A few weeks ago, I re-read Black Folktales by Julius Lester, and posted a short review of it on goodreads.com. This morning I opened up yesterday’s New York Times and learned that Julius Lester died last Thursday, January 18, 2018. I’m rather dismayed. Here, I post my [goodreads] review with images.
I just re-read Julius Lester’s Black Folktales – 12 re-tellings of African and Afro-American folktales – for nostalgia’s sake. This book first came to my attention as a child in the 1970s. I read the old edition with it’s beautiful illustrations by the late Tom Feelings. Storyteller/author Julius Lester (b.1939) was a folk singer during the Civil Rights Movement and went on to write books for children, as well as adolescents and adults, eventually authoring more than 44 books, becoming a college professor, and converting to Judaism.
With this book, Lester re-wrote the folktales for children of the late 1960s, so if you weren’t around then you might not understand some of the vernacular Lester employs that was common in a lot of black communities during that time, i.e. saying “split” for leave, and referencing the Black Power movement, etc.
My favorites are “How God Made Butterflies,” “Why Apes Look Like People,” and “Stagolee.” Lester’s 1969 Stagolee is a baad mutha……who ain’t afraid of white folks, who is so invincible, so strong, so fearless – that he even manages to stay alive 30 years longer than he’s supposed to! – attracting the attention of Heaven. I won’t give away what it takes to finally get him dead and buried, but I will share this excerpt of what happened after he rose up out of his grave and found St. Peter:
““You ain’t getting in here!” St. Peter yelled.
“Don’t want to, either. Hey man. Where all the colored folks at?”
“We had to send ‘em all to Hell. We use to have quite a few, but they got to rocking the church service, you know. Just couldn’t even sing a hymn without it coming out and sounding like the blues. So we had to get rid of ‘em. We got a few nice colored folks left. And they nice, respectable people.”
Stagolee laughed. “Hey man. You messed up.”
“Yeah, man. This ain’t Heaven. This is Hell. Bye.”
And Staglolee took off straight for Hell.”
(Every time I read this section I bust out laughing!)
I must mention here that I feel a great appreciation and gratitude for Julius Lester for being the author of children’s books – nearly 50 years ago when it was even less common – that allowed black children like myself to see our culture celebrated and know that storytelling was a part of our history and heritage. He dedicated Black Folktales: “In memory of Zora Neale Hurston, who made me glad I am me, and to H. Rap Brown.” Some of the tales Lester re-tells in this book were from Hurston’s Mules and Men, but in 1969 Mules and Men was out of print, and Alice Walker had yet to renew interest and educate a new generation about Hurston’s work.
The artist Tom Feelings (1933-2003) created wondrous illustrations for this book and many others, including The Middle Passage: White Ships Black Cargo, Lester’s To Be a Slave, and Maya Angelou’s Now Sheba Sings the Song. Both of these black men were Newberry Award and Coretta Scott King Award winners.
Rest in power and folkloric peace, Julius Lester.
traditional customs, tales, sayings, dances, or art forms preserved among a people
a song originating among the people of a country or area, passed by oral tradition from one singer or generation to the next, often existing in several versions, and marked generally by simple, modal melody and narrative verse
a tale or legend originating and traditional among a people or folk, especially one forming part of the oral tradition of the common people
Julius Lester’s Black Folktales was featured in “Leslie’s Black History Month Homage to Retro “YA” Titles,” a photo story of works I read in the 1970s that featured young black characters. You can check it out by clicking here.