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

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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.

TALK THAT TALK – The Bible of Black Storytelling

This article expandTalk That Talks on Question #15 from the NABS Storytelling Board Game, created by the organizational co-founder, Mama Linda Goss. The answer to that particular question, (“What book is considered the bible of blackstorytelling?”):   Talk That Talk: An Anthology of African-American Storytelling edited by Linda Goss and Marian E. Barnes, (Simon & Schuster, 1989). Not only is Talk That Talk a collection of stories, tales, sermons, poetry and rhymes as told by African Americans, but the work defines the concept of “Blackstorytelling”*, placing it in an historical context. The commentaries following each section support the concept that “blackstorytelling” does not exist in a vacuum, but is part of our cultural collective experience. Mama Linda acknowledges that Talk That Talk was influenced by four previous publications: Book of Negro Folklore by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston, Black Fire by Amiri Baraka and The New Negro by Alain Locke.

In looking for stories in the pre-Google Internet search days, many storytellers consulted the reference books: A to Zoo: Subject Access to Children’s Picture Books by Carolyn and John Lima (numerous editions) and The Storyteller’s Sourcebook by Margaret Read MacDonald (1st and 2nd editions). While both of the books were very resourceful, they were limited in their listings of African and African American stories. Thus, African American storytellers began to consult and collect works by many of these authors: Harold Courlander (A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore; A Treasury of African Folklore; Fire on the Mountain; Cow-tail Switch); Augusta Baker and Ellin Greene (Storytelling: Art and Technique); Virginia Hamilton (A Ring of Tricksters; When Birds Could Sing; Herstories; The People Could Fly; Many Thousand Gone); Zora Neale Hurston (Mules and Men; Go Gator and Muddy the Water; Every Tongue Got to Confess); Roger D. Abrahams (Afro-American Folktales, African Folktales); Daryl Cumber Dance (Shucking and Jiving: Folklore from Contemporary Black Americans; Honey Hush: An Anthology of Black Women’s Humor; From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore); Julius Lester (This Strange New Feeling; To Be A Slave; Long Journey Home; Black Folktales; Tales of Uncle Remus; Knee-High Man); William J. Faulkner (The Days When the Animals Talked); Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes (Step it Down: Plays, Songs and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage); Jackie Torrence (Jackie Tales); Nelson Mandela (Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales); Ashley Bryan (Beat the Story Drum, Pum-Pum; Lion and the Ostrich Chicks; Ox of the Wonderful Horns and other African Folktales).

We cannot overlook the contributions made by NABS, Inc. and its members to the literature of storytelling. In 1995 Linda Goss and Clay Goss edited Jump Up and Say! A Collection of Black Storytelling, and in 2006 Sayin’ Somethin’: Stories from the National Association of Black Storytellers edited by Linda Goss, DylanPritchett and Caroliese Frink Reed, was published by the Association. Our roster of members who publish and promote “blackstorytelling” include Karima Amin, Baba Jamal Koram, Rex Ellis, Linda Goss, Eleanora Tate, Larry Coleman, Mary Carter Smith, Rita Cox, Jackie Torrence, Len Cabral, Bobby Norfolk, David Anderson, Lyn Ford, Diane Williams, Willa Brigham, Linda Cousins-Newton, Gladys Marie-Fry, Temujin, Janice Curtis Greene, Mitch Capel, Charlotte Blake-Alston, Dylan Pritchett , Alice McGill, Brother Blue, Paul Keens-Douglas and many others. NABS, the authentic voice of “blackstorytelling” , continues to raise the bar in “spreading the word” through print and media sources.

My experience as a librarian and commitment to storytelling led me to establish The Storytelling Resource Center as part of Zawadi Books, 2460 Main Street, Buffalo, NY. This Center holds approximately 1,200 books by and about storytelling and storytellers including history and techniques. Many of the books referred to in this article are from that collection. My mission is to support local storytellers as they define and refine the art of storytelling by giving access to resources. Talk That Talk, the bible of Black Storytelling, is a step on that journey.

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* “Blackstorytelling” has been written as one word in some of NABS historical archives and more recently by elder storyteller, Dr.  David “Sankofa” Anderson to show that this is one entity.  According to NABS member, Caroliese Frink Reed: “The distinction between Blackstorytelling (in America) and other storytelling traditions, is that it was and is continually being forged, honed and shaped by the conditions that brought it forth.” (from “The African Oral Traditions” by Caroliese Frink Reed in SAYIN’ SOMETHIN’ , edited by Linda Goss, Dylan Pritchett and Caroliese Frink Reed, NABS, 2006)

–Sharon Jordan Holley

 

Sharon Jordan Holley

Sharon Jordan Holley is a retired librarian and storyteller living in Buffalo, NY.  She is a co-founder of Tradition Keepers: Black Storytellers of Western New York and a lifetime member of NABS.  She is also a recipient of the Zora Neale Hurston  Award.

Photo Credit: Powellful Creations

Story Weaving, Story Sharing, Story Gathering Time!

By Linda Cousins- Newton

“Time sho’ does fly!” Can you believe it– In a little less than a month, hundreds of us from across the country and the world will once more be NABS-bound to be blessed with both the sharing and receiving of stories from some of the world’s greatest word-weaving artists. I have been contemplating for months how I will best open my mind, heart, and soul to reveal the stories lodged there during my workshop on the African-Amerindian Connections and Coalitions and in portraying the humbly great ancestor, ‘Aunt Chona, the Black Seminole Horse Trainer and Love Warrior.”

