33rd “In The Tradition…”Annual National Festival and Conference of Black Storytelling-Victory and Vision

Dylan PritchettJambo! Peace and Blessings, National Association of Black Storytellers family and friends!  Green leaves are turning beautiful fall colors. A little chill greets us in the morning and evening.  Some of us are beginning to pack for that annual Homecoming, Home Gathering of jeliw, storytellers, storylisteners and storylovers from Ohio, Pennsylvania, the New England States, New York, Louisiana, North Carolina, Mississippi, Minnesota, New Jersey, the Mid-West, West Virginia, California, Georgia, Baltimore (the center of the known universe) and beyond. Because, it is time for that annual warm hugging, bright smiling, awesome drumming, tall tale telling, audacious storytelling event, the 33rd “In the Tradition… “Annual National Black Storytelling Festival and Conference.

The organizers have been working extremely hard to ensure that you will witness and testify to another spectacular festival. Dylan Pritchett, Festival Director, has organized trips to and lectures at the National Archives and the Library of Congress and confirmed our special Featured Scholar, Dr. Rex Ellis, Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Don’t miss this presentation.

Mama Elisha Minter, our Youth Director promises fun, excitement, storytelling and special surprises for the youth when they gather to share their vision and victories.  She says, “Join us as Mama Linda Goss returns to Howard University (her alma mater) to share words of wisdom with our youth on Friday, November 13th”.

Co-Directors of the Adopt-A-Teller Program (AATP) Stanley “Bunjo” Butler and Linda Gorham were challenged this year to create and implement a successful program. They met that challenge, and with the help of the sponsors, The National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), Nora Roberts Foundation, Lois Lenski Covey Foundation and the McGraw Hill Company, will provide 39 individual performances in 33 venues and the gift of books. Tellers will perform at The Kennedy Center, the District of Columbia’s public libraries, schools, a youth service center and an assisted living facility for adults.

Host Committee Chair, Carol Alexander is excited to bring us a taste of DC Black Broadway: Stories In Music, Dance and Voice. The event will be held Thursday, November 12th at 6:30 p.m., at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, 400 I St SW, Washington, DC.  Get ready for KanKouran West African Dance Ensemble Company the Ishingi Family Dance and Drummers, gospel, storytelling and a Thursday night fish fry!

I would also like to acknowledge the transition of our beloved NABS Talking Blog Editor, Sister Linda Cousins Newton. Sister Linda was a gifted writer and editor and her dedication, friendship and commitment I will sorely miss. A true warrior scholar has fallen.  But I am pleased to announce that Donna Washington has stepped forward and will be our guest blog editor for the next several months. Donna is a storyteller, author and blogger and her personal blog post can be found at Language, Literacy and Storytelling: A Discussion About the Links Between Storytelling Language and Literacy.

See you at NABS!

UNTIL UHURU,

Sister Dr. Caroliese Frink Reed, Chairperson
Education Committee
National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc.

The People Who Disappeared by Temujin the Storyteller

“The master, the overseer, and the driver looked after them as they flew, beyond the wood, beyond the river, miles on miles, until they passed beyond the last rim of the world and disappeared in the sky like a handful of leaves.  They were never seen again.  Where they went I do not know. . .”

The passage above comes a story titled “All God’s Chillun Had Wings”, which was first recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project, an organization committed to, among its other projects, documenting the stories of African-Americans that had been passed down to them by their ancestors. “All God’s Chillun Had Wings” was published in Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes, which was produced in the early 1900s.

The story appeared in The Book of Negro Folklore, a collection of folktales compiled in 1958 by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps.  The late Virginia Hamilton re-worked the story as a children’s picture book called The People Could Fly which was published in 1985.

