A Great Storytelling Show….How Does That Happen?

We all want to attend and be a part of great storytelling shows.  No, I’m not talking festivals, but shows that are a part of the community, either on a regular basis (monthly, quarterly) or as a special event or fundraiser.  Creating this type of show is more than just marketing and advertising, it’s

  1.    a) teaching your community about what a storyteller is (not storyreading), and,
  2.    b) having such an excellent program – one that leaves people saying “I Gotta See That Again” – that it opens the doors and minds of your community to see storytelling as a viable art, and, storytellers as artists worth their charge.

Here are some of the things I have learned about creating such a storytelling show.

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Set up your strongest storytellers in strategic positions.  I always recommend putting your strongest storytellers (most engaging, best story, most experience) as your first story, the person right before an intermission and as the final teller.  Now, almost every storytelling show I have attended puts its strongest person last, but often little thought is given to other positions.  I remember attending an event where the first two storytellers were weak in their storytelling skill and unable to really engage the audience.  Then a more engaging person came on with a short story, followed by a very weak storyteller right before the intermission.  At intermission, 2/3 of the audience left, and never did see the absolutely best storyteller who was slated for last.  There may have been a thought that people would know to wait for this storyteller, but the audience didn’t know the storytellers, and so they left with a bad taste in their mouths.

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You want people to immediately be drawn into the program.  Then you want people to come back after the intermission because what they heard last, they can’t get out of their heads.  Of course, you want that final storyteller to be great as well, so folks leave with that last story in their minds and are definitely going to come back.  This may mean hearing the stories ahead of time or knowing your storytellers really, really well.

Keep announcements and introductions brief.  The most important part of a storytelling program to the audience is the storytelling.  With that knowledge, keep everything before the storytelling brief 5 – 6 minutes maximum.  Sometimes you have to tell who all of your sponsors are, but it’s even better when you can point people to a program that has their names.  Yes, people need to know where exits and bathrooms are, but good signage helps.  I do hope you remind people about turning down, and/or off, cell phones, but don’t belabor the point.  Also, reading proclamations and presenting awards before a storytelling program is not the reason most audience members came to the program – save that for after the program or another time and place.

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On the same note, keep introductions short.  I have always appreciated the way Katherine Wyndham Tucker liked to be introduced: “Welcome Katherine Wyndham Tucker from Selma, Alabama.”  She even would shoo you off the stage if you went longer than that.  Storytellers want to tell stories; they don’t need a set up from an emcee (unless they request one) and most don’t want a lot of accolades beforehand (let those accolades be made by the audience after they see the performance).

Intermission is not a requirement.  If you have a program that will be about 1.5 – 2 hours, no intermission is needed.  I organized a storytelling program where I had put what I thought was a strong teller at the beginning.  Well, the strong teller changed the type of story I was used to hearing from them, and they were still exploring this new telling format. It was not a strong opening.  The next storyteller I knew was good but not as strong.  They were the first 40 minutes, then an intermission.  Half of our audience left.  Ugh!!!  Later, through surveys, I learned that others thought about leaving, but decided to pain it through, and were absolutely delighted they had waited for the final storyteller who was fantastic.  I know now that had I not had that intermission folks would have stayed and their view of storytelling would have remained strong.  They would be returning audience members.

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Videotaping and audio taping will increase your audience numbers.  If you are hosting a storytelling series or want to create an annual or regularly spaced storytelling event, I strongly suggest encouraging people to video and/or audiotape storytelling programs, with storyteller permission, of course.

Marketing should be diverse and early.  Market everywhere in every format: fliers mailed to people, fliers in stores and restaurants, social media (Instagram is the current favorite, but also Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn), postcards to pass out or to mail or post.

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Finally, pay your storytellers.  Yes, you are giving them an “opportunity” and “exposure”, but really the storytellers paid for gas to get to the venue and even more, they paid in time to be able to present a polished well-crafted story.  Now, I’m not saying that you need to pay them at the rate of a large festival, or even at their usual rate for smaller shows, but payment means you really appreciated what they sacrificed to make your program possible.  I have charged $15 – $20 at the door as a “donation”, or simply as a fee.  Then pay your venue and split the rest between the storytellers.  Remember if you are in the show as well, pay yourself as a storyteller.  As a side note, I am not recommending paying persons for an open mic night or persons whose names are chosen at random at a story slam type event.

