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


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.


Rev. William Barber speaking at a Moral Mondays rally on July 15, 2013

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.


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 ( 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.

Poor PC_Health.jpg

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.


  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


Why Were Peaceful Protestors Barred from Kentucky Capitol?  By Kent Gilbert, Lexington Herald Leader,  June 5, 2018.

Thirty-four protestors advocating for $15 minimum wage arrested in Raleigh NC, Monday June 11, 2018;

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

Man behind Moral Mondays, by Lisa Rab, Mother Jones April 14, 2014.

Rev. William Barber builds a moral movement; Cleve R. Wootson, Jr., June 29, 2017.

Kentucky Poor Peoples Campaign Shut out of State Capitol Second Week In A Row; Tues. June 12, 2018.



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

Weaving Tales From the Dismal Swamp to Moral Monday Marches flyer.jpg

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.


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.


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:  

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!


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:
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.


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!


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)

      Check NABS Talking for our next post on Moral Monday Marches

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.


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.

The Great Dismal Swamp and the Underground Railroad: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service brochure,

The Great Dismal Swamp and the Underground Railroad,








The Power of Black Storytellers

Martin Luther King Jr. said –

“Not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service. As we provide the service to others and not expecting anything in return, we inevitably leave something that people will remember.”


My father is seventy three. He tells the story of how he used to get Sears and Roebuck catalogues and look at all of the wonderful stuff in them. It never occurred to him he could own any of it, but he certainly dreamt about it.

Dad: “Do you know why I never thought I’d have any of that?”

Me: “No.”

Unknown-1.jpegDad: “There were no black people in those catalogues. I thought all of that stuff was just for white people. I didn’t think there was anything in that world that belonged to me. If you can’t see yourself in a place, you have no idea you can get there.

The story many black children are told is the story of “can’t”. The “can’t” doesn’t start with words, it starts with what they see. No matter what we say, children are influenced by what they see in the world. For so many black kids in America, the “can’t” is everywhere.

You “can’t” achieve.

You “can’t” come in.

You “can’t” so don’t even try.

Your options are limited.

There is no place for you.

This is the story of being invisible. This is the story of being unseen. This is the story of having no place at the table.

Our potential begins with our imagination. What do you want? Who can you be? What is out there for you? How will you spend your life?

The more options you can see, the bigger you can dream. The more you can see, the better your chances of finding your own place in this world.

In my father’s day, there weren’t lots of resources for black kids. There are more today.

Books, however, are not enough. They need to see real life proof in their everyday lives that they can be the things they see in their dreams.

As black storytellers, we bring something into a school, library, or community that only we can bring. We call people together to laugh, or think or play. We teach with music and story. We open a world to a black child that they might not have ever considered. We are a gateway into or out of the lives they are living.

We are a lens through which they can see themselves dreaming bigger.

Our presence tells them – There are people who look like you who have mastery over language. There are people who look like you who can bring people of all colors, faiths, and ideologies together to celebrate humanity. There are people who look like you who shine as bright as any sun.

You can be the maestro. You can be the focus.

Don’t be afraid of your talent.

Don’t be afraid of your love of art or music or words.

Don’t be afraid to be smart or well read.

There is a place for what is in your heart.

Don’t let anyone tell you there isn’t.

When black storytellers take the stage, they let every black child know that they can be seen, and heard, and that they are both beautiful and worthwhile.

From October 31 – November 4th 2018, NABS will hold its 36th annual conference and festival in Cary, NC. Storytellers will be in the schools, and working in the community sharing our work with listeners of all ages who need stories.


What we do is important.

What we show is important.

The hope and joy we bring are important.

We are powerful.


Donna Washington – Storyteller


Remember The Storm – Mother Mary Carter Smith


As if speaking to us from beyond the grave, the late Mother Mary Carter Smith (1919 – 2007), Co-founder of the National Association of Black Storytellers, advises her community in the aftermath of apparently devastating election results. Although she is discussing a local election in 1993, she very well could have been talking about the 2016 presidential election. The point is, we have been through the storm before; we CAN withstand this storm. This isn’t the worst, and it won’t be the last.


