African Oral Tradition Analysis

African Oral Tradition Analysis



Herbert Martin’s speech “The African American Oral Tradition” is about how African American writers imply oral forms in their literary works.  African American literature uses several different types of genres to form its basis about slavery.  Genres such as spiritual, folk songs and gospels are all intertwined together to form each individual work.


Martin begins by explaining the language of African Americans.  The law forbade anyone to teach the slaves standard English; therefore, they learned solely by ear.  When they transferred the language that they heard to paper, a new style of language was formed which was referred to as a dialect.  Dialect was not Standard English because it was what the African Americans perceived they had heard or how they thought the word was spelled since they were forbidden to learn Standard English.  Dunbar is celebrated as the first African American writer.  His literacy is still alive, however with a stigma attached.  Dunbar was introduced to the public, who despised dialect, but celebrated Dunbar who used dialect.


Because of the bad stigma attached to dialect, African Americans did not like to be associated with this style of language.  They wanted to learn proper English.  Wheatley, Dulaney, along with Walker were among the first to use formal verses in their writings.


Folk poems are known as the lesser child to formal verses.  Catches are a type of folk poem that is often used as sales and pitch songs.  A catch was sung by Martin that went like this; “Strawberries…Come and feel my sweet strawberries!”  These songs are used to let people know what they have in their cart that they are selling.


Martin speaks of the two elements that are essential to African American Literature, the spiritual and the sermon.  Spirituals talk about salvation and freedom in the afterlife. Baldwin, a preacher is an example of a spiritual writer.  A sermon, on the other hand, is more humorous was to use dialect.  Dunbar wrote an antebellum sermon that talks about freedom, but at the same time he tries to cover up his illegal freedom talk with the use of the bible.


A work song is another type of genre used to talk about freedom and usually deceptively talks about fugitive escapes.  These songs are often used to pass news; this shows the duality in African American oral tradition.  These songs are poetic with the accompaniment of rhythmic sounds to add to the meaning.  An example is a use of hammering in the background of a song.


The blues is a genre to express the loss of a lover.  A man/woman has come to the person’s crib and taken something that does not belong to them.  People who sang the blues were often referred to as “lady” or “duke.”  They were called the “Blues Queens.”  This was a way of forcing the public to respect them.


From blues came rhythmic blues, a genre that showed how well African Americans could adapt.  Anderson is a prime example of a woman who was created by the African American culture then came to the Metropolitan Opera later in her life a sang phenomenally in Four Season.  Jazz took over for the blues to form a million-dollar industry.  Singers such as Elvis Presley siphoned songs from blacks such as “Sittin on the Dock of the Bay.”


Gospel, another genre used, is like the spiritual except in a gospel the author is known and it tends to be more upbeat.  Spirituals are said to belong to the collective community because of the various different forms of each one.


African American literature was formed through the use of all these various genres.  African Americans learned a language in a unique way because they learned under distress that no other language has been learned.  This has given their work a sort of bilingual style.  The audience is, therefore, able to get a real sense of reality, place, time and tone from each piece of literature.  Altogether, this is what formed the African American oral tradition according to Herbert Martin.


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