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  • From Orature to Literature in Jamaican and Trinidadian Children’s Folk Traditions
  • Cynthia James

Cynthia James is a writer and Language Arts professor at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad, where she teaches Children’s Literature in postgraduate and undergraduate programs. She is widely published in the field of Caribbean literary criticism. Dr. James is a graduate of Howard University, Washington, D.C.

Inevitably, where there is an oral tradition alongside a written tradition with literacy the norm, distinctions become blurred and a good deal of cross-fertilization from one tradition to the other occurs.

—Paula Burnett. (Introduction, xxviii)


Folk tradition1 for children in the English-speaking Caribbean is regarded with both sentimentality and ambivalence. On the one hand, many adults give the impression that the folk tradition was central to their childhood, and they consider the children of today deprived of the indigenous moral, cultural, and spiritual values embedded in the stories they were told. On the other hand, even in the old days this treasured folk tradition was a hidden curriculum, saddled with the stigma of inferiority. At some point formal schooling took over, migration to urban centers became the goal, what was once rural became urban, and grandparents died off. In the vision many West Indian2 adults have for their children, the tales they grew up on smack of illiteracy and a waste of the child's time.

All the same, in Caribbean daily life, folk mores exist side by side with globalized Western norms. West Indian society is a young society in which cultures with a strong oral basis—mainly African, Amerindian, and Asian—are just becoming exposed to each other, although they have long been side by side. New hybrid oral forms keep evolving in cross-cultural fusions. These hybrid folk forms, with their bases in ancestral orality, compete with the electronic and print media of modern Western culture. Standard English and Creole [End Page 164] jostle with each other in the creation of a Caribbean linguistic identity. This identity resists amalgamation. The indigenous syncretism emanating from the mixing of peoples signifies not a blend of cultures, but rather the similar economic and social conditions of colonization and the West Indian plantation. Those conditions have thrown up an identifiable Creole folk ethos that is not static, nor is it identical in all the territories. In a pan-West Indian way (and in places like Jamaica with its large population of African descendants), it is West African in root. But on islands like Trinidad, where successive waves of Asian plantation labor arrived in the late nineteenth century, this Creole ethos is composed of accommodations of Asian and European overlays on an entrenched West African base.

The West Indian children's folk tradition mirrors this ongoing continuum composed of overlapping stages—a process marked by growing self-knowledge, but also by ambivalence. Such ambivalence can be imputed to West Indian migratory tendencies; lingering colonial prejudices; the paucity of publishing opportunities (and thus minimal self-representation); and the slow adaptation of interactive, participatory cultural modes to print technology. But oral and folk traditions are regaining importance as the development of literacy and the role played by storytelling are better understood.

Three overlapping stages of the folk tradition in connection with children are examined in the following pages: (1) a documentation-literacy phase; (2) a period of reclamation of the voice, marked by respect for the evolutionary nature of Creole orality; and (3) the present phase marked by a fusion of oral and literary agendas—a fusion propelled by changing concepts of education and literacy.

The Documentation-Literacy Phase
(Beginnings of West Indian society to the 1970s)

West Indian society (which was a slave society following the conquest of the indigenes) did not specifically place children in a category separate from adults. If children were valued it was because they would grow up to take their full share of labor—to produce profits for their owner sooner rather than later. The need for community in the face of adverse conditions, and the near absence of "childhood" knitted together old and young. This means that in traditional West Indian...