A likeness of Mother Mary Carter Smith was installed in the National Great Blacks In Wax Museum in Baltimore in 1989. Mother Mary Carter Smith was proclaimed Baltimore’s Official Griot in 1983 and Maryland’s Official Griot in 1991.

Many years ago, I attended a tribute to Mother Mary at the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in her adopted hometown of Baltimore Maryland. There, she talked to us–a group of storytellers–about the importance of leaving a legacy. She said she wanted each one of us to receive a copy of a radio broadcast she’d hosted on Morgan University Radio.

Mother Mary Carter Smith hosted “Black Is” on Maryland Public Radio, “The Children’s Hour” in Washington, D.C. and “Griot for the Young and Young at Heart” for over 20 years on Morgan University Radio, WEAA-FM.

As promised, a digital copy of the broadcast was delivered to me.

As I listened, Mother Mary recalled the long, hard struggle by African-Americans to win the right to vote. She recalled that Black people stood in line for hours to participate in the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994.

She reckoned that the local election results “brought home in great force that we, African Americans, are a despised people, looked down upon by many of those in power.”

Then, she recounts a speech which she wrote for the October 29th, 1993 dedication of a slave ship installation at the National Great Blacks In Wax Museum, “Remember the Storm”. An old spiritual runs throughout.

Hard times, she said, we’ve had hard times before. The dreadful march to sea, the Middle Passage….

We’ll stand the storm and it won’t be long. We’ll anchor by-and-by.
We’ll stand the storm and it won’t be long. We’ll anchor by-and-by…

Some jumped overboard. Some chose to survive. To Resist. Always to resist.

We’ve had hard times before. The New World plantations.

Mother Mary goes on to tell the heart-wrenching story of Kizzy, from Alex Haley’s Roots. And sings another round of the hymn.

We’ll stand the storm and it won’t be long. We’ll anchor by-and-by.
We’ll stand the storm and it won’t be long. We’ll anchor by-and-by…

When I see the despair and read the fatalistic lamentations of people around the United States over the baffling results of the 2016 election, I couldn’t help but think of this recording. And, I knew I had to share it with you.

I’m realizing now, again, how much influence Mother Mary has had on me as a storyteller; in the kinds of stories I tell. I am a part of her legacy. And, I am not afraid to stand in the Storm.

In 2015, the Board of Directors of the National Association of Black Storytellers,  Inc., proclaimed (her Birthday)

Read the Proclamation

We have come through storms to face new storms. The old chains were of iron.

The new chains have new names. We are in the midst of a storm.

How about the future?

Yet, she said, there is a way out of this storm.

  1. Put down roots in your faith–the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, The African religions–to be lived and not merely recited.
  2. Give an honest day’s work, whatever our work may be.
  3. Reach out and help one another, regardless of our zip codes.

We have come through great storms. We can come thru this one.

We’ll stand the storm and it won’t be long. We’ll anchor by-and-by.
We’ll stand the storm and it won’t be long. We’ll anchor by-and-by…

Take a Listen.

(Audio Clips: “Griot for the Young and Young at Heart” Morgan University Radio, WEAA-FM, 1994.)


Posted by:

Denise Valentine 14963380_10210690475757709_5632598297831898399_na.k.a Storymama, of Philadelphia, PA, is a Professional Storyteller, Historical Performer and Consultant. Denise also serves as the Social Media Coordinator for the National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc. @NABStalking and an affiliate member of Keepers of the Culture, Inc.

Find Denise on the web: Storymama’s Blog,  Twitter,  Facebook,  and Instagram.


National Association of Black Storytellers Celebrates its 34th Annual “In the Tradition…” Festival & Conference


National Association of Black Storytellers Celebrates 34 years of the “In the Tradition…”  Festival & Conference


The National Association of Black Storytellers Inc. (NABS) is proud to announce its 34th  “In The Tradition…” Annual National Black Storytelling Festival & Conference, The Way We Tell It is The Way It Is, to be held November 2-6, 2016, at the Wyndham Historic District Hotel in Philadelphia, PA. This year’s event, like all others before, is the preeminent place to experience masterful storytellers sharing stories, culture and history from the African diaspora. The annual event is by far the Nation’s finest and features the best of storytelling from the African cultural traditions!


