The Art of Storytelling in the African Diaspora

What was your favorite childhood story? Mine was Anansi – sitting under the moonlight in Guyana’s warm night air, gazing up at my mother or father as they got ready to tell me and my sisters another story about this conniving spider. Whether it was one we heard before or it was new, the anticipation was always overwhelming for me. I remember my sisters and me exchanging giggles as we watched the moon play hide and seek in the night sky. We’d feel the warm air kissing our skin and the moonlight making it golden and beautiful. There was a certain magic in the air on storytelling night. It always felt like our ancestors were right there with us, listening, laughing and celebrating this custom they had long perfected.

Throughout history, oral storytelling has been a way for our ancestors to pass on their culture, customs and so much more to future generations. It has preserved the legacy of Africans – strong, brilliant and proud people. I believe, the act of storytelling was a silent rebellion against the oppressors who took black freedom and silenced our ancestors with whips and chains, but they somehow kept one part of themselves that couldn’t be supervised. In the night air, when slaves were released momentarily from their bondage they escaped to familiar territory to vicariously relive the past by telling stories. Whether these stories were fiction or non-fiction, it fast became a way to transfer knowledge to the younger generation.

I heard many stories from women in my family and community as a young black girl growing up in the Caribbean and later immigrating to the US. Most of the time, they were retelling tales that had been told to them by their parents and grandparents, but occasionally, I could tell that they were sharing personal experiences. As a result, this gathering and regaling served as a venue for the women to share their stories and be inspired by the importance of elevating the perspectives of black women. My decision to major in English at college was one of many ways that listening to these black women tell their stories – our stories – had an impact on me and empowered me as a black woman.

Oral storytelling is the oldest form of instruction. It was an opportunity older generations had to hear their parents, grandparents and elders tell those tales of legends and folktales.  It disseminated customs and instilled values. It was a chance for people to unwind after a difficult day and for families and communities to come together. Although oral storytelling may now be a social ghost to our younger generations, it still lingers in our homes and briefly appears during childhood. A whisper of "once upon a time..." and the image of a mother cuddling up to her child on a bed while smiling and bonding brings it back from the brink of oblivion.  

Recommended Reading: 

The Last Storytellers – Tales from the Heart of Morocco,   Call#: AARL 808.543 LAST

Out of the Sun : On Race and Storytelling, by Edugyan, Esi, Call#:  AARL 704.03 EDUGYAN

Living Our Stories, Telling Our Truths : Autobiography and the Making of the African-American Intellectual Tradition, by Franklin, V. P. , Call#: AARL 920.009296 FRANKLIN

African Oral Story-telling Tradition and the Zimbabwean Novel in English , by Vambe, Maurice Taonezvi, Call#: AARL 823.914 VAMBE

Written by: AARL Librarian: Marsela James