Storytelling is at the heart of Black Appalachian culture. It is our history, our identity, and our life preserver in a hostile world. Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? and How Much? You may have asked any or all of those questions today. We make sense of our world as we tell the story of our experiences. We are storytellers in our bones or as some scholars call humans… Homo narrans – the storytellers.
I witness this every day, living in the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia. We may start to tell a friend about our long journey, they may ask questions to find out more details. How did we get there, who came with us, what happened, how it all turned out – it is still going on… All the questions are lead- ins to a great story, in our own voice. That we explain ourselves through story may seem like common sense, but it is much deeper than that. Stories act as a lifeline through hard times. Stories teach us who we are and why we matter. Stories are the bread of life. From our first breath, our story begins and our living story weaves into the larger account of our family, our community, our nation and the world. Where do we fit in the big picture? It is all part of our story.
Internationally renowned storyteller, Mama Linda Goss, started a storytelling workshop which I attended with the question: “What is the shortest AND the longest story you know?” A puzzled class offered many answers, “Life!” “A Meal” “God”. They were all right in a way, but after making us work our brains for a while, Mama Linda answered, “Your name.” Your name includes past, present, and future carried forward in oral history. We can call it orature. Orature is the narrative of our life and times, folklore and tales which are passed down by word of mouth, from generation to generation. We are experts of orature here in Appalachia. Our black communities are also an oral history. We are forgotten when our story is not told.
At the National Association of Black Storytellers we are celebrating the importance of Black Appalachian stories and of storytelling – our story and our voice in the national narrative. Our story as a people in and among the mountains has been overshadowed by the broadly held idea that only people of Scotch-Irish descent live here. But that is far from the truth. We must tell our story if we want people to know.
Six Affrilachian storytellers were given a fellowship and award by the National Association of Black Storytellers in November 2022 at their annual festival, held in Baltimore, MD. This inaugural fellowship was an adjudicated award. The awardees were recognized for their artistic excellence in representing their cultural heritage, contribution to folk arts, history, culture, and community. They were chosen out of twenty-eight applicants, all of whom displayed the diversity and artistic skill voiced by their range of media and disciplines.
They ranged from traditional tellers like Ray Christian to museum curators like David Butcher. There was Ruby’s special way of teaching through story with her “Granny’s” pharmacopeia to the historical storytellers like Alicestyne Turley, and West Virginia’s own newspaper journalist and publisher, Crystal Good. The range did not leave out the balladeers and folklorist like Sparky Rucker, from Tennessee and his long career of research in song and story.
The National Association of Black Storytellers Fellowship was made possible through partnerships and funding in part by Mid Atlantic Arts’ Central Appalachia Living Traditions Program and South Arts as part of the In These Mountains, Central Appalachian Folk Arts and Culture. This collaboration is intended to maintain and support the art forms of Black Storytelling in Appalachia. Each of the artistic projects reflect many different approaches to how culture is preserved, maintained, and passed on through storytelling. The recipients receive a cash award of $4,000 to support their practice as a Black Appalachian storyteller and culture bearer with opportunities to examine, research, develop and perform and/or document the Black Appalachian storytelling tradition. Additionally, the fellows receive $1,000 for travel to the 40 th Annual National “In the Tradition…” Black Storytelling Festival and Conference to be held in Baltimore, MD, November 9-13 and a one-year membership in the organization. The fellows presented the plans for their projects at the “In the Tradition…” Festival. They will also be developing and presenting a program in their home communities.
The co-founders of the National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc (NABS), Mother Mary Carter Smith and Mama Linda Goss were both born and raised in Appalachia. These two Affrilachian women conceived the idea of a storytelling festival to give opportunities to African American storytellers to share the stories of their heritage. Mother Mary was from West Virginia and Mama Linda is from Tennessee. They recognized the importance of the healing power of story and how necessary it is to each generation’s self-esteem and identity.
The 2022 Black Appalachian Fellowship awardees:
Alicestyne Turley is an Historian, Advocate, Author, Mentor, living in Powell County, Kentucky:
“I find myself employing my father’s traditional yet very subtle and unexpected storytelling style on my own grandchildren. I found it very effective in correcting my behavior as a child and now see how it is an effective tool when I seek to correct my own grandchildren in a caring, non-violent way. I find myself employing my father’s traditional yet very subtle and unexpected storytelling style on my own grandchildren.”
Alicestyne will be gathering the history of West Bend, KY, her home, cemetery, and garden for publication. For generations the property and story of her family’s early history in setting and developing a life in Kentucky is little known. Names of the streets and places remember her relatives and their contributions to the community. Alicestyne will be collecting and publishing that information in a form that can be shared with laypeople, tourists, family and non-academicians.