“This annual Festival showcases NABS’ vision and creative approach to strengthen our communities through the art of storytelling and collecting, owning and institutionalizing our narratives,” reports Dr. Caroliese Frink Reed, this year’s Festival Director. “NABS’ storytellers will educate and entertain by celebrating the oral tradition that depicts and documents the African-American experience,” stated Karen “ Queen Nur “Abdul-Malik, President of NABS.

Festival Highlights!

The pre-festival event, A Cultural Extravaganza: Philly Style is hosted by Keepers of the Culture: Philadelphia’s Afro-centric storytelling group at the AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSEUM in Philadelphia. The Festival offers a jubilant and culturally rich environment for the entire family, including an Opening Love Circle and two-hour concert. There are few other annual events whereby audiences can hear, feel and see the authentic voice of African American storytellers LIVE-on Stage. On Thursday evening, November 3, 2016, a conversation with the matriarch of the Black Arts Movement. Sonia Sanchez will be a highlight of the week. Co-founder Linda Goss and Dr. Linda Humes will interview the Poet Laureate of Philadelphia, Sister Sonia Sanchez.


Other performers include:

  • Award winning, international storyteller, Diane Ferlatte is a traditional preserver of folk history, culture and value whose powerful dynamic characterizations, interactions and animated expressions. Diane tells folktales, fables, and legends that are historical, contemporary, and personal narratives with African, African American and Southern roots.
  • Andrea Fain uses her storytelling voice as a unique ministry to create an ambience that audiences welcome.  Her Afrocentric repertoire brings an awareness of the Black experience and history.
  • Emily Lansana and vocalist, Glenda Zahra Baker came together In Chicago, over twenty years ago to form Performance Duo: In the Spirit. Each performance since then to celebrate the power of the word to connect, uplift and transform.
  • Sonny Kelly, a writer, director and radio host is also a world-class performer, storyteller, motivational, speaker and comedian, who has acted professionally on stage and television for over 20 years. This California man gone Southern gentleman will have the audience rolling in the aisles!
  • Mitchell Capel partners with Sonny Kelly to create “a force to be reckoned with.” As a duo they bring to life untold stories of the hundreds of thousands of unsung heroes whose glory and honor have remained silent for entirely too long. Featuring the original work of Paul Laurence Dunbar, William Cullen Bryant, Raymond Garfield Dandridge, Dr. Rex Ellis and others, this work brings to life an array of African American soldiers, their stories and their struggles.
  • Denise Valentine is a professional storyteller, teaching artist and historical performer who has performed for international audiences of all ages at hundreds of schools, libraries, museums and community events illustrating the power of story to transcend differences between people, transform negativity and inspire hope.
  • Relive the experiences of the ancestors and learn from Atiba Kwabena, who has studied the folklore of Afrika and its western-hemispheric diaspora and currently lectures at Hunter College on the subjects of the “African Origins of Hip-Hop” and the “African Origins of the Blues.”



NABS 2016 Featured Tellers


All activities at will take place in the midst of an AFRICAN AMERICAN MARKETPLACE with NABS RESOURCE CENTER where African imports, Afro-centric wearable art, African American literature, Black art, Karamu Corner and intriguing wares will be available for purchase. First-Time attendees, New Members and Old-Timers will also have an occasion to come together during the Akwabaa Gathering to get tips on how to maximize the Festival & Conference experience and get the most out of their NABS membership! A dynamic beginner and advance storytelling workshop will include tips and techniques for performance, teaching & drumming.


