Adinkra symbol from Lyn Ford  “He who does not know can know from learning”

The subject line for an email sent to Storytell listserve read, “Borrowing or stealing?”

Storyteller Meg Gilman wrote that her workshop had been “borrowed” by someone else without her knowledge or permission:

“It’s nice that folks recognize a good thing when they experience it and I appreciate that, but it’s crappy for me when I see my workshop being presented at a conference by someone else…  It breaks my heart, frankly… My workshops offer information for people to ‘use in their work’, [not to be] recycled with someone else’s name on them… One reaction I had to this last situation is whether I will be able to present my original workshop again, without appearing to have copied the ‘copier’.”

Such “borrowing” has happened to other hard-working tellers, including me.  Most story-sharers ask for my permissions (and receive them, with info on how to credit, or suggestions for researching/creating variations, and my blessing either way).  But I’ve heard a few of my versions of stories, (and my family’s), memorized by someone else and told onstage without acknowledgement, as well as included without permission in some workshop material. Without a lot of noise or animosity, I let others know whose hard work was really being shared.

A teller who aspires to be professional should honor the familial story experience or creative property, research, preparation, recording and/or writing and submission for publication of the source. Otherwise, that teller doesn’t deserve the honor of the story, for that teller has no claim to the process.

For works of orature, the concern is a moral issue more than a copyright infringement.  In every storyteller’s work–spoken or printed or otherwise recorded, danced, drummed, or preserved in any way–is a part of that artist’s soul.  You can’t “borrow” a storyteller’s soul.

Storyteller and humanitarian Laura Simms responded on Storytell, “For those of us who have devoted our lives to this work with original thinking, regard for cultures, and very dedicated work on stories and workshops, it is disheartening to have work outrightly stolen, and misused, etc. in the name of storytelling.  There is no other art form that is as relational and profoundly effective because of the presence of a living artist.”

Before you tell anyone else’s story, consider:  Is it yours to tell, or have you simply and strongly connected with it?  Is it from your personal, cultural knowledge base, or would your telling be considered secondhand hearsay—someone else’s story?  If you “must” tell it, will you speak with its source, and ask where it originated (it might be an original piece that sounds like a folktale; it might be from a literary source, which means telling it might be a copyright infringement)?  Then ask your source, “If I credit your work, may I tell your story”?  If the answer is no, accept that and do your own work.

Before you use anyone else’s workshop materials, there is only one question to ask the author of the work:  Do I have your permission to quote from your work?  There is no other question; the use of anyone’s recorded material (CD, DVD, printed, even when it has no copyright symbol) is illegal.  Period.  No, exclamation point!

If you’re aware of someone stealing your intellectual work, tell them and others. Claiming and reclaiming your work (and protecting what you must from your created orature and original, researched literature through copyright) is what should be done.

  • Lyn Ford

Lyn Ford--May 2015Lynette (Lyn) Ford is a fourth-generation Affrilachian storyteller and teaching artist for the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education and the Ohio State-Based Collaborative Initiative of the Kennedy Center, and a member of NABS’ Circle of Elders.  Lyn is also an author, mentor for young writers for the Thurber House, great-grandmother, and proud member of the Cleveland Association of Black Storytellers (CABS). (Lyn’s highly-acclaimed work, Affrilachian Tales:  Folktales from the African-American Appalachian Tradition, was reviewed in the Fall 2014 issue of Spread The Word, the NABS print newsletter.)

To join Storytell, “a worldwide online community” listserve supported by the National Storytelling Network, go to

Adinkra symbol (depicted with beginning quote):  NEA ONNIM NO SUA A, OHU whose source is   Cloth As Metaphor by G.F. Kojo Arthur

A glimpse of the dilemma for spoken word artists and creative copyrights—Chapter 8, “Categories of Copyright Work” can be read, in Intellectual Property Law by Helen Norman.  Oxford University Press, 2nd Edition, 2014.


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.

Where is the Storyteller’s Voice in The Protest for Justice For Mike Brown?

Ferguson reacts to shooting of Michael Brown

Photo Credit:  Christian Gooden—St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Polaris

I know I am not alone in my feeling of angst and rage over the death of Michael Brown , yet another unarmed Black male slaughtered.  I also knew I was not alone as I searched and prayed and prayed and searched for the ONE THING I could do.

Over and over I tried to come up with something.  What is there  for me to do as an African?  What is there  for me to do as a storyteller?

Some have taken to the streets to express their anger and frustration.  Some are organizing and planning.   Where are the storytellers in this crisis?

I reached out to the storytellers’ storyteller,  my mentor, Baba Jamal Koram.   After talking to Baba I felt more settled.  I began to get some inkling of an idea of what story to tell. After talking to my other mentor, the one many of us call “the storyteller’s scholar”, Caroliese Frink Reed,  the idea was fleshed out some more, but not fully enough to articulate to anyone.

Then I went and read my internal artistic mission statement.

“Words are how I metabolize life. What is produced from that metabolism is stories, songs, and poetry that help me make sense out the senseless, heal from unimaginable pain, and love again and again and again. The sharing of those stories, songs and poetry helps my audience do the same.” 

To be a part of the healing around Mike Brown’s death and the thousands upon thousands of others, I do not know if I have to create a new story or song or poem.  I do not know if it is an old story or song or poem. I DO know my work to do is in words.