Raymond Christian is a Storyteller, Performer, Teaching Artist, Mentor living in Watauga County, Boone, North Carolina:
“I became the family griot as well because any information that was going to be shared had to be shared orally and had to be done so in a way that would keep the adults around me engaged. As I discovered the world outside my bubble of poverty, I was intrigued by the way others used words to craft images and worlds in my mind.”
Ray has been living and teaching at Appalachian State University for sixteen years where he is teaching storytelling and history. Ray has become familiar with the local story of Junaluska, a section of the town of Boone, NC. As he has learned about this area, he will be joining with the historical community to preserve and share the stories of the long prosperous black community and its importance in the story of North Carolina. It is said that Junaluska is the only remaining African American community in Watauga County, North Carolina. Ray will be interviewing and keeping the oral history of the aging elders of the Junaluska Heritage Association (JHA) which
works to help record and preserve the unique and rapidly eroding history of Junaluska and its surrounding area. JHA also works to assure the inclusion of that history as an integral part of the overall story of the town of Boone, NC and its home region.
David Butcher is an Historian, Genealogist living in Athens County, Ohio:
“I share stories about African-American history with my community and founded a museum on my property showcasing my family history called the “People of Color Museum.”
David is in the process of expanding the museum and organizing the preservation of Tablertown, OH (renamed Kilvert), a small, impoverished town where his ancestors first resided after being freed from slavery. Alongside the museum work is his work at the cemetery and church. He will be developing heritage tourism industry in that area of Ohio, provide much needed jobs and resources for community members while continuing to research and tell our stories so they might not be forgotten. The funding from the fellowship will help David document the family history in a print form.
James “Sparky” Rucker is a Performer, Teaching Artist; Blount County, Tennessee:
“At music camps and festivals, I have mentored young black musicians who have become interested in the banjo and black string band music. At every performance, I am teaching as I introduce the song and its origins. Through my years of research into such ballads as John Henry, John Hardy, Stagolee, Frankie and Albert, Casey Jones, Railroad Bill, etc., I have been able to share a wealth of tales in that tradition.”
Sparky is calling his project: Telling the Truth Goodbye: Stories and Songs from the Black Appalachian Tradition Sparky is bringing together his long career of storytelling and song into a memoir, reviewing his time and work at Highlander, the UTK library, Beck Cultural Center, the Green McAdoo Cultural Center, UNC-Chapel Hill, Berea College, and University of Madison-Wisconsin.
Crystal Good is a Performer, Mentor, Author; Kanawha County, West Virginia:
Crystal is a sixth -generation Black West Virginian whose quick-witted, honest, and creative style of storytelling translates across print, stage, virtual, film, and live slams. Her commitment to unearthing and sharing stories to illuminate, enlighten and reveal social injustice and equities is unparalleled as she shows in the newspaper she edits, BlackByGod The West Virginian. Crystal will be using the fellowship to bring a West Virginian superstar to life. She was commonly known as Bricktop, but her full name was Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith (1894 – 1984). She will be crafting a form of storytelling called first person historical narrative. She has already produced a short film highlighting some of her impact on the world. Bricktop was from Alderson, West Virginia and is credited with coining the term “West By God Virginia” as she established clubs and salons for the rich and famous form the turn of the century, a very exciting lady!
Ruby Daniels is an Herbalist, Agro-farmer, Workshop Presenter living and working in Raleigh County, West Virginia:
“My roots in Black Appalachian storytelling began with listening to my grandmother, Fannie Shepherd . My grandmother would tell me stories about growing up in a coal camp and the mountains. In the summers I would make my rounds and visit with the elders of the black coal camp. I would sit for hours and listen about herbs, life, and good times and bad. The storytelling is a family tradition that my grandparents always shared with the children of the community.”
Ruby will be restoring the Stanaford Black Graveyard. She will take pictures of the graves of her ancestors graves and include them in a book to publish about their teaching of herbs and their uses, where they are found, and how to cultivate and maintain a garden that is also a pharmacopeia. She will present her work at the Mt Vernon Baptist Church on Decoration Day (Memorial Day), 2023.
NABS mission statement:
The National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc. (NABS) promotes and perpetuates the art of Black storytelling — an art form which embodies the history, heritage, and culture of African Americans. Black storytellers educate and entertain through the Oral Tradition, which depicts and documents the African-American experience. A nationally organized body with individual, affiliate, and organizational memberships, NABS preserves and passes on the folklore, legends, myths, fables and mores of Africans and their descendants and ancestors — “In the Tradition…”
Applications next fellowship awards for 2023-2024 will be found at the National Association of
Black Storytellers Website.
Application dates to be announced.
Ilene Evans is Communications Professor at Fairmont State University