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Spoken words: storytelling festivals continue the griot tradition.

Preachers do it, and teachers, too--they tell stories. Nowadays, from the corporate workplace to therapeutic settings, storytelling is appreciated as a tool of self-discovery and instruction. Dedicated practitioners and listerners gather at festivals that celebrate and demonstrate storytellings enduring power. Festivals are the favorite venues of tellers and audiences for creating the sharing experience that distinguishes storytelling from other performance arts.

"The spoken word is taken from the page and made alive and vibrant and faithful to the exact time and moment that it is spoken," says widely respected American storyteller Rex M. Ellis, vice president for the Historic Area at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, explaining the magic of storytelling. "I never tell a story the same way; every time it's the first time the audience has ever heard that story that way, even from me. What's special is the immediacy and the uniqueness."

The ancient art has blossomed anew in the United States in the past 30 years. Professional storytellers like Nothando Zulu, director of the Minneapolis-based Black Storytellers Alliance, and Jamal Koram of Philadelphia's Keepers of the Culture oral tradition organization, make a living at steady gigs with schools and libraries during "storytelling season, when school is open and, of course, there's high demand around Kwanzaa, Black History Month and King's birthday," says Baltimore librarian Bunjo Butler, a member of the Griots' Circle of Maryland, an affiliate of the nation's largest black storytelling group, the National Association of Black Storytellers (NABS).

NABS annually produces the major black storytelling festival in the nation, which now attracts upwards of 500 people(see "Storytelling Festivals and Resources, 2003" page 62). Fellisco Keeling, NABS outgoing administrative assistant, who has worked with the organization for the past 17 years, highlights the participation of young people from pre-school to early 20s. "They tell stories; some make up their own, get them from books and parents. They might do a story in rap form. Some do a lot of drumming and some dance," Keeling adds.

The first NABS festival, in 1983, followed the association's 1982 founding by Mary Carter Smith and Linda Goss. Smith, also known as Mother Mary and Mother Griot, grew up, she says, in the coalfields of West Virginia and "bloody" Harlan County, Kentucky. Goss is a maiden of the Great Smoky Mountain mists near her native Alcoa, Tennessee. Mother Griot, who started life during World War I in the rough and unruly rural South of 1917, graduated from Baltimore's Coppin State College and followed up with graduate work in drama and storytelling at New York University, Johns Hopkins and Rutgers. Linda Goss is lettered by Howard University and holds an Antioch College master's degree.

Elizabeth Parkhurst of August House, a main publisher of storytelling guides and folktale anthologies, explains that storytelling's visions spring from the grassroots. The Little Rock, Arkansas, firm published Underneath the Blazing Sun, Rex Ellis's 1997 collection of African folklore, early American history and contemporary stories, which she edited. "Rex can't be everywhere," Parkhurst reasons about the August House mission of putting oral stories into print while championing the oral cause.

Because while storytelling prizes and extends oral traditions, the storytelling world in no way eschews literacy. People are literate when they develop the capacity to name and shape their experiences and transmit them to others. Storytelling is the consciousness-raising vision, without which writing, filming, recording is meaningless and even destructive.

A passion for claiming and illuminating generations of African American lives imbues tellers, publishers and festival producers. "Storytelling allows me to tell an audience what's possible when ordinary people take risks," says Ellis. "If people in the audience are anything like me, they can gather some self-respect and enlightenment. I ground my teeth in my frustration to reach audiences and convince them there was something to be learned from the institution of slavery, from talking about the lives of those people. They weren't just chattel, property. That part of our history was also empowering" he declares. "They were stakeholders and negotiators in a system that never meant for them to enjoy a victory. There's a huge history of things that need to be talked about that have to do with the evolution of the people."
Storytelling Festivals and Resources, 2003:

The 21st National Association
of Black Storytellers Festival
November 12-16, 2003
Providence, Rhode Island, (410) 947-1117

The National Storytelling Festival
sponsored by the International
Storytelling Center
Jonesborough, Tennessee
(800) 952-8392; (423) 753-2171
Now in its 31st year, the event
attracts nearly 12,000 people.

Your Favorite Storytellers Foundation, Inc.,

Black Storytellers Alliance,;; (612) 529-5864

Keepers of the Culture,;
(888) 920-9627

Class Act Arts,; (301) 588-7525

Rhode Island-born Judy Dothard Simmons loves the nuances of words--their ability to transcend information and become the experience we know as art. For nearly three decades Simmons has edited and written for national media like The Crisis, Ms., Essence, Emerge and Now transplanted from New York to Anniston, Alabama, she freelances and plays "light" jazz piano. Simmons uncovers the power of words as they relate to storytelling in our feature that begins on page 62.
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Author:Simmons, Judy D.
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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