Weaving tales about culture

Storytellers, or griots, pass on African-American history and heritage

August 03, 2008|By Ericka Blount Danois | Ericka Blount Danois,Special to the Sun

On a recent hot day, a group gathers under a cool makeshift tent on the grass at New Waverly United Methodist Church in Baltimore. The smells of barbecue from a grill behind the gathering place draw the attention of many, but most are there to listen to African-American fables and folk tales.

Griot Janice Curtis Greene, a natural kind of woman with long locks pulled into a ponytail and Ghanaian Akan symbols hanging from her ears, takes the stage.

"Do you want a story?" she beckons into the microphone.

The audience responds, "Yes, I do!"

"Well, you're in luck; here comes that story, just for you," she says as she begins the tale about the struggles of an ugly, hapless eagle who thought he was a chicken. Throughout the performance, her animation sparks the imagination of an audience that hangs on her every word.

The story goes that a heavy wind carried an eagle's egg into the nest of a chicken and a baby eagle was born thinking that because he was different, with huge talons and a hooked bill, that he was ugly.

Greene runs in place as she explains how the eagle tried out for the chicken football team in an attempt to fit in. She also explains how the mother chicken loved her son regardless of his looks.

Greene is one of many Baltimore-area storytellers who, throughout the year at various festivals, schools, libraries and other events, tell tales that have a moral. In June, they assembled for a day of barbecuing, fun and fables as part of a Juneteenth celebration.

Storytelling is an art told through words, dance and crafts. The "griots" say the stories have been told from one generation to the next to spread ethnocentric pride, heritage and culture to African-Americans.

"I tell motivational stories to teens in city schools all over the U.S. I figured they don't sing the blues, they rap," says Greene, who has been a professional storyteller for the past 15 years after retiring from the Social Security Administration in Baltimore County, where she worked for 35 years.

"The original story [on this day] is called 'The Egg That Sang the Blues.' I just brought it up-to-date," says Greene.

Greene, like so many other Baltimore-area storytellers, is a member of the Griot Circle of Maryland, which is an affiliate of the National Association of Black Storytellers, founded by Baltimorean Mary Carter Smith and her friend Linda Goss, author of an anthology of folk tales, Talk That Talk, among other books.

"You see our diversity," Goss says. "How we sing our stories, we dance our stories, we create story quilts. You see the different ways we create our stories."

Storytelling has been a part of the black community for centuries - from the griot in Africa to the itinerant bluesman, from the lyrical preacher to the camaraderie formed by men in the barbershop. Even today, pop artists tell stories through rhythmic boasts.

During the days of slavery, storytelling helped to break up the monotony of field labor and was a way to pass down important family histories, Goss says.

Storytelling helped to maintain a threatened culture.

Today, stories continue to be passed down by historians, writers, quilters, artists, dancers, musicians and vocal artists. And there are still those who tell tales at the dinner table.

I was raised on "fried apples, pinto beans, cornbread and storytelling," says Goss, who was born in Tennessee near the Great Smoky Mountains.

She became a storyteller through the inspiration of her grandfather, whom she calls "Granddaddy Murphy." He worked on a plantation even after slavery was over and later became a janitor going to work every day with a three-piece suit, a cream straw hat, a pocket watch and two-tone shoes.

He was a proud man who never learned to read or write.

"He would tell us stories because that's how he passed down his wisdom," says Goss. "He would tell animal stories like the story of the raven and how the other animals were jealous of him because of his beautiful color. He was really telling us about prejudice."

She was also influenced by her father's love of jazz and blues and her mother, who taught her about call-and-response by singing a childhood hide-and-seek game called "All Hid" around the house.

Goss later learned that the game originated in the Underground Railroad as a code for when the enslaved should hide.

Maintaining this kind of history is the main reason that she and Smith began the National Association of Black Storytellers.

"We really wanted to encourage our people to pass these stories down to our children because many of them were getting lost, and you can't always find them in history books," she says.

Storyteller Bob Smith agrees.

Smith started telling stories in 1972 when Center Stage hired him as part of its community outreach. The theater hired a group of storytellers who would go to schools and tell stories in the classroom.

He still performs in schools today through a Screen Actors Guild program called "BookPals," which brings actors into the classroom in hopes of encouraging children to read.

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