I think that wraps up my suggestions.  For an easier way to remember, or a way to not have to pull up this whole blog again when needed, here are the highlights:

  • Set up your strongest storytellers in strategic positions.
  • Keep announcements and introductions brief.
  • Intermission is not a requirement.
  • Videotaping and audiotaping will increase your audience numbers.
  • Marketing should be diverse and early.
  • Pay your storytellers.

I suppose there is one more thing:  Have fun, realize that you are providing a way to inspire, entertain and transform, and keep creating storytelling spaces.  In the words of Ray Hicks, “Tell On!”

Sheila Arnold, Teaching Artist
Mount Vernon Research Fellow
P.O. Box 3694, Hampton, VA  23663
757-725-1398 (home and cell)
www.mssheila.org

Join us for the NABS 37th Annual Festival Conference, in Montgomery, November 6-10.


		
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Walking With Anansi

Anansi the Spider is definitely a trickster. Sometimes he is a spider. Sometimes he is a man. Sometimes he is a spider man!

Tricksters have a simple job. They are meant to show us at our absolute worst and best. At their most funny, they are extreme examples of the things that are most likely to get us in trouble.

At their most wise, the stories show us how you can overcome anyone with your brainpower.

Anansi is lazy, greedy, selfish, thoughtless, and self-centered. Lending him anything is not a good idea if you want it back. You partner with him at your own peril.

He is not above the occasional act of casual violence, and he will lie to you as easily as water running down hill. He wants what you have, and has no desire to share. He steals when it suits him, and, of course, his modus operandi is to trick you to get what he wants.

He is quick thinking, and tries to turn every situation to his favor.

Sometimes, Anansi’s tricks blow up in his face. Sometimes, they blow up in yours.

Almost every trickster is the same. They are sometimes treated as fools and sometimes treated as keepers of wisdom.

There is a story about how Anansi gained all of the stories in the world. There is another one about how he lost common sense. Looking at those two tales, it is obvious they started out as the same story and went their separate ways!

Anansi is a powerful trickster, and he shows up in places you might not recognize him, like the super hero at the top of this post!

He jumped all over Africa, morphing into all sorts of characters. There are tales about

guinea fowl, dik-dik, rabbit or many others that are clearly transplanted Anansi tales.

 

 

When the West Africans were taken out of Africa, one of the first places they were taken was to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations. The people weren’t allowed to speak their own languages, worship as their ancestors had, or tell their own stories, but they were determined to keep Anansi.

He became Aunt Nancy or Sis ‘Nancy. You can still find Anansi tales all over the Caribbean.

Stopping that spider isn’t possible.

Here in North America, Anansi’s tales merged with the other tales that were part of the oral tradition from African lands, and they morphed into the tales of Brer Rabbit, or Bruh Rabbit.mr-fox-and-mr-rabbit2.gif

Bruh Rabbit is a unique trickster. He is the only trickster who can never be completely caught in his own tricks. He must always get away because he is the spirit of the African American people.

All of Bruh Rabbit’s stories are about the same thing. No matter what anybody does to your body, you always have your mind. Think your way out of trouble don’t try to fight your way out. If you try to fight, your trouble will get bigger. When you stop thinking, you are really headed for trouble.

Brer Rabbit jumped around this whole country getting mixed up with the Native American Grandmother Spider and Coyote, the tricksters who came in from Europe and Asia, and somewhere in the ‘40’s they all got turned into the Bugs Bunny characters.

The next time you see Bugs, you are seeing a little piece of Africa.

Anansi still shows up in our literature. His stories end up as parts of movies or shows without anybody the wiser. His stories are all around us.

Anansi lives because what he represents is irrepressible.

He is the spirit of laughter that exists in all of us. We marvel at his cleverness, slap our foreheads at his foolishness, and grin at how he uses his wits to outsmart those around him even as he occasionally outsmarts himself.

Anansi is still here. It is our job as storytellers to show him to people. To let them see how he is still shaping the way we look at ourselves.

 

On November 6-10, 2019, NABS will be holding its 37th annual Storytelling Conference and Festival in Montgomery, Alabama. Come out and share some tales, enjoy some history!

Happy Telling!

Donna Washington – 

The Power Is In the Telling: The African American Oral Tradition

 

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The first story that I told “publicly”, other than at a Kuumba Storytellers of Georgia meeting, was at a Kwanzaa program.  I was asked to tell a story to illustrate the principle, Kujichagulia, self-determination.  The story that I decided to use was a folktale from Thailand.  Even after I found this story and decided it was , I continued to search for something else because, given the occasion, I would have preferred to tell an African or African American folktale.  But, nothing else resonated with me the way that “The Freedom Bird” .

