Walking With Anansi

Anansi the Spider is definitely a trickster. Sometimes he is a spider. Sometimes he is a man. Sometimes he is a spider man!

Tricksters have a simple job. They are meant to show us at our absolute worst and best. At their most funny, they are extreme examples of the things that are most likely to get us in trouble.

At their most wise, the stories show us how you can overcome anyone with your brainpower.

Anansi is lazy, greedy, selfish, thoughtless, and self-centered. Lending him anything is not a good idea if you want it back. You partner with him at your own peril.

He is not above the occasional act of casual violence, and he will lie to you as easily as water running down hill. He wants what you have, and has no desire to share. He steals when it suits him, and, of course, his modus operandi is to trick you to get what he wants.

He is quick thinking, and tries to turn every situation to his favor.

Sometimes, Anansi’s tricks blow up in his face. Sometimes, they blow up in yours.

Almost every trickster is the same. They are sometimes treated as fools and sometimes treated as keepers of wisdom.

There is a story about how Anansi gained all of the stories in the world. There is another one about how he lost common sense. Looking at those two tales, it is obvious they started out as the same story and went their separate ways!

Anansi is a powerful trickster, and he shows up in places you might not recognize him, like the super hero at the top of this post!

He jumped all over Africa, morphing into all sorts of characters. There are tales about

guinea fowl, dik-dik, rabbit or many others that are clearly transplanted Anansi tales.

 

 

When the West Africans were taken out of Africa, one of the first places they were taken was to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations. The people weren’t allowed to speak their own languages, worship as their ancestors had, or tell their own stories, but they were determined to keep Anansi.

He became Aunt Nancy or Sis ‘Nancy. You can still find Anansi tales all over the Caribbean.

Stopping that spider isn’t possible.

Here in North America, Anansi’s tales merged with the other tales that were part of the oral tradition from African lands, and they morphed into the tales of Brer Rabbit, or Bruh Rabbit.mr-fox-and-mr-rabbit2.gif

Bruh Rabbit is a unique trickster. He is the only trickster who can never be completely caught in his own tricks. He must always get away because he is the spirit of the African American people.

All of Bruh Rabbit’s stories are about the same thing. No matter what anybody does to your body, you always have your mind. Think your way out of trouble don’t try to fight your way out. If you try to fight, your trouble will get bigger. When you stop thinking, you are really headed for trouble.

Brer Rabbit jumped around this whole country getting mixed up with the Native American Grandmother Spider and Coyote, the tricksters who came in from Europe and Asia, and somewhere in the ‘40’s they all got turned into the Bugs Bunny characters.

The next time you see Bugs, you are seeing a little piece of Africa.

Anansi still shows up in our literature. His stories end up as parts of movies or shows without anybody the wiser. His stories are all around us.

Anansi lives because what he represents is irrepressible.

He is the spirit of laughter that exists in all of us. We marvel at his cleverness, slap our foreheads at his foolishness, and grin at how he uses his wits to outsmart those around him even as he occasionally outsmarts himself.

Anansi is still here. It is our job as storytellers to show him to people. To let them see how he is still shaping the way we look at ourselves.

 

On November 6-10, 2019, NABS will be holding its 37th annual Storytelling Conference and Festival in Montgomery, Alabama. Come out and share some tales, enjoy some history!

Happy Telling!

Donna Washington – 

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The Importance of African Folktales

I grew up with Aesop, not realizing he was black, or that I was hearing African fables.

I grew up with Bruh Rabbit, not understanding I was listening to stories that had deep roots in Africa.

I grew up with the Boo Hag courtesy of my grandmother, not knowing that she comes out of the Gullah people.

I grew up with Wiley, not knowing he was an African American boy.

There were stories by, about, and because of African Americans all around me as a kid and I didn’t know.

I had no idea African Americans had contributed to my literary understanding of the world.

I didn’t know, because nobody pointed it out to me.

The majority culture in which I was raised didn’t point out that I had a place in it, so I didn’t know I had roots going through everything.
We need to tell African Folklore. We need to share it, because the wisdom, wit, and community that they build touches everybody. Building community around the stories of Africa in the 21st century helps everyone understand that our ancestors are not invisible.

One summer, I was traveling around Virginia performing at libraries. This was pre GPS! After I saw the library sign, I’d start trying to locate the building. My mother was traveling with me for some of this trip. At one point she looked at me and said:

Mom: You said you just saw a library sign.

Me: I did.

Mom: Where? I didn’t see a library sign.

Me: Right there?

Mom: Where?

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My mother was amazed.

Mom: I’ve never seen that sign before!

Me: Sure you have. There is one near your house.

My mother swore there wasn’t, because surely she would have seen it. I left the area about a week later. She called me from home and told me that since finding out what it was, she’d seen that sign everywhere. She was so pleased.

Now, of course, the answer to this isn’t that the city ran out and put up library signs near my mother’s home. She wasn’t registering the signs because she didn’t know they were there.

When I tell African stories in schools, I am always amused by the number of children and adults who have either heard versions of the stories, seen books, or watched references in some television show .

They are always amazed that the stories came from Africa. They are also proud to have made the discovery.

Telling the tales that come out of Africa creates signposts.

The stories of our ancestors are still around us. They peek out of the heroes, tricksters, language, music, art, dance, and literature all over America. Whether anyone acknowledges it or not, they are woven into the very fabric of this country.

Sharing African folktales is our way of pointing out the signposts.

Like this blog? Donna Washington, who so generously contributed this and several other blogs for NABS Talking will be one of the featured tellers at the 36th annual Storytelling Conference and Festival in Cary, NC. October 31 – November 4 2018,   It’s time to get your registration in, to come out and share some tales!

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Happy Telling!

Donna Washington