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African American Oral Tradition Essay

Modern African American Literature was formed under a stressful time for Africans, slavery. The only way the stories of the indigenous people of Africa were passed down was through oral recollections, or stories of the events. In America this was especially difficult for the slaves because of laws preventing them from learning English. By not being allowed to learn English, the slaves had to learn English solely on auditory purposes. This essentially made the slaves illiterate.

When the slaves transferred the language that they heard to paper, a new style of language was formed which was referred to as dialect. Dialect is what the slaves thought they heard and the correct spelling of those words, not standard English. Dunbar, who wrote fluently in both standard English and dialect was praised by white critics only for his dialect poems, and not praised for his poems in standard English. His literacy works are still alive today, however the dialect works were attached with a stigma. Usually whites despised the African’s dialect.

Therefore, the slaves would not try to publish any type of work with dialect because the slaves did not want to be associated with the stigma. In all, by creating a unique dialect gave the slaves a bilingual type of style. By not being able to write, slaves also made Genres such as, spiritual, folk songs and gospels. Songs such as these were ways of passing down stories to the next generation. These songs also contained secret messages. These messages may have contained information about escape routes or even the underground- railroad.

However most of the songs were spiritual in nature. The songs also progressed through the years. The originals slave folk songs, spirituals, and gospels are now prevalent in modern day jazz and the blues. Martin even gives the example of Hayden, who mixes his song ideas with the ideas of Bessie Smith. Even though African are allowed to read and write, this is a form how their culture is still expressed today. Martin made the emphasis that the oral tradition is part of the African Americans distinct culture.

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