During the protests and outcry after the death of Trayvon Martin ,  I told an old story to middle school students in Philadelphia.  I set up the story by saying, “The story I am about to tell you is a hard story to tell. It is a difficult story to tell. You will find it hard to understand. You may remark ‘Things were crazy in the olden days!’ This is a story about four 18-year-old teenagers who risked arrest, assault and even their very lives on Feb. 1, 1960, when they made the choice to sit at a snack bar.”

Immediately, I could hear rumblings from the youth in the audience confirming for me that they thought the story was hard to believe. I then said, “Thirty years from now you will be about my age; and you will have to explain to some young people how a 17-year- old could be shot and killed near his home while talking on a phone to his friend and after simply buying Skittles and Arizona ice tea.”

What I heard next was a mixture of shock, understanding and disbelief all rolled together.  But I knew I had them!

And I knew this auditorium full of middle school students were ripe and ready to not only hear the story of the Greensboro Four, but now they could also probably see themselves at the counter.  Now they could possibly see themselves in the street protesting inequality not just then, but now.

I concluded the story by saying that any meaningful change that has ever happened in the world has happened when young people were organized and galvanized to fight for change.

I then sang the words of freedom fighter, Ella Baker, “I believe young people come first. They have the courage where we fail.”

Yeah, I do not know what has to come forth from my mouth at this time for this healing, but I do know that something will come. What say you, storyteller?



TAHIRA’s name is legally spelled with all capital letters to serve as a reminder that a storyteller has a HUGE responsibility to the community. TAHIRA, a Featured Teller for the 2014 National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc. “In The Tradition” Festival & Conference, she is also the current treasurer and past president of Keepers Of The Culture, Inc., a NABS affiliate. To find out more about TAHIRA visit her website at

Rally for Stevie Wonder


The Story Board Game Blog Series Entry II

We are proud to present our second blog in this series and the first by one of our NABS Historians, Sister Gloria Black of Buffalo, NY.   Sister Black’s blog will take many of us down a beautiful memory lane. Take a moment to read and send Sister Black a reply.

Rally for Stevie Wonder  by Gloria Black

In 2012 while surfing the web in pursuit of where do I go from here, after self-publication of two family books,  Seek and Ye Shall Find and Operation Save a Generation, I found the National Association of Black Storytellers’ website.  I joined online. More seeking led me to the Tradition Keepers: Black Storytellers of Western New York of which I became a member.

Illness and winter nights kept me from being involved the way I wanted to be;  yet I didn’t give up.  God’s time is the only way for me to go with a smile!  I can’t thank Mama Linda enough for the board game.  “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.”  When  NABS reminded me that we don’t just tell the story, we live the story, I got the Holy Spirit and flashbacks of yesteryears.

For my personal assignment, I chose question ten of the board game, which asks:  HOW MANY CIVIL RIGHTS/HUMAN RIGHTS DEMONSTRATIONS, SIT-INS, PROTESTS, MARCHES, RALLIES, ETC. HAVE YOU PARTICIPATED IN?  NAME THEM.

Stevie Wonder for BlogDSC02011

There were two rallies and many protests.  My first rally took place in the 1980’s.  I attended a concert given by the great musician, Stevie Wonder.  Needless to say, the concert was sold out.  Stevie of course rocked the house with his performance, but when he did his new single, “Happy Birthday”, he brought down the house.  We all were in the groove with his lyrics and his music.  The emcee asked everyone to stand and join in.  That’s when the spirit became intense.  The audience began to shout that we wanted a holiday passed by Congress to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  When the lights were turned on, I saw that I wasn’t the only one with a tear-soaked face.  We were told that petitions were at the concert as well as in circulation around the world and that each one of us could sign our names before we left the building.

Stevie Wonder popularized the campaign in 1980 and hosted the Rally for Peace press conference in 1981. Six million signatures were collected for petitions to Congress to pass the law making Dr. King’s birthday an official holiday.  According to Paul Andrews (1985) of The Seattle Times, this petition was the largest petition drive in favor of an issue in U.S. history.

Finally, at the White House Rose Garden on November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan, signed a bill proposed by Representative Katie Hall of Indiana, creating a Federal holiday to honor Dr. King.   This long-awaited tribute was observed for the first time on January 20th, 1986.

A statement by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in his book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, sums up in part the NABS philosophy:    “The Negro can be made proud of his past only by approaching  it scientifically themselves, and giving their own story to the world” (p. 124)

Andrews, P. (1985, January). Making the calendar. The Seattle Times. Retrieved from

Black, G. (2010). Operation save a generation. Cedar Rapids: Eagle Book Bindery.

Black, G. (2010). Seek and ye shall find. Cedar Rapids: Eagle Book Bindery.

Woodson, C. G. (1933). The Mis-Education of the Negro. Kindle Version.

Photo Credit:

Stevie Wonder – Thomas Hawk – Flickr Photos

Wax Statue of Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.  from The National Great Blacks in Wax  Museum , Baltimore, MD.

(NABS Festival and Conference Tour, 2013) – Linda Cousins-Newton, Photographer.



If you are interested in submitting a blog for publication, please contact Caroliese Frink Reed, NABS Education Chair, at  or Sister Linda Cousins-Newton, Blog Administrator, at