Published Liberian tales are often organized by ethnic group or “tribe.” But cutting across ethnicity are genres and other patterns that run through these stories. These commonalities transcend linguistic and even national boundaries.
Five genres are presented here: Historical Accounts, Why Things Are the Way They Are, Trickster Tales, Fantasy and Wonder Tales, Dilemma Stories, and Morality Tales. These genres are determined by a combination of literary features, such as tone, characters and perspective of author to audience.
These genres may be found among linguistically and ethnically divergent groups, not only in Liberia, but throughout West Africa and parts of its Diaspora in the New World.
Such similarities suggest the people of West Africa share certain fundamental cultural elements, rooted perhaps in earlier long-distance networks of communication and trade.
Some themes and genres in these tales converge with certain underlying cleavages in the societies that produced them. These include cleavages between men and women over the sexual division of tasks, between “land-owning” clans and “strangers,” between hunters and other specialists on the one hand and farmers on the other, and between free people and unfree laborers.
Tensions between these groups often supply the themes and sub-texts of these tales. Although the concerns of women and other s occasionally seep through, these tales generally present the perspective of free male specialists who dominated rural Liberian societies. For example, the various historical accounts often illuminate inadvertently, through their emphatic claims and strategic silences, that rival claims existed to political and economic power.
In time, the study of Liberia’s oral traditions might shed some light on local antecedents of various journalistic and oratory practices. It could also help lay the basis for the emergence a truly national literature. At the very least, I hope you find delight in reading and retelling these treasures of the ages.