In addition, NABS Storytellers will come together from across the country to provide over 50 dynamic educational and cultural experiences in Philadelphia’s schools, libraries, museums, correctional facilities, recreation and senior centers, through its National Adopt-a-Teller program. The AFRICAN-AMERICAN HERITAGE TOUR, another special offering, will allow visitors to experience the hallowed grounds of the historic Mother Bethel AME church. Founded in 1787 by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, the church rests upon the oldest parcel of land continuously owned by African Americans. Participants will also visit the Lest We Forget Black Holocaust Museum of Slavery, to see artifacts and hardware used during the periods of enslavement and the Jim Crow era.

In honor of Jackie Torrence, the Liar’s Contest has been renamed! Yes, this is the one place where Big Mama won’t mind the children tellin’ a little tall tale! The adults also get a chance to test their lifetime practice of the art!


NABS is a nationally organized body with individual, affiliate and organizational memberships throughout the United States.


For Registrations

Registration is on-site only!

Download the Festival Flier!


For Hotel Reservations:

Please access via using the 2016 Hotel link on home page, or call 215.923.8660, and ask for National Association of Black Storytellers room block. Reservations will be confirmed upon receipt of a valid credit card number or prepayment of one (1) night deposit.


For more information contact:

Dr. Caroliese Frink Reed, National Festival Director


TAHIRA, Local Festival Director


NABS, INC:               Karen Abdul-Malik             609.680.4831

NABS BOOKING:    Vanora Franklin Legaux     410-947-1117

NABS PR:                  C. Sade Turnipseed              662.347.8198





“Did you Say, Middle School?”

Few things can send fear through the hearts of some storytellers than the thought of standing in front of middle school students for storytelling.

Elementary school students are game. They still like tales, and they want to hear them.

There are a myriad of topics for High School Students, and you can actually have conversations about things.

Middle School isn’t like either of those.

The Middle School audience wants to be entertained, is really freaked out about what everyone else is doing, wants to be treated like they are grown, but are actually still children, think that they know more than the adults around them, and are swinging through the first and most pernicious part of puberty. They are, in other words, challenging.

There are tellers who come to mind who we are pretty sure have no problems with middle school.

No doubt Kala Jojo could keep an auditorium of middle school kids enrapt.

What about Madafo Lloyd Wilson, Charlotte Blake Alston?


Well, “sure”, you might say, “Of course they could hold middle schoolers, but what about me?”

I can’t play the Bow Harp!


I don’t even know what this is!


I have an mbira…somewhere.


And, before you ask, no, I most certainly do not have a djembe!


Yes, middle school audiences love music, but they also love language, and you can hook them if you try a few simple steps.

  1. Create Common Ground.  This is a skill we all employ. Though it might seem that this crowd wants nothing to do with anyone, not even themselves half the time, they are as susceptible to hearing things about themselves as the next person. You could begin by asking questions such as, “What were you most worried about when starting school this year?” you could seed the discussion by saying, “When I was in sixth grade, my biggest fear was being laughed at by other people. Does anyone else have this fear?” Questions are a great way to begin.
  2. Shape your stories to deal with the sorts of things that plague or interest this group. This age range deals with a complete renegotiating of who they are and how they live with peers. It is the age where they start giving each other grief about their hair, shoes, clothes, skin tones and all sorts of other things. Belonging is more important than expressing individuality. This is really hard for some kids. Talk about the identity issues, and tell stories that address the feelings of isolation, fear and shame that lots of this age group grapples with on a regular basis.
  3. This is a group of people who do not have their emotions under control, and they are likely to do spontaneous, destructive, charitable, lovely, unpredictable, crazy, out of the blue things. Address this as well, and tell stories about your own foibles, the foibles of other adults through history, or folklore that deals with the perils of acting before you’ve thought about it.
  4. You could also talk about surviving middle school. Focus on the kids who are marginalized, and tell stories that help the kids in the middle realize that someday all of them will be leaving school, and you never know who someone is going to turn out to be in the next ten years.


Don’t write people off just because you don’t see where they might be going!

When you figure out where your audience lives, you can meet them there and take them anywhere!

Happy Telling!

Donna Washington, Storyteller.


Donna is a national storyteller, author, workshop presenter and award winning recording artist.  She has been featured at thousands of schools, festivals and conferences across the country.