The oral tradition is an important part of many cultures. Spoken word poetry and storytelling were and still are a vital record of many cultures. In honor of Black History Month, we will be exploring the African American oral tradition. Stay tuned, because we will feature black history all month long at the blog and our social media channels.


Of course, there is no single monolithic “African American oral tradition.” African American culture is a mixture of many elements including hundreds of indigenous cultures. On the slave ships heading to the United States, slavers would separate members of the same community. This was one of the first attempts to restrict oral communication. Similarly, slavers suppressed indigenous languages due to its importance in transmitting culture and tradition. But in doing so, hybrid forms of communication and storytelling combined. Various African cultures created hybrid forms from may regions.
Many African religious traditions prized the power of the spoken word. The act of naming an object or person was even meant to mystically imbue it. In other words,  simply speaking imparted a magical quality. The concept of Nommo is of “word” being a generative force that represents and projects life itself according to Dr. Janice D. Hamlet. The Dogon and Bantu tribes were one of many that embraced Nommo’s importance.
The African American oral tradition traveled to the New World on slave ships. Laws prevented teaching reading and writing to slaves. This necessitated the oral tradition. Culture from various roots in Africa carried on from here. Afterwards,this tradition would meld and evolve in America.
Many of the slave songs were incoherent to everyone else. However, they possessed an inner order and logic that required an understanding from the inside. Slave owners thought that the songs held codes or secret plans that the slaves would use to escape, but there is no direct proof of this. In some cases, though, like in the song “Follow The Drinking Gourd” the lyrics relate. The song’s coded message was to head north by following the Big Dipper. Polaris or the North Star could lead the runaways to freedom.
Evidence of the Nommo’s role in ever-evolving oral traditions of African Americans includes the use of “word.” (Word, word up, word to your mother are examples). Another example is terms like trash talkin’ and testifyin’ filtering into mainstream culture.


Music and preaching were always an important part of the oral tradition for African Americans. The call-and-response interaction between orator and listener was a centerpiece to the African American experience. Oratory style of African American churches became a trademark of MLK’s speaking patterns.
The call-and-response resonated from the pulpit. Black churches also imprinted the African American oral tradition by inspiring spirituals. Many of these spirituals drew allusions between the slavery and oppression of Hebrews in the Old Testament and their own. As was stated, the Call and Response style was even inherent in some spirituals and field hollers.
African American preachers and spirituals are an indelible part of the African American oral tradition. The call and response appears in many political speeches. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream,” Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a woman” or Booker T. Washington’s “Cast down your buckets” are a few examples.

 The Many Forms Of The African-American Oral Tradition

Oral histories and interviews emerge from varying traditions and represent multifaceted experiences. They make up a great deal of the early recorded oral tradition.
In the liner notes to “Every Tone a Testimony,” professor and music writer Robert Cataliotti notes centrality of these pieces of history. They have provided “a way of remembering, a way of enduring, a way of mourning, a way of celebrating, a way of protesting and subverting, and, ultimately, a way of triumphing.” Moreover, they benefit from “the musical potency of speech” which adds a layer to the experience.
Some of the first examples of recorded oral tradition in African American culture would be folk tales, folk songs, and narratives recorded by former slaves. In the 1930s with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), sent out of work literary scholars to the South. There they recorded stories from former slaves. Norman Yetman’s 1970 book Voices from Slavery featured some of these narratives.
There have been obstacles on the way, of course. Even Zora Neale Hurston was met with bemusement and ridicule when she attempted to collect folk-tales from the Black community in Florida during the Depression Era. The oral tradition managed to live on, thrive even. Ernest Gaines’ 1971 novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was an excellent example. Though a faux memoir, it takes inspiration from the oral tradition and actual events.

The Oral Tradition Births Insult Comedy And Rap Battles

Jazz and funk music became a part of the poetry/spoken word world long before hip hop. Rock and Roll music even owes a great deal to African American  slang. Rock and jazz brought new slang. The term “rock and roll” itself is a euphemism for sex, for instance. Much of that slang would be adopted by the wider culture.
Even the tradition of insult comedy owes
greatly to a very dark chapter in history. Today’s “yo mama” jokes originated from an insult contest known as “the dozens.” involving making fun of the opponent’s family, specifically the mother. But the name of the contest has its origins in a deplorable past. It refers to the sale lots of deformed or disabled slaves. Some hobbled after an attempt at running away, were sold in lots of twelve. Children’s folklore and jump rope rhymes were another important part of African American culture. This helped contribute to verbal dueling traditions that impacted poetry slams and rap battles alike.
Incidentally, even contemporary hip hop owes more than a bit to the tradition of field hollers and the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance also opened the floodgates for the Beatnik revolution that has inspired decades of spoken word poetry since. 

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