Storytellers weave morals into the the yarns they spin


February 22, 1991|By Henry Scarupa

Learning about history doesn't have to be a dry classroom assignment, especialy during Black History Month. For man black Americans, the search for family roots and the revival of storytelling traditions provide a more personal approach to the past. Bunjo leaps into the air with a piercing scream, flinging wide his arms.

He has just looked in the bathroom mirror and seen a monstrous green spider with red eyes staring back.

A bad dream? Not at all. The scary incident occurs in "Peewee and the Big Green Spider," a tall tale being acted out by Stanley "Bunjo" Butler before an audience of enthusiastic young children in the Helping Hands enrichment program at Jeffers Hill Elementary School in Columbia.

When he's not at his 9-to-5 job as branch manager of the Hollins-Payson library, Mr. Butler is a storyteller and president of Baltimore's Griots' Circle. The group is made up of 25 storytellers in the African-American tradition, who spin yarns in a variety of settings, from schools to libraries, from churches to museums.

This may be the age of television and the VCR, but storytelling has taken off in the black community.

The local griots group was formed almost two years ago by Mary Carter Smith, 71-year-old "mother" of Baltimore storytellers, who has performed across the United States, in the Caribbean and even in parts of Africa. Meeting once a month, members exchange shop talk, learn what others are doing and provide support for one another. They are currently planning the 10th annual meeting of the Association of Black Storytellers, slated for Baltimore in November 1992.

Organized 11 years ago by Ms. Carter, together with Philadelphia storyteller Linda Goss, the ABS attracted 2,000 men and women to its New Orleans festival last year, some coming from as far away as Alaska.

"The book 'Roots' did a whole lot to revive storytelling," explains Ms. Carter. "People want to get back to their roots, to the things they feel are important. The ones who are attracted are mainly family-centered and culture-centered people."

For Mr. Butler, 44, storytelling enables him to hark back to his African background with new effectiveness, particularly in reaching the young.

"I have a real sense of being part of an oral tradition that passes on information, morals, values and the like," he adds, reflecting on the storytelling art. "It's the oldest means of transferring information among folks of all cultures."

Typically he starts out telling his audience he's bringing them "educatainment," a self-coined word.

"I hope they're entertained, but that's not necessarily the intent," he elaborates. "There's always a moral intended even if it's a nonsense story. There's always something to be gained. Maybe it's only the lesson you shouldn't be this foolish or you shouldn't let that happen to you."

Local griots draw heavily on African and Afro-American myths and tales. They also make wide use of the folklore of other societies and of contemporary literature and non-fiction. Each storyteller makes the story his own, adapting it to a personal style and often giving it an unusual twist.

Fellisco Keeling, Griots' Circle vice president, offers a bluesy, hip "The Three Little Bears," while Jamal Koram, the Story Man, does "Corn Bread Man," a takeoff on the more familiar "Gingerbread Man."

In performing for prison inmates, Ms. Smith relates an incident, complete with gory details, from "Bloods," Wallace Terry's account of blacks in the Vietnam War. The story tells of an American GI who puts a bullet in the head of a fellow soldier in a mercy killing. The victim had been tortured by Viet Cong captors and left to die a slow, painful death.

Like most griots, Mr. Butler is constantly thumbing through books for new stories to add to his repertory of more than 50.

"I'm always working on a story," he says. "My family will tell you they can hear me all over the house. I'll be walking around, talking to myself, working it out in the air. I can get the basics down in two or three hours, but it may take me months to get the rhythm of it, to feel comfortable with it. It takes a while to refine."

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