Myths & Legends of the Dismal Swamp

 Myths & Legends

The 2018 Festival theme intrigued me.  What’s so special about the Great Dismal Swamp (GDS)?  A little research on the internet and I knew.  It was yet another example of something we all need to remember.  The enslaved Africans did not just live happy lives singing, dancing, eating watermelon and doing their owners’ bidding.  They were not relieved that they did not have to take responsibility for their own lives.  Indeed, they were willing to go to great lengths to claim their responsibility and their freedom.

I decided to visit GDS to see what spoke to me there.  It was not the dismal swamp of the Maroons of the 1600, 1700 and 1800s.  No, I was sitting in a visitors’ parking lot facing a boardwalk designed to allow me to walk through the swamp and to maybe get the sense of it without ever having to step into it.  I had read books and articles about the Swamp. Now, I wanted to see what the ancestors might share with me of their sojourn in this place.


So, I got out of the car, walked into the swamp on this very safe and dry boardwalk, no murky brown sludge to drag through, no water moccasins in hiding, no thorny vines tearing at my skin.  I stopped to look around a bit, all the while swatting and fanning at flies, mosquitos and whatever else.  I heard the voice of an old woman say to me, “Baby, we got a lot of work to do.  We got people to feed and crops to manage.  We not gonna get our work done if you just stand here fanning all day.”  That’s all she said; that was my introduction to the maroons of GDS.

You remember that we said in an earlier blog that wherever Africans were enslaved in the world, there were some who lived permanently in free, independent settlements that they established away from the rest of society. These people and their descendants are known as “maroons.”


I continued to walk, looking at the trees, the vines, the thick underbrush.  It was all so lush and green, but it was also brown and marshy-looking when I peered through the green.  I listened to the birds overhead and the buzzing insects.  I tried to imagine what it would be like to wade through the sludge beneath the boardwalk and the lush green, but I had no personal frame of reference to take me to that place; only some stories I had read of what life was like there.

I arrived at the pavilion built to honor the GDS as a part of the Underground Railroad.  That’s    where he appeared, the elder assigned to help me understand what I yearned to know, what was life like in the maroon colonies.

His name was Charlie, an ancestor who lived his life in the swamp until emancipation when he moved on to Canada.  Seems North Carolina and Virginia were still not such welcoming places for people of African descent, even those who had somehow won their freedom.


Charlie talked about his great grandfather who was brought to North Carolina from the Gambia. Like so many of the new arrivals, Charlie’s great grandfather, Demba, escaped within weeks of being purchased and put to work on a plantation.   He was captured and escaped three more times before he finally made his way to the swamp.  There was no fear of the wilderness in many of the African new comers.  They were prepared for life there by their resourcefulness, training and intuition.

Charlie laughed as he recounted the story of his great grandfather’s master who said “Demba ran away because he had not overcome the ways of laziness and vagrancy brought from the Gambia.”

“Ha, lazy or not, couldn’t nobody own him.”  Charlie laughed harder.  “Imagine somebody trying to live off another man’s labor without paying him so much as a dime calling anybody lazy.”

In the swamp Demba found communities the spirit of which we might best describe today with words such as Ubuntu, “I am because we are” and Ujima, “collective work and responsibility.”  These communities were located on many of the islands deep within the swamp.  Charlie spoke with pride of the organization and order within those communities and how each person had some gift or talent and did some work that helped to sustain their communities and keep them self -supporting.  He spoke of the leaders who ruled with justice and fairness.


Charlie talked about Big Jake whose owner had him working for a logging company, guiding workers through the swamp.  Then one day he was accused of killing men he was guiding.    Jake disappeared into the swamp.  Other loggers left food for him.  Everybody knew if you ever got lost in GDS, look for Big Jake’s footprints and follow them home for Big Jake was known to have guided many a man or woman who became lost.  Once he knew that the lost one was safe, Big Jake had a way of disappearing into the mist until needed again.  But how did Jake know where he would be needed next?  That, Charlie could not say.

Folks who had no business in the swamp because they meant no good to anyone had a way of getting mighty turned around.  Compasses didn’t work in the swamp.  All the noises; the insects chirping, the mating calls of the bobcats and the screech owls and so many other sounds, especially at night could be very disorienting.  Then there were the toxic fumes from the peat floor.  These fumes could cause hallucinations in the uninitiated, who if ever found would tell stories of unbelievably strange sights.  On the other hand, there was Cautaka, the healing pond hidden deep in the swamp.  Only folks who showed respect for the animals were able to see the Cautaka, whose waters could heal their wounds.

As dusk came on, I returned to my car and like Big Jake, Charlie disappeared into the mist.  My time spent with Charlie was a healing experience and just what I needed to continue to grow my understanding of the African American story in this strange land.

In a few day NABS will be in Cary NC for the 36th annual Storytelling Festival &Conference.  You’ll want to hear more about “Weaving Tales From the Dismal Swamp to Moral Monday Marches,”  So if you have not registered bring your credit card and be a part of the fun, great stories and of course, the NABS camaraderie.

Amy Johnson

The Importance of African Folktales

I grew up with Aesop, not realizing he was black, or that I was hearing African fables.

I grew up with Bruh Rabbit, not understanding I was listening to stories that had deep roots in Africa.

I grew up with the Boo Hag courtesy of my grandmother, not knowing that she comes out of the Gullah people.

I grew up with Wiley, not knowing he was an African American boy.

There were stories by, about, and because of African Americans all around me as a kid and I didn’t know.

I had no idea African Americans had contributed to my literary understanding of the world.

I didn’t know, because nobody pointed it out to me.

The majority culture in which I was raised didn’t point out that I had a place in it, so I didn’t know I had roots going through everything.
We need to tell African Folklore. We need to share it, because the wisdom, wit, and community that they build touches everybody. Building community around the stories of Africa in the 21st century helps everyone understand that our ancestors are not invisible.

One summer, I was traveling around Virginia performing at libraries. This was pre GPS! After I saw the library sign, I’d start trying to locate the building. My mother was traveling with me for some of this trip. At one point she looked at me and said:

Mom: You said you just saw a library sign.

Me: I did.

Mom: Where? I didn’t see a library sign.

Me: Right there?

Mom: Where?


My mother was amazed.

Mom: I’ve never seen that sign before!

Me: Sure you have. There is one near your house.

My mother swore there wasn’t, because surely she would have seen it. I left the area about a week later. She called me from home and told me that since finding out what it was, she’d seen that sign everywhere. She was so pleased.

Now, of course, the answer to this isn’t that the city ran out and put up library signs near my mother’s home. She wasn’t registering the signs because she didn’t know they were there.

When I tell African stories in schools, I am always amused by the number of children and adults who have either heard versions of the stories, seen books, or watched references in some television show .

They are always amazed that the stories came from Africa. They are also proud to have made the discovery.

Telling the tales that come out of Africa creates signposts.

The stories of our ancestors are still around us. They peek out of the heroes, tricksters, language, music, art, dance, and literature all over America. Whether anyone acknowledges it or not, they are woven into the very fabric of this country.

Sharing African folktales is our way of pointing out the signposts.

Like this blog? Donna Washington, who so generously contributed this and several other blogs for NABS Talking will be one of the featured tellers at the 36th annual Storytelling Conference and Festival in Cary, NC. October 31 – November 4 2018,   It’s time to get your registration in, to come out and share some tales!


Happy Telling!

Donna Washington