The story I have to tell is about 53 enslaved Africans, including 28 adults and  25 children who could not fly; instead they disappeared. My story begins during a time when slavery existed in all 13 colonies.  A man named John Neville purchased his first two slaves, Harvey and Joe, in 1767.  John Neville also purchased the land that would become the site of my story plus 14,000 more acres of land in 1774 in what was then Western Virginia, later becoming Western Pennsylvania.   One year later in 1775  the enslaved Africans living there began to develop the land and to construct Woodville, the first manor house.  Neville served as the commander of Ft. Pitt (Ft. Dunmore) on behalf of the Virginia colony. When the American Revolutionary War broke out, he fought until 1780.

During the time John Neville was away at war, the enslaved Africans on his plantation continued developing the land and building the Woodville manor house. When Neville, now a general,  returned home in 1780 to what had become Western Pennsylvania, due to the survey done by Mason and Dixon, he was compelled to register 21 of the enslaved Africans–nine females and twelve males–under the Pennsylvania Gradual Emancipation Act of 1780.  Were it not for this state boundary, the enslaved Africans held in bondage by the Neville family might not have been freed at that time and could well have remained enslaved for the rest of their lives.

In the 1790s Bower Hill, a second manor house was built by the enslaved Africans on Neville’s estate. It was perhaps the greatest Pennsylvania mansion west of the Allegheny Mountains.  The Africans enslaved by the Neville family on the Woodville and Bower Hill plantations had a wide range of skills and trades.  They served as lumberjacks, distillers, carpenters, joiners, husbandmen (“ranchers”), and  engaged in other of the farm trades. Those who were skilled in the art of distilling manufactured whiskey, the cash crop on the Neville plantations. The Bower Hill Plantation boasted a 500-gallon still, the largest in Western Pennsylvania.

Not only were Neville’s enslaved African given the tasks of development and construction, the defense of the lands, buildings, everything else was also in their hands. John Neville armed his enslaved Africans, as did many frontier plantation owners. Therefore skilled marksmen could be added to the list of things at which the enslaved Africans on the Neville plantations were talented.

A small proof of this is found in the story of two of the enslaved children on the Bower Hill plantation.  In November of 1784, 11-year old Will and his 8-year old brother Putnam got permission to hunt a wolf that had been attacking the sheep. These two boys successfully killed a 100-pound wolf; their exploits are a matter of record.  Ten years later, in 1794,  these young marksmen would employ their firearms skills in defense of the Bower Hill manor house.

When I first read about the Battle of Bower Hill and the fact that enslaved Africans who lived there participated in the defense of the property, I was puzzled.  In time I learned that the plantations at Woodville and Bower Hill were not the full-time homes of the Neville family, who actually resided in the city of Pittsburgh. The plantations were a source of income while the manor houses were, for lack of a better word, vacation homes.

The plantations at Woodville and Bower Hill were, however, the full-time homes of the 53 enslaved Africans.  They had built the Woodville house and other buildings, developed the land, planted the crops, and distilled the whiskey, the cash crop, while the Nevilles, both John and his son Presley, fought in the revolution.

The enslaved Africans had lived on the Woodville plantation and later Bower Hill since 1775, a span of 19 years. They had taken mates and raised children there.  Woodville and later Bower Hill were much more their homes than they ever were the homes of the Neville family.

Due to public resentment about an excise tax on both homemade and commercial whiskey , an armed revolt would be fomented.  On July 16th at least 30 Mingo Creek militiamen  surrounded  Bower Hill, Neville’s fortified home. General Neville was a tax collector and a federal marshal who had been serving writs on those who had not paid their taxes. He had taken refuge there. With the Bower Hill house being situated on a hill, Neville saw the militia coming and immediately called the African men to arms. I am quite sure that the African defense force included Will and his brother Putnam, the wolf slayers, who were now 21 and 18 respectively.

The Mingo Creek militiamen demanded the surrender of the federal marshal whom they believed to be inside. General John Neville responded by firing a gunshot that mortally wounded Oliver Miller, one of the “rebels”.  The rebels opened fire. They were surprised by in turn being fired upon from the slave quarters. When the call to arms was given, at least 14 African men, perhaps even more, took up arms and fought a two-day battle against the Whiskey Rebels.  Since we have no idea how many male children of the 25 children had grown to adulthood by 1794, there could have been a sizable force of African musketeers at the battle of Bower Hill, perhaps 20 or more.