As my Georgia-born, Tennessee-dwelling Grandmama Anna Pearl, would have said, “Well, chile. I don’t know why in the world you sittin’ ’round doing so much thankin’ ’bout it.  Jes go out there, git outa the way, and let the good Lord use you to do your thang.” My first informal (and unsuspecting) mentor in the art of storytelling (while stirring up a delectable “pot” over the kitchen coal stove or while sitting around the fireplace on cold Tennessee nights–uh-oh, dating myself, aren’t I?!); well, Mama, as we all called her, just let the stories flow from her heart; no rehearsals, no mics, no costumes–just soul-based, spirit-shared stories that remained with the hearer for a lifetime.

And so taking my cue from that wise family griot–(who, puzzled, would’ve wrinkled her brow upon hearing that strange word “griot”)–I, too, will get out of the way and let the ancestors and the creative Spirit mold, shape, and share these profound stories in the best way possible through the consciousness of my being. Then I will combine my years of training as a teacher to hopefully take it “another further” by engaging the varied learning styles and five senses of those sister-brother story partakers; by incorporating music, art, a dab of poetry, and eye-pleasing visuals in spreading the Word of both the well-known and little-known cultural linkages and collective freedom quests of the African descendants and Amerindian freedomists who joined hearts, minds, love, and powerful military skills “way back when” (as Grandmama Anna Pearl would say) in our history and our herStory.

While it is a challenge, albeit a positive one, to unfold the consciousness in storytelling to a room full of master storytellers and long-time ancestralists; with the warm, loving, encouraging NABS audience, it is also a supreme delight as these story carriers and story sharers relish knowledge gathering and soul liftings. I not only daily read, ponder and research these stories, I live the story and walk the history in my daily life, so much so that the Divine Parent arranged for my marriage into a Black Seminole family and took me to the ancestral homeland with Mother Tubman’s family and her own ever-active spirit.

Yes, I believe I’ve got “some mighty good story stuff” to serve on the plates of these living ancestors, Mama. I hope to make the ancestors (including you) and the Supreme Artist of the universe proud in doing this work. And as with your stories told to the family and the l’il shy Tennessee poet “way back when”, I pray that these ancestral stories flowing from my soul will remain with the hearers for a lifetime–and far beyond. (Then I can breathe a sigh of relief, “rare back”, and enjoy the other stories flowing from the souls of these master story weavers and living ancestors from around the world.)

Linda Cousins-Newton is the Director, Ancestral Promotions in New York.

A Word About Storytelling in General and Blackstorytelling in Particular

Caroliese Frink Reed, Ph.D. Candidate, Temple University

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I stand myself and my art squarely on the self-defining ground
of the slave quarters, and find the ground to be hallowed
and made fertile by the blood and bones of the men and women
who can be described as warriors on the cultural battlefield
that affirmed their self-worth. As there is no idea that cannot be
affirmed by black life, these men and women found themselves to be
sufficient and secure in their art and their instructions.

                                                                                                                                                                                                           —-August Wilson (1996)

Storytelling is an oral tradition. It allows us to convey through words the events and experiences of our lives and the lived experiences of others. Practitioners of this ancient tradition are deemed storytellers.

A good story should have a story arc-a beginning, middle and end. The beginning should allow the listener to enter the story safely, but expectant of events to come. The tone of the story-joyful, romantic, humorous, heroic, optimistic-should be set or attained in the beginning. This also can be accomplished with the tone and timbre of your voice.

The middle should present conflict or the problem to be resolved. This will build a delightful tension for your listeners that will hold them spell-bound or have their eyes wide or holding their breath. When the story is concluded, listeners will recall this emotion and characterize your story as “good” or “not so good”. This is the turning point, often called the climax of the story.

The ending or conclusion should resolve the problem or conflict. It brings harmony and balance and restores stasis to the world that you have introduced to the listener. The audience should have received a message from the story and should be satisfied, if not happy. But we know all stories do not have a happy ending. Blackstorytelling concerns itself with the historical events, social issues and cultural manifestations of African-American people.

Brother David Anderson/Sankofa of Rochester, New York tells us that “Blackstorytelling includes the body of traditional stories and new stories that inform and promote the humanity of African American people” (Anderson 31).

In performance mode, African-American Storytellers should concern themselves with certain aesthetic principles of Blackstorytelling – rhythm, rhyme, repetition and call and response. These aesthetic principles are demonstrated in other forms of African American expressive art, e.g. dance, music, spoken word and a good Sunday morning sermon.

African American storytellers should present imagery that is veracious and consistent with the values, mores and mythoforms of African American culture.

The language of Blackstorytelling is always creative, innovative, inventive, sometimes containing words or phrases unique to the culture or imbued with special meaning or emotion for that community.

Blackstorytelling is an organic force that is alive and well and fruitful. The more you give to Blackstorytelling, the more you will receive.

WORKS CITED 

Anderson, David. “A Sacred Trust.” Storytelling Magazine:The Empowering Practice of Blackstorytelling 19:5 Sept/Oct 2007: 31

Wilson, August. “The Ground on Which I Stand.” Keynote address, eleventh Biennial Theatre Communications Group National Conference, Princeton University, 1996.