The Griot Invasion of north Minneapolis at Bethune Park was successful through the tireless work of master storyteller, Nothando Zulu.
This actress, comedian and storyteller used stories to teach students about James Weldon Johnson’s, “Creation,” their African origins, lessons on the Middle Passage, African-American emancipation and the Civil Rights and the Black Lives Matter Movements.
The story, “The Legend of Africania,” was performed by youth members of WE WIN Institute and We Care Performing Arts. With lines such as “I am as Black as the earth from which life springs. I love this land with its wide deserts, snowcapped mountains, grassy plains and rain forests,” youth took center stage at the festival acting out African joy, tragedy and liberation.
Zulu is presenting the Master Storytelling Festival, Sept. 24 – Sept. 26, at University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC), 2001 Plymouth Ave. N., Minneapolis and Macalester College in St. Paul.
Commentary by Nothando Zulu
The tale-telling tradition of African-Americans in the “new world” came, directly or indirectly, from the places where our ancestors lived throughout the continent of Africa.
Not all types of African traditional tales survived the transatlantic passage to the Americas with their vigor and moral range intact. While some of the myths of the West Coast of African cultures are encountered, in most of African-America, neither myths nor other details of African religious practices were maintained in any full and systematic manner.
The grand bardic forms of epic and other kinds of praise singing, the elaborate recitations of genealogies, and with a few important exceptions, the chants accompanying “the casting of cowrie shells” were lost. The epic accounts of great heroes, heroines and leaders of the people have been replaced by stories and prose, song or jingling verse.
Even the dilemma tales, so characteristic of African situations of moral disputation, seldom made their way to this side of the ocean, indicating that most of the political and philosophical dimensions of the African story were lost to us in the Middle Passage.
What did survive was the importance in the lives of the captives and their descendants. Griots told at night – for entertainment as well as instruction, in the traditional African style – stories in which the entire community might be involved in the telling. These stories as performances provided entertainment by which the community could celebrate its identity as a group simply by singing, dancing and most important laughing together. The African and African-American stories more commonly chronicled how a trickster or other used his or her wits to get something needed or wanted.
Tales of upright character were to form and important part of neighborhood and family life through the African-American community. Not only was the idea of acting sensibly and commanding respect the bedrock of the African-American behavior system, but this way of acting was bound with notions of teaching Black children how to deal with the “white folks world.” They are moral stories, often in the form of how certain animals got to be the way they are because of their misbehavior and or the result of their human condition. This is in direct opposition to the most common form of story about African-Americans, in which we are portrayed exclusively to be responsible for our human condition.
One of the special delights of folktales of any sort is seeing how things of this world can be put together and taken apart, constructed and exploded without the need for logical explanation. Folktales operate in their own worlds, ones that depart from the everyday but in predictable directions. We can therefore give ourselves up to these alternative worlds without care – or even in the spirit of celebration and affirmation.