The rebels were unable to dislodge Neville and the other defenders. The rebels then retreated to nearby Couch’s Fort to gather reinforcements and spent a good part of their time on the 16th and 17th getting drunk. They  returned to Bower Hill on July 17th. Their numbers had swelled to nearly 600 men, now commanded by Major James McFarlane, a veteran of the Revolutionary War.  Neville had also received reinforcements which included ten American soldiers from Fort Lafayette in Pittsburgh under the command of Major Abraham Kirkpatrick, a brother-in-law of Neville’s wife.  Before the rebel force arrived, Kirkpatrick had Neville leave the house and hide in a nearby ravine.

After some negotiations, the women and children were allowed to leave the house; both sides then began firing. After about an hour, McFarlane called for a cease-fire.   According to some, a white flag had been waved in the house.   As McFarlane stepped into the open, a shot came from the house, and McFarlane fell, mortally wounded. The enraged rebels then set fire to the house and Kirkpatrick surrendered.

The number of casualties at Bower Hill is unclear, and there is no mention of the numbers of the African defenders who were wounded or killed in the fray; defenders who had stood their ground and fought so bravely during the fierce two-day battle. McFarlane and one or two other militiamen were killed; one U.S. soldier may have died from wounds received in the fight.  The rebels sent the American soldiers away and then  proceeded to destroy more of Neville’s property, dividing up all of the remaining whiskey from the 500-gallon still.

I can only assume that the Africans escaped down the wooded hillside that led to the Woodville manor house since none were captured. I am convinced that had any of the African defenders surrendered, it would not have gone well for them. After all, they had been involved in killing or attempting to kill White men.

General Neville made his way to Philadelphia to report what had happened at Bower Hill. A militia force was called up from New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and eastern Pennsylvania. in 1794. Headed for Pittsburgh, this federalized militia force of 12,950 men was a large army by American standards of the time.  The rebels who had attacked Bower Hill had no desire to fight such a force of Revolutionary War veterans. In essence, the Whiskey Rebellion in the Pittsburgh area had come to an end.

The Bower Hill house was never rebuilt, and the enslaved Africans who defended it are not mentioned again, although they must have continued to reside at the Woodville plantation.  About five years later, as a partner of Andrew Montour,  General Neville acquired Montour’s Island in a land dispute and moved there.  The island, which was named for the Native American interpreter, Andrew Montour, became the place where Neville spent his final years. We can only assume that the enslaved Africans moved there with him.

These enslaved Africans on John Neville’s landholdings unfortunately became invisible to history after the battle of Bower Hill. In fact, quite a few historians don’t even write about their valiant participation  in the battle of Bower Hill, as though they had not been there.  They remained invisible to history for nine years between 1794 and 1803 when General John Neville died.

John Neville died on July 29, 1803; his dying request to his son, Presley Neville, and his son in-law and plantation overseer, Isaac Craig, was that the enslaved Africans  be manumitted–and they were.  Presley Neville and Isaac Craig looked after them as they rode and walked, “beyond the woods, beyond the river, miles on miles, until they passed beyond the last rim of the world and they all disappeared like a handful of leaves in the wind.  They were never seen or heard from again.”  Where they went, no one knows. . .

–Temujin Ekunfeo

Temujin  Babalosa Obalorun Temujin Ekùnféo (Temujin The Storyteller) was initiated in1978 by Afro-Cubans and African Americans as a Priest (Babalosa) in the Lukumi Yoruba tradition which was established in Cuba by captives brought to Cuba during the days of the slave trade. Temujin has performed throughout the country since 1968.   His list of talents includes lecturer, workshop developer, musician, and instrument maker. As both a scholar and performer of African culture Temujin feels a strong commitment to researching African Folklore from the Americas as well as from the continent of Africa and shares it by means of family-oriented, audience-participatory storytelling programs and experiential “Playshops” for youths and adults.

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

cowtailswitchcollage4

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.

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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.