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Levi Jordan

I heard it through the Grapevine: Oral Tradition in a Rural African American Community in Brazoria, Texas

by Cheryl Wright


 "Lift every voice and sing,
Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty--"

from "Lift Every Voice and Sing", by J.W. Johnson

Alex Haley once stated that "history has been written and stored predominantly by the winners" (Haley, 1981:158). The journey through pages of historical information come from the dominant culture’s perspective. In the past, written historical documents primarily reflected the accomplishments of the elite colonizers. This usually referred to the white, upper class, male population. Women, the working class, ethnic and racial minorities, and people in nonliterate societies were rarely represented in these written accounts. "The meager documentary evidence about them is usually biased against them . . . They have largely been ignored by historians who view history in terms of ‘big men’ and ‘important’ events" (Okihiro 1984:195).

Most of the documents that have been written about African Americans focus on extraordinary circumstances such as slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. Any reference to African Americans during slavery or Reconstruction is either in relation to the function they served in creating the white’s aristocratic paradise, or derogatory statements referring to the perceived inadequacies of the freed blacks after Emancipation. These accounts have customarily been written to describe the "Afro-American experience from the outside in rather than from the inside out" (Uya 1981:21).

Because traditional history has been written by and about the colonizers, the African Americans’ perception of history has rarely been voiced (Okihiro 1984). If this is the case, then how can we gather more insightful historical information about the African American culture?

"The manner of preservation of historical facts is a function of the cultural orientation of the people. Afro-American culture orientation is more oral than written" (Uya 1981:24). Therefore, if there is going to be true cultural understanding, it must begin with this knowledge of how information is stored and transmitted in the African American community.

One of the most important tools of transmission is oral tradition. Oral tradition differs from personal experience in that the described events occurred in previous generations. These stories are told by the parent or grandparent to the informant (Lummis 1988).

The practice of oral tradition in the African American culture has deep historical roots in Africa. "Oral traditions have been the main method of teaching the history of many African peoples, and it is by studying them that the Africans’ view of themselves and their relations with their neighbors may be understood and appreciated" (Daaku 1973:43). There are many types of storytellers. One of the most important storytellers is the historian, known as the griot.

"The griot is that revered individual in the society who is entrusted with the exact cultural history" (Goss and Barnes 1989:12). When Alex Haley traced his own familial heritage, he was made aware of the enormous importance placed on the Africa griot to pass on the cultural and genealogical information to future generations. The incumbent griot was in his late sixties or early seventies. He had other men, separated by decade intervals, that were in their fifties, forties, thirties, twenties, and teenage boys. By the time the teenage boy would be ready to become the incumbent griot, he would have been exposed to the same stories for forty or fifty years (Haley 1984).

D’Jimo Kouyate is a griot from Senegal, Africa. He feels that it is the "responsibility of this griot to make sure that the people receive all the information about their ancestors --- what the father, the grandparents, and their lineages had done and how they had done it" (Kouyate 1989:179).

This African oral tradition grew and flourished in the Southern United States in the African American slave communities. When the African slaves were brought to the United States, it was forbidden by law to teach them how to read or write (Genovese 1976). This was an attempt on their owners’ part to keep them subservient through lack of education. What the owners did not realize, is that the slaves had their own means of education that went back numerous generations --- that of oral tradition.

The slaves were from different regions in African, with the majority coming from West Africa. The strongest common bond they shared with their fellow countrymen, was the importance placed on the spoken word. Even when writing was available to the slave, it was perhaps safer to store and transmit knowledge in an oral form. If found, written documentation could possibly be used against the individual for adverse purposes by his/her master.

The "African-Americans nurtured a private but collective oral culture, one they could not ‘write down,’ but one they created, crafted, shared with each other and preserved for subsequent generations out loud, but outside the hearing of the white people who enslaved them. It was in this isolated and protected black cultural space that African-American vernacular culture was born and thrived." (Gates 1989:17).


It is not known whether African Americans retained oral tradition because of a cultural legacy, or out of necessity of survival in a foreign land, or possibly a combination of both. This traditional oral art form remained dormant among the descendants of the original African captives except in family and church meetings (Goss and Barnes 1989). By tapping the resources of oral tradition, scholars have recently come to appreciate the vast wealth of available knowledge regarding the African American culture.

The purpose of this study is two-fold. First, the goal is to use oral tradition to reconstruct the past life ways of a rural, black community in Brazoria, Texas during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The information will be compiled under two main categories. The first category is listed as social and consists of questions pertaining to birth practices, kinship, medicine, folktales, church life and education, racial issues, and burial practices. The second category addresses economic issues such as land acquisition and agriculture, and reciprocity in the community.

The area studied lies west of the San Bernard River between FM 521 and FM 2611 (see Appendix A[ not included in this web site. See maps for a map of the area]). This geographic location holds considerable historical significance, because of the large numbers of plantations that once existed there. Vast libraries have been filled with the knowledge of how the planter aristocracy lived. What is noticeably absent is the information of how the other half lived --- the African American population.

Through ethnographic interviews with direct descendants from the plantations and long-time residents of that area, I hope to reconstruct everyday life in this rural, black community following freedom at the turn of the century. In keeping with the deeply rooted African oral tradition, I plan to speak to the elders of this community who have been entrusted with their ancestors’ cultural heritage --- the present day "griots." By doing so, these accounts will be a " . . . means of enfranchising and empowering people whose lives have previously been shaped by ‘colonized history’" (Okihiro 1984:195). In voicing the past, I hope to provide insight into the survival of a community under extremely adverse conditions.

The second goal of this study is to analyze the utility of oral tradition itself. I want to determine the usefulness that oral tradition has in the community being studied – to critically examine problems and benefits that result when a population relies almost solely on oral information. At no time will oral records be compared with written records to validate either source. The written documentation provided in this first chapter serves merely as an historical background for the remainder of the study.

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