"He is the Story that All Weak People Create to Compensate for their Weakness": African American Women Writing Folklore in the Federal Writers' Project


  • Kathi King


The 1930s, shaped by the hardships brought on by the Great Depression, were also a time when folklore collecting was institutionalized. Anthropologists and ethnographers, who had developed new tools and perspectives to document culture and history in the 1920s, slipped into positions the New Deal had opened for officials and directors in the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), which was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Their aim was to re-write American history to give new self-respect and -understanding to a nation struggling with the effects of dramatic economic changes. They collected narratives of “ordinary people,” wanting to do justice to the diversity of American society. Oral and cultural history methods were at the center of their practice. The FWP also funded local and regional projects devoted to the documentation of Black culture and history, often carried out by units of Black writers, and interviewed about 2,300 ex-slaves. African American writers belonged to the group hit hardest by the economic collapse. Among them were three women writers: Margaret Walker, Dorothy West, and Zora Neale Hurston. These women conducted interviews, collected folklore, wrote and edited manuscripts, and used both their time in and material from the FWP for their own fiction. In this way, narratives of Black female subjectivity made it into literature and history, with women writing Black female voices and heroines into the historical narrative of the United States by revising, transforming, and subverting traditional codes and genres. Margaret Walker’s folk ballad “Yalluh Hammuh” can be seen as such a venture. It also exemplifies the interplay of personal memory, folklore, and poetry. An examination of the use of oral history and folklore in the New Deal era, with a focus on the voices and roles of African American women, can help us better understand the nexus of “race,”1 class, and gender within literature, poetry, and historiography.