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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Giving Voice

Storytelling

Storytelling, perhaps the best-known oral tradition of African American culture, exemplifies the desire to express oneself and convey a sense of heritage. The experience of slavery actually enhanced, rather than destroyed, oral traditions for African Americans. Telling stories was one of the few ways enslaved persons could communicate memories of the African homeland, along with tales of hope and resistance. Then, as now, the storyteller was an important person in the community who could transform listeners by sharing new values, norms, customs, and perspectives about the world in which we live.

Unlike a written text, the spoken tale can be improvisational and even interactive. Here at the Festival, visitors can experience storytelling in traditional forms, as well as through other genres, including poetry, song, humor, and theater.

Featured Participants

Charlotte Blake-Alston, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Blake-Alston is a storyteller, narrator, and singer. Her work includes African and African American oral traditions, which she often accompanies with various African instruments. She has produced several CDs, including Pearls at the Foot of the Bed.

Victoria Burnett, San Juan Capistrano, California
Burnett is a storyteller who mixes stories and music. A graduate of the University of Maryland, Burnett refers to herself as a "story musicologist." She now lives in California. A trained vocalist, she has performed at the Kennedy Center and other venues around the world.

Len Cabral, Cranston, Rhode Island
Master storyteller Cabral is the author of Len Cabral's Storytelling Book. An African American of Cape Verdean descent, his repertoire includes animal fables, humorous tales, and "how" and "why" stories.

Mitchell G. Capel, Spring Lake, North Carolina
Storyteller and actor Capel—also known as "Gran'daddy Junebug" to children all over the world—is the co-founder of the African-American Storytellers' Retreat. He is the author of the children's book The Jealous Farmer, and three award-winning CDs.

Diane Ferlatte, Oakland, California
Ferlatte is an award-winning African American storyteller. Her repertoire includes fables, folktales, legends, ghost tales, historical tales, and contemporary and personal stories. Ferlatte sees herself as a preserver of the oral tradition, folk history, culture, and values.

"Brother Blue" Hugh Hill, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Famous for his blue clothes and accessories, Hill is an elder statesman of Black storytelling in America. He is a legendary—as well as a quixotic—teller of tales, spinner of words, and a master of spoken oral eloquence. Educated at Harvard and Yale, Hill's style resembles street storytelling.

Joni L. Jones, Austin, Texas
Jones (Olorisa Omi Osun Olomo) specializes in family storytelling, narrative performance, and the jazz aesthetic of theater. Jones has written numerous articles in Text and Performance Quarterly, Drama Review, Theatre Topics, and Black Theatre News.

Baba Jamal Koram, Alexandria, Virginia
Koram, a.k.a. The StoryMan, is a master storyteller and a recipient of the 2007 Circle of Excellence Award from the National Storytelling Network. Koram is founder and director of the African American Storytelling Arts Institute, director of the African American Storytelling Village (Retreat), and co-founder of the African Heritage Education Drumming Camp for Boys.

Onawumi Jean Moss, Amherst, Massachusetts
A native of Tennessee, Moss is an award-winning storyteller and author who learned her first stories from her parents and in church. Moss co-authored a children's book entitled Precious and the Boo Hag in 2006. She has been telling stories since the third grade.

Tejumola Ologboni, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Ologboni accompanies his stories with African drums or other African instruments. Known as Teju, Ologboni learned many of his stories from his parents, grandparents, and during travels through Africa and the United States. He has taught at the University of Wisconsin, and holds a degree in sculpting.

Dylan Pritchett, Williamsburg, Virginia
Pritchett is a storyteller who teaches how to use storytelling in the classroom. His repertoire includes African American and African folktales, as well as "scraps of history"—the creative stories of women and children who lived in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America. His works include folktale CDs and a book for children, The First Music.

Sankofa, Rochester, New York
Sankofa, a.k.a. David A. Anderson, is a storyteller whose repertoire includes African creation myths and stories of African American soldiers in the Civil War. He is the author of numerous books, including The Origin of Life on Earth: An African Creation Myth. Sankofa teaches African American Studies in Rochester.

Valerie Tutson, Providence, Rhode Island
Valerie Tutson is a storyteller whose repertoire includes tales of West Africa, South Africa, Biblical oral traditions, and gospel. Tutson designed her own major in storytelling as a communication art at Brown University. She serves as director of the Black Storytelling Festival in Providence.

Many of Alice Walker's novels, poems, and short stories convey the significance of storytelling in African American culture. Photo © Bettmann/CORBIS.

Ella Jenkins, Folkways artist for more than forty years, mingles with her fans during a special tribute to her career at the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Photo by Jeff Tinsley, courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.