I continue to tell it and I continue to introduce it as a story that I feel demonstrates the power of kujichagulia, self-determination, being true to yourself.  But more than that, it demonstrates that the principles by which we live and are guided are the same around the world.

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I was reminded of this again when I read “The Rough-Face Girl” by Rafe Martin.  It’s an Algonquin Indian version of Cinderella.  In the Author’s , Mr. Martin points out that there are 1500, or so, recorded versions of the basic Cinderella story.  1500 recorded !  Maybe that’s not so strange as most of us enjoy seeing good rewarded and evil punished.

But if all of our stories repeat themselves in different cultures around the world, what separates the African and African American story?  I always enjoy telling Aesop’s Fable, “The Lion And The Mouse”.  Then some years ago I discovered the Indian, Panchatantra Tales.  There it was, “The Elephants and the King of the ,” a story where the elephants, who were once kind to the mice, were later rescued by the mice.  From Alaska to Cape Town from New York to Mumbai our needs, our hopes and dreams, our stories are similar. What distinguishes the African American oral tradition.

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Another African folktale favorite is the “Eagle Who Thought He Was A Chicken”.  Many authors have published this story with slight variations.  Last week, I came across a version, “Fly Eagle Fly” that posited a different kind of human intervention and elicited a very different response from me.  I immediately recognized that my response was more about people and situations from my past that this new version reminded me of.  Sometimes the only thing that will differentiate our stories is the energy and the life experience that we bring to them.  Our life as African Americans punctuate our stories, they give the stories newness and a life of their own.

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In his online curriculum for teaching the oral tradition   Joshua Perlstein1 in talking about Joel Chandler Harris’ noted “But somewhere in the translation from the mouth to the pen, much of the immediacy and potency was lost and replaced with a quaintness and folksiness that was far less threatening. For Harris, the slaves were a curiosity, their stories simply a way of revealing their crude lifestyle. But to the people who told them, the telling was a matter of maintaining their humanity and their dignity.”

So again I ask, what distinguishes the African American oral tradition; what separates the African and African American story.  It’s in the telling! It’s the energy that we bring from the trauma, drama, faith and hope of our past and our ultimate overcoming in the present.  That’s why we only tell stories that resonate with us.  It’s so that we can give them the energy and power that they deserve, the energy and power that will bless the listeners and honor those who have passed the stories down to us.

Happy telling,

Amy Johnson

 

 

 

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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!

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Happy Telling!

Donna Washington

Exploring the 2018 Festival Theme II: Weaving Tales From The Dismal Swamp to Moral Monday Marches

Weaving Tales From the Dismal Swamp to Moral Monday Marches

NABS Talking here; once again talking about our theme for the 2018 Festival, Weaving Tales from The Dismal Swamp to Moral Monday Marches.  This time we’ll take a look at the Moral Monday protests and how that story strikes a similar theme to the resistance and endurance expressed in the Dismal Swamp.

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Rev. William Barber speaking at a Moral Mondays rally on July 15, 2013 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_Mondays

Rev. William Barber was head of the North Carolina state chapter of the NAACP when he saw a need, in 2013, to protest the conservative agenda of the North Carolina legislature by forming a broad-based alliance led by religious leaders.  It was called “Moral Monday.”  The movement spread to Georgia and South Carolina, then to Illinois and New Mexico and on.  Since then Rev. Barber has joined forces with the Kairos Center of the Union Theological Seminary in New York and shares the leadership role of their new project with Rev. Liz Theoharis.

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Believing that we are in a kairos moment (a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of  crucial action: the opportune and decisive moment (www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/kairos)) the Kairos Center works globally to strengthen and expand transformative movements for social change.  The project is now called the “Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.”  It takes its name from the spring 1968 protest planned by Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which was held on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  It encourages grassroots leadership in the fight for health care, living wage jobs, social justice, voting rights and an end to poverty.

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The original Moral Monday marches involved protestors entering the state legislature building to bring attention to their issues.  The numbers of protestors grew from just under a hundred on that first Monday to thousands on subsequent Mondays.  Some of these protestors were arrested for civil disobedience.

Now, under the banner of the Poor People’s Campaign, a 40 day nationwide coordinated action was planned for the spring of 2018 to end on June 23, the final day of the 1968 campaign.

