling a tale.
For my mother, telling a tale, was an easy way to entertain children in a house often without a television or books. I remember my mother saying to someone when asked about my being published in “Dark Matter II”: ‘That girl’s been making up stories her whole life’ and she laughed. I laughed with her because that was a huge recognition from someone I considered a master storyteller even though my mother never had anything in print. I do have one original story that she wrote for my sister’s daughter, but unfortunately the stories she told us at night with us as characters are gone to the dusty corners of my childhood.
I wished I had talked to my mother, grandmother and older relatives about telling stories before they passed. Who told them stories? What were those stories?
Like my mother, the early Black storytellers of scary stories are not going to be found in books they published but in the few dictated folk tales. They didn’t dream of being published in a book, telling stories was something they did after work (the day job that many of us proclaimed writers have to do now) to entertain family and friends. Stories that invoked an emotion, scary stories were valued.
I should have called this “Genesis: The First Black Horror Storytellers”. There is so much to find in this literary dig I began. This is a subject that I feel I’ve barely scratched the top layer. I have another document full of information, more bread crumbs that lead on a widening Yellow Brick Road. I’ve included a few references below.
References and Further Reading
African American Folklore
African-American Folktales and their Use in an Integrated Curriculum by Joyce Patton; Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute
A History of Blackness in Speculative Fiction, A Documentary by M. Asli Dukan, independent filmmaker
“Mules and Men” by Zora Neale Hurston: a collection of American folk-takes and Hoodoo material from New Orleans published in 1935. This site has analysis and content from the book
The Oral Literature of African American Slavery as a Source of History: The Tar Baby Tale
Wiki page: African-American and African-Canadian science fiction, fantasy, and horror
Zora Neale Hurston about her findings on zombies in an interview on the Mary Margaret McBride Show, January 25, 1943
Linda D. Addison is the award-winning author of four collections including How To Recognize A Demon Has Become Your Friend. She is the first African-American recipient of the HWA Bram Stoker Award® and has published over 300 poems, stories and articles. Linda is part of 7 Magpies, a film project involving 7 black female horror authors & filmmakers based on the old nursery rhyme. Catch her latest work in the upcoming anthology Scary Out There (Simon Schuster). Her site: www.lindaaddisonpoet.com
Photo credit: Stu Jenks