The Black Storytellers APP: The Cowtail Switch – A symbol of Authority, Prestige and Prominence


African American Storytellers are most familiar with the cowtail switch through a story that has been declared a requirement in a Black Storyteller’s repertoire. “The Cow-tail Switch,” as collected from West Africa by Harold Courlander, is a tale in which we learn that as long as we call out the names and tell the stories of our ancestors, we keep them alive. In the story, the child who earns the cow-tail switch is the one who inquires as to the whereabouts of his father after a long absence, as opposed to the other children who apply their talents to aid in the father’s return after he was found.

The story brings to light ancient symbolism of the cow-tail switch, sometimes referred to as the fly whisk. Its significance has been deemed both authoritarian and spiritual. A King’s whisk upon the shoulder could mean a change of circumstance, and the Yoruba Orisha, Oya’s irukere (cowtail switch) is known to cause wide spread transformation through her forceful winds. Centuries old and laden with stories, the importance of the cowtail switch is legendary until this day.

Many African presidents and tribal chiefs carry a fly-whisk as a badge of authority to processes with his switch at traditional ceremonies. This past December,”Who will Inherit Kajwang’s Fly-whisk,” was a newspaper headliner. The winner of the Kenyan political campaign was marked by his ability to work his fly-whisk:

It was Raila’s turn next. Waving a black fly-whisk, he knew how to work the crowd. He demanded obedience and acceptance of his newly appointed ODM officials, those previously labeled Jubilee moles and rebels who were excelling in singing “Raila for president”.

In total control, waving the black fly-whisk and singing “Mapambano”, Raila was the inheritor of Kajwang’s mantle. – Business Daily, December 8, 2014.

nana opoku collageWhen visiting Ghana last May, I had the honor of interviewing, Nana Opoku one of the Asantehene of Kumasi’s protectors and orators. To the left you see Nana rendering all the names and attributes of the King while the Asantehene, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, stands before him holding his symbol of authority – the white-tailed cowtail switch. To the right is a photo of Nana during our interview.

Here in America, it is the National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc. (NABS) that carries on the empowering tradition. We continue, perpetuate and promote “In the Tradition…” the customs and rituals of the National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc. which are rooted in our African Heritage.

Mother Mary Carter Smith, the co-Founder of NABS brought the cowtail switch to the NABS. During the 1980’s she used the cowtail switch as she told the Cow-tail Switch story.   In 1992, the cowtail switch was ceremoniously bestowed upon the third president of NABS, Baba Jamal Koram during the 10th Anniversary of the Annual National Black Storytelling Festival in Baltimore, MD. Since then, it has been known as the “Passing of the Cowtail Switch Ceremony.” However, the cowtail switches were either borrowed or belonged to that President.

Part of my quest while traveling in Ghana was to bring back a cowtail switch that would be the permanent property of NABS. But first, it had to be regaled to reflect its authority, prestige and prominence. The journey began in Accra where the switch was purchased. A few days later, I traveled to the historical bead market of Koforidua, where Yoseda Hasan helped me search for brass beads to symbolize our co-founders – The Sankofa (Mother Mary Carter Smith) and the Asante Stool (Linda Goss, NABS 1st President). Understanding the royal nature of the switch, Yoseda extended its handle. Upon my return to the states, the switch was shipped to Pittsburgh, PA where Temujin Ekunfeo masterfully beaded the switch using red, black and green glass beads to represent the national collective consciousness of our people and cowry shells to exemplify wealth. Butterflies were added in memory of Brother Blue (Hugh Morgan) and to symbolize the transition between presidents. The esteemed switch received its distinguished finishing touches from Nashid Ali of Philadelphia, PA, who jeweled NABS brass acronym and logo.

The NABS Pnabscowtailswitchresidential Cowtail Switch is one-of-a-kind and considered high ceremonial regalia. It will be exhibited and stored at the National Great Black and Wax Museum in Baltimore, MD. Illustrious yet functional, the President will carry the switch during special occasions, for it symbolizes:

Honor: Honoring the incoming President and giving him/her the authority to preside over of the NABS’ Board, and to represent the organization, as witnessed and recognized by the membership of NABS.

Respect: Honoring the collective works and continuing efforts of the NABS association family, including contributions by the elders and ancestors.