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  The Rev. William J. Barber is confronted by state troopers at the doors of the Kentucky Capitol during a demonstration organized by the Kentucky Poor  People’s Campaign. The group was barred from the Capitol following an outdoor rally that included a denunciation of the nation’s first work requirements for Medicaid.  (Lexington Herald Leader June 5, 2018; Bryan Woolston AP Photo)

During the 40 day period ending June 23rd, protestors in 40 states have participated in the “Poor Peoples Campaign”.  There were arrests in many of those demonstrations.  However, in Frankfort, Kentucky 400 protestors were turned away from the Kentucky state capitol on June 4th. New rules for admission had been put in place after “Poor Peoples Campaign” demonstrations on several Mondays in May.  This set off new concerns and calls for an explanation of a policy of citizen demonstrators being barred from their state capitol.  If not there, where should one seek redress from one’s government.  Protesters returned to the state house on the following Monday and again were not admitted.

This story that began at the local level in North Carolina has become a national movement.  It is the story of citizens taking responsibility for holding government accountable.  Their stories are inspiring and echo the stories of resistance and determination of Maroons in the Great Dismal Swamp.

The story of Moral Monday Marches is not yet complete and still it needs to be told.  We are the National Association of Black Storytellers, we must tell it; that’s what we do!

NABS Talking will be back with another great post next month.

Also, watch for myths and legends from the  Dismal Swamp.   

Join NABS in Cary NC, October 31st through November 4th for the 36th Annual National Black Storytelling Festival and Conference, where inspiring stories are born, live and reign.

Amy Johnson

Resources

Why Were Peaceful Protestors Barred from Kentucky Capitol?  By Kent Gilbert, Lexington Herald Leader,  June 5, 2018.   http://www.kentucky.com/opinion/op-ed/article212566619.html

Thirty-four protestors advocating for $15 minimum wage arrested in Raleigh NC, Monday June 11, 2018;  https://www.pressrush.com/author/8351474/anne-blythe

The Southern Strategist, by Jelani Cobb, New Yorker Magazine, May 14, 2018 pgs 68-75.

“Moral Monday” Movement Turns 5 Years Old with Rally, April 30, 2018 https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/north-carolina/articles/2018-04-30/moral-monday-movement-turning-5-years-old-with-rally

Man behind Moral Mondays, by Lisa Rab, Mother Jones April 14, 2014.  https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/04/william-barber-moral-monday-north-carolina/

Rev. William Barber builds a moral movement; Cleve R. Wootson, Jr., June 29, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/06/29/woe-unto-those-who-legislate-evil-rev-william-barber-builds-a-moral-movement/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fd5f6c4da7ee

Kentucky Poor Peoples Campaign Shut out of State Capitol Second Week In A Row; Tues. June 12, 2018.  https://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2018/06/12/kentucky-poor-peoples-campaign-shut-out-state-capitol-second-week-row

 

 

Exploring the 2018 Festival Theme I: Weaving Tales From the Dismal Swamp to Moral Monday Marches

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This year’s NABS’ Festival theme reminds us that in North Carolina, where o,ur Festival will be held, there is a tradition of resistance to unfair treatment and conditions.   Resistance occurred with the earliest slaves brought to this country.  One form that it took in North Carolina was exiles forming independent communities in the Great Dismal Swamp.   Africans and African Americans endured the harshest living conditions in the swamp in order to enjoy their freedom.

The Festival theme also calls our attention to a protest movement, Moral Monday, begun in 2013 by Rev. William Barber in the great Tar Heel state.   The Moral Monday movement began as a grassroots resistance to North Carolina state legislation hostile to the state’s poorer citizens and citizens of color.  Again, it is the story of the demand for freedom and justice, despite harsh conditions, as many of the protesters are arrested for civil disobedience.

In telling our stories, we can find inspiration in the strength and determination of the people of the swamp and Moral Monday protesters.  This post will focus on the swamp.  Our next post will feature more on Moral Monday.

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         https://jubiloemancipationcentury.wordpress.com/2013/09/13/the-maroons-of-the-great-dismal-swamp/

In that place called the Great Dismal Swamp (GDS), which stretches across the border of North Carolina into Virginia, there lived a people who defied those who would enslave them.  They are called Maroons, a term that may derive from the Spanish word, cimmaron, meaning wild or savage; or marron in French meaning feral or fugitive.

Historians have written much about Maroon colonies in Florida and Louisiana as well as those in South America and the Caribbean.  However, with the archaeological work begun in 2004 by Daniel Sayers, PhD, professor at American University; the Great Dismal Swamp (GDS) has gained attention and the story of the unique place that it was is coming to light.

