“I was the child who listened closely to grown-up women talking. To this day, I remember how my grandmother, my aunts and great-aunts and elder cousins looked when they talked. I’ve never forgotten how they move their hands and gestured with their arms. The sounds of their voices and much of what they said stays with me. When I was a child, I heard stories told by women…”
These are the words of the renowned storyteller/folklorist and children’s author, Virginia Hamilton, at the close of her book. I want to incorporate Hamilton’s text into my anti-princess campaign for young black women and girls, not just for the stories themselves, but because of Hamilton’s prominence in this literary world and for Hamilton’s description of her original desire to do this kind of storytelling archive to connect/hear the women in her family. So today I revisited Virginia Hamilton’s Her Stories. The two stories most relevant to my “campaign” here are “Malindy and Little Devil” and “Woman and Man Started Even.”
Both stories have black women tricking the devil. The first story (from Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia) is about a little girl and revises the story of Faustus, the magician who sold his soul to the devil; the second story (from Tennessee) makes women the fallen angels but revises women’s usual partaking of the fallen apple. I point back to my last post about Dr. Facile in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog in comparison to these actual folkways in which spirits, magic, and demons would have circulated in black communities’ orature. Both tales are quite funny and offer completely different kinds of black female heroines. I’m not one to turn my back on a good story with some magic and I have always loved a good story about, what my family calls, haints. Every princess fairy tale has spirits and witchcraft, which are also always already cultural forms and stories too. Since black orature might be the only space where black people are not THE DEMONS or DEVIL itself in such tales, seeing where black women figure in this tradition is important.
Malindy is a little girl who loves to sing and dance: “everywhere she went, she sang about it… and she would sway this way and that, to and fro.” The way the story is set up already makes me laugh—it just sounds like a description I have heard and a little girl who I might have met. Well, apparently, Malindy would sway “to and fro” just a little too much and so one day she dropped her pail of milk on the ground and all over herself. Crying and too scared to go home with no milk and a ruined dress, she sits on the fence and cries until the devil comes along, a wee little furry thing with a long tail, “no bigger than a minute.” The devil is “just starting out with his devilment” and it’s his first case with a child so he makes a pact with Malindy: he will receive her soul when she turns 29; she will, in return, get a new pail of milk and a clean dress. The devil gives her until she is 29 years old to live and returns to collect her SOUL. When he knocks on her door asking for her SOUL, Malindy takes off her shoe, tears off one SOLE, and gives it to him and him, not knowing any better, thinks he has the real thing. Sometimes, to win in the end, you just need clever word-play!
“Malindy and Little Devil” dates back to the 1890s and highlights the kind of humor and love of language play that shapes how I understand African American rhetoric, language, and literacy. I like this fusion of pleasure and politics. There is a kind of joy in telling and hearing these stories, much like what Hamilton describes when she talks about her memories of women’s stories, both in how they sounded from women’s mouths and in the gestures that corresponded. Joy and ongoing participation obviously do not come here from the paraphernalia/brand that you buy. The point of such language play, however, is not merely to just be clever. I can point to numerous examples of creative wordplay in black language, like Lil Wayne’s lyrics for instance. Clever lyrical displays, however, without meaningful content/message mean nothing. It’s the content of the wordplay and what you make it do that matter. Even the meanest and evilest of things, in this case the devil, can be reduced to being “no bigger than minute,” which made me laugh when I first heard it. Telling this kind of story that reduces even the devil to smallness is a rhetorical imagination that seems HUGE to me in the context of Post-Reconstruction, the time frame connected to this story. And even though Malindy did a foolish thing that endangered herself, her life is not over. She can always go back in her head, remember what happened in the past, and then re-cast that history for the present and future, even when the devil comes back.
In “Woman and Man Started Even,” we learn two things about these two characters: “she couldn’t win over him, and he couldn’t beat her. That was the way it was. Just level.” Well, Man just couldn’t stand this. He couldn’t stand the idea of a woman being around that he couldn’t “whip.” Yes, that is exactly what the story says, now if that’s not signifying on men, then I just don’t know what is! So Man went up to God and asked for more strength so he could be better than Woman and was granted his wish. Woman asked God to reverse this but was denied so she got highly upset. In her rage against God, she opened herself up to the devil’s presence who she told her woes to. The devil encouraged Woman to go back to God and ask for the “keys hanging by the left pearly gate.” When she got the keys, she commenced to locking up all of man’s stuff and every place he liked, like the kitchen and bedroom. Even though he was so much stronger now, he couldn’t unlock anything Woman didn’t want him to. And because Woman refused to trade in or share her keys for some of Man’s strength, she’s the one who has the inside knowledge of everything and the real power.
Now if I can get my students to put aside their dutiful, Christian abhorrence of a story that includes the presence of the devil, then they might enjoy “Woman and Man Started Even.” This second story still nests women with the devil and there are obviously all kinds of (subtle?) expectations about women’s chastity and virginity here (i.e., keeping everything locked up). So the story doesn’t overturn men’s dominance but Woman here KNOWS that! She does not believe in, value, or respect Man’s power over her and she will use them locks in every way she can. Power is named and called out, even if it cannot be fully dismantled. She is no victim or passive participant in an unchanging script. There’s no reason why fairy tales and folktales can’t frame such a critical understanding of our social order, especially if black women are going to the main characters. I find both pleasure and political power in knowing that African American folktales for children have offered such examples.