Voice of Houstons Past

For most of American history, African-Americans have been considered and
treated as inferiors. Their folksongs and tales have been benignly looked
upon as harmless, meaningless expressions of a dull-witted race whose only
contribution to American life was a strong back and a weak mind. Even
after the Civil War, the ingrown prejudices continued to relegate the
freedmen to the bottom rung of a strict caste ladder. Their folklore was
repeatedly ignored or belittled. Only since the coming of black awareness,
pioneered by men like W. Dubois and Frederick Douglas, has the African
American community realized that their culture is uniquely American and
singularly important to the understanding and establishment of the
American cultural and artistic scene. It is one of the few elements of
their heritage that they can look back on and recognize as valuable in
America's development. This is the essence of the black folksongs,
stories, and art; they fill a void and force recognition of the African
American contribution. These superstitions and folklore from the past
demonstrate the influences wielded upon African Americans of today, as
well as pave the way for a new form of folklore, which is told through

In order to effectively illustrate the progression and correlation of
early African American folklore and the emergence of a new breed of
artist, a specific group of artist all utilizing the same type of art form
will be discussed. Therefore, the focus of this paper will be on recent
African American artist in Houston, Texas; all of whom utilize
place-specific art to convey their images and messages. Before discussing
the current art movement, it is vital to understand the history of the
superstitions and folklore which are the inspiration for Houston's
place-specific art.

A Brief History of African American Superstition and Folklore Since their
arrival on American soil, African Americans have contributed to our
collective culture. Their songs, poems, stories, spirituals, and proverbs,
while at times reinforcing the white theory of supremacy, gave them a
foundation of identity that was passed from generation to generation. The
ghost stories and superstitions are probably the best known examples of
early black culture. This is because white men used them as a means to
prove the black's innate inferiority to whites. They ignored the obvious
fact; all cultures posses similar superstitions, even their own.

The problem in collecting and evaluating black folklore is the
misinterpretation and lack of understanding of early black dialects. "We
must read the transcriptions with some care and occasionally wonder what
the white man did when they were confronted by sounds strange to their
ears; some tried to transcribe the actual sound, but others, assuming
mispronunciation made editorial corrections...and some expecting alien
sounds misinterpreted and misheard."1 The innate prejudices of many
recorders helped to distort the materials. Still the black dialect
presented a road block to communication between the races. The notion of a
nation within a nation arose from this language barrier. The dialect that
evolved within the segregated nation was a combination of West African
languages and English, and became known as the plantation dialect.2 It was
with this misunderstood dialect that African Americans passed on their

Black superstition encompassed many themes. It covered procedures to
insure good luck, healthy children, harmony, good crops, and a myriad of
other situations. The theme of luck was the most prevalent superstition,
namely the attainment of good fortune and the avoidance of bad luck. For
example, a pepper bush in the yard brings good luck3; it is good luck for
a buzzard to light on your house on a Monday4; and, if you are deeply
depressed in spirits, it is a sure sign that you will hear good news.5
Additionally, the avoidance of bad luck was a mainstay of their beliefs.
They held to an inordinate number of rules that were intended to prevent
misfortune. Everything from fishing rods, old gloves, spiders, nose
bleeds, and the familiar black cat were all precursors of an ill-fate.
Perhaps the preponderance of luck-omens and slogans familiar today grew
out of early black superstitions. Their existence was difficult enough
without added misfortune. Any means they could utilize to ward off bad
luck was not to be ignored.

Another aspect of their superstition concerned agriculture. Naturally, the
bulk of blacks only knew the routine associated with their rural
surroundings. Their primary job was to work the land. So it follows that
they would form superstitions concerning nature. Weather was an indicator
of the future, as were seeds and farm animals. When shelling butterbeans
for planting, throw the hulls in the road. If they are burned, your crop
will be poor; if fed to the cows, the stock will