With its marshy land, the thick growth of trees and vines, the overwhelming presence of flies, mosquitoes and other insects along with snakes, vermin and larger wild animals, it was considered impenetrable by Europeans.

At times one could not see more than three (3) feet ahead and even a compass could not help one to stay on course.  It was a despised place, a place to be avoided or as the title of Sayres’ 2014 book states, “A Desolate Place for a Defiant People.”   This made it a perfect place for Maroons to claim their freedom and create their communities.

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Inside the densely forested swamp today, says Sayers, “There are at  least 200 habitable islands. There may have been thousands of maroons here.”  (Allison Shelley).  . Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/deep-swamps-archaeologists-fugitive-slaves-kept-freedom-180960122/#jSPqJIqt4ADFFP53.99  

Sayers’ archeological findings tell us that Maroons occupied GDS from 1620 up until the Civil War.  He believes that initially they were indigenous Americans and Africans.  Indians had always hunted on the fringes of the swamp which was rich with wild life.  Later they were fleeing the ravages and enslavement visited upon them by the newly arrived Europeans.  Runaways and free Negroes who found it difficult to maintain their freedom in the prevailing culture also came to live in the swamp.   The archeological evidence suggests that this was not primarily a space where runaways came to relax for a bit before continuing their northward journey, though some did.   This was home where their children were born, lived and died!

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During more than ten years of field excavations, archaeologist Dan Sayers has recovered 3604 artifacts at an island located deep inside the swamp. (Allison Shelley).  Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/deep-swamps-archaeologists-fugitive-slaves-kept-freedom-180960122/#jSPqJIqt4ADFFP53.99
In the deepest part of the swamp, as many as 2000 to 3000 Maroons lived in small communities on separate islands of high ground.  They built a fort, cabins on stilts and what appears to be several water reservoir pits. They had systems of governance and shared labor and were largely self-sufficient.  By some accounts, there were people who lived in GDS for generations.

Unlike Maroons in other places, they rarely ventured out of the swamp to raid nearby plantations.  They grew crops, raised hogs and chickens and otherwise depended on the bounty of nature to feed, clothe and house themselves.  One source of possible contact noted was with enslaved laborers in work camps built on the swamp borders.  These laborers were brought to cut timber and produce shingles from cedar and cypress for several months each year. They did not penetrate the depths where the Maroons found safety.

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However, some of the maroons surely interacted with shingle getters.  Overseers in these camps reported that some workers collected far more shingles than was humanly possible and they claimed provisions, based on their production, far in excess of other laborers.    Enslaved laborers received supplies and some pay, above what was paid to their owners, based on the volume of work produced making it easy for them to pay Maroons, mostly in supplies.  Overseers in these camps were not interested in chasing after Maroons who might have been in the interior of the swamp.  Even slave catchers couldn’t be enticed with extra bounty.

The story of GDS Maroons is a story of strength, knowledge, skill and determination; a story of people who chose freedom in an inhospitable space over slavery.  There, for generations, they created a new life for themselves and their families.  There are informative and inspiring stories here that we as NABS must tell.  That’s what we do!

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The  Great Dismal Swamp was established as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1974.  Today, a pavilion commemorates the swamp’s contribution as a part of the Underground Railroad.  (photo: Amy Johnson)

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Join NABS in Cary NC, October 31st through November 4th for the 36th Annual National Black Storytelling Festival Conference where inspiring stories are born, live and reign.

Resources

Sayers, Daniel O., 2014.  A Desolate Place for a Defiant People: The Archaeology of Maroons, Indigenous Americans, and Enslaved Laborers in the Great Dismal Swamp, University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Diouf, Sylviane A.,2014.  Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons, New York University Press, New York; Chapter 8, The Great Dismal Swamp.

Simpson, Bland, 1990.  The Great Dismal: A Carolinian’s Swamp Memoir, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

Deep in the Swamps, Archeaologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom, by Richard Grant.  Smithsonian Magazine, September 2016.  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/deep-swamps-archaeologists-fugitive-slaves-kept-freedom-180960122/

The Great Dismal Swamp and the Underground Railroad: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service brochure, https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/Region_5/NWRS/South_Zone/Great_Dismal_Swamp_Complex/Great_Dismal_Swamp/UGRR2.pdf

The Great Dismal Swamp and the Underground Railroad, http://perquimans.lostsoulsgenealogy.com/aa/dismalswampugrr.htm