Wisdom: Using African/Universal wisdom to guide and uplift our youth. “To know is good. To learn is better. To teach and share is best of all.”

Remembrance: Remembering our ancestors: “The ancestors are alive as long as we remember to tell their stories.

It is a great honor to be the bearer of the National Association of Black Storytellers’ Presidential Cowtail Switch.


queenheadinwhiteKaren “Queen Nur” Abdul-Malik is the 14th President of the National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc. and a lauded National Storyteller, Teacher Artist and Cultural Worker with a Masters in Arts in Cultural Sustainability from Goucher College. She is the winner of MidAtlantic Artists-As-Catalyst Awards, NSN Brimstone Grant, and featured in the book Legendary Locals of Willingboro.   She is the founder and executive director of In FACT, Inc. , a cultural sustainability organization.

Resources: Cowtail Switch and Other Stories by Harold Courlander; Business Daily; Smithsonian Institute Collections; Look for Me In the World Wind by Makeda Kemit; The Yoruba Religious Concepts.


OPEN THE DOOR RICHARD – Master Keys of Leadership

Written by Queen Nur

Oh, how we treasure the memory of our Beloved Founder Mary Carter Smith’s storytelling performance of Open the Door Richard.  And, Oh, how pleased we are to honor her legacy by sharing the keys of great leadership….….and bust the door of Greatness wide-open.

What does Mary Carter Smith, Linda Goss, David Walker, Carter G. Woodson, Booker T. Washington, Chancellor Williams, Geoffrey Canada, Gil Noble, Thurgood Marshall, Shirley Chisholm, and Fannie Lou Hamer, all have in common?  They are all great Leaders.


Enthusiastic about Mission



Efficient in Best Practices


Jimmy and Tonja Caldwell of Caldwell’s Leadership Solutions presented the first NABS Webinar for Members Only on March 26.  Jammed packed with information and resources, we received four keys to organizational success in a 90-minute electrifying presentation.  We know that there are many kinds of keys…luggage keys, door keys, treasure chest keys…but the keys we received on the Webinar were all Master Keys.  How do you secure entry to success?  What key ignites the right team?  How do you unlock community engagement?  How do you open the door to good financial practices?

The Caldwells explain that the answers lie in a formula “W=TSD.  Words equal what we Think, Say and Do.”   So once again, we come to understand the un-deniability of Nommo – The Power of the Word.  It is always the mission of the organization that propels the TSD.  So the first master key is to be Mission-Driven.  Board members must embody the mission in heart, speech and action.

The next key has to turn an ignition – Getting the right people on the Bus and the wrong people off of the Bus in order to drive the mission forward.  The key is to get team members who are willing to serve not just to sit. Often folks say, “Oh, this is a volunteer thing, so we can only expect what folks are willing to give.”  DON’T set your expectations low.  The expectations for your organization should not be any less that what would be expected to run any other successful business.  We no longer have to pay the fare on the front of the bus, as did Rosa Parks, and then get off and walk to the back of the Bus to get on.   The entrance is in the front – meaning – board members should be dedicated to forwarding the mission of the organization at all times – Doing the working.

It is the actions of the team that influence the community and transform lives.   With this key, we are given entry into making a difference through Community Engagement, while at the same time, building an army of support for the organization’s mission.  The Caldwell’s reiterated, “You DO NOT want your organization to be the best kept secret.”  If you are not influencing the community, how can you mission be forwarded?

To open the door fully we need the fourth key – the key to BEST Financial Practices. 

Balance (Diversify Sources – Over 70% of donations come from individuals – Don’t just depend on Grants)

Evaluate budget monthly (Compare budget with actuals to assess current status)

Sustainability (Does your financials tell a story of sustainability?)

Timeliness (Honor Deadlines, File and Report on Time)

With the four keys now on our master key ring we are able to open the door to success.   But how do you make sure that none of the keys get jammed in the keyhole.  AAAH…. Four more FREE Webinars to go in this Leadership series.  The next is on April 10.  Members be sure to sign up at

* Open the Door Richard is a monologue made famous by Dusty Fletcher in 1947 and performed by such greats as Pigmeat Markham and Mary Carter Smith.