The Importance of Storytelling

Thespians understand the importance of repetition: in order to know a story you must repeat it. You listen to your favorite song on repeat, we commemorate holidays annually, and children delight to hear their favorite tales over and over.

I find storytelling to be at the utmost importance in measuring the effect and longevity of culture. Wives tales, ghost stories and fairy tales are all reflections of the society in which they take place, in addition to what values are carried through generations. Furthermore, it is because of storytelling that so many industries are able to have widespread success and influence. It is the expression of our legacies, lessons and histories that ensure cultural identity remains intact – akin to passing on our genetic code – because the stories that make up our development can determine what our future will be.

With that said, an oral account of one’s heritage must also be repeated or it will go the way of lost languages. One of my favorite aspects about the tenacity of my ancestors, following the middle passage, is the versatility applied to the art of storytelling.

“The most common form of storytelling among these enslaved people was the folktale. Most African folktales involve animals as the principal characters. In Africa, the stories may have been told about the hyena, lion, elephant, monkey, and trickster Anansi, the spider. Even though the tales retained their basic story lines, the characters changed to match the animal life of this new land. Tales about the lion, elephant, and hyena now featured the rabbit, fox, and bear – the stories we know as the Brer Rabbit tales. These stories entertained the plantation owner, so he saw little problem with allowing this form of activity.”

African and African American storytelling


“Conditions for slaves were harsh; they worked from sun-up to sun-down. In those rare moments of free time, stories were told. Stories, such as the Brer Rabbit and Little John tales, portrayed the underdog as triumphing over the more powerful adversary. In this way, slaves could believe that they would also one day triumph over the powerful slave-owner. Brer Rabbit and other slave stories depicted the downtrodden as clever and able to get over on his master. The hero of these tales achieves his ends by devious means. Slaves could tell these stories without provoking anger from the slave-owner. The animals in the Brer Rabbit tales were given human characteristics and personalities in the traditional African way.”

Understanding Slave Culture Through Oral Tradition

This pastime simultaneously accomplished two things: preserve African tradition and encourage perseverance towards escape/rebellion. This was the most effective course of action as reading was illegal, and was carried out before the oppressors. Additionally, the children of slave owners heard these tales as well, thus ingraining African folklore into the collective American consciousness – though white men would again seek to profit from the identities of the people they owned.

Looking at you, Joel Chandler Harris.

Numerous examples of coded hymns and songs, synonymous with the Underground Railroad:

Modern Examples:

Angelou’s bird is angry. In the rest of the poem, we learn that not only is it caged, but its wings are clipped and its feet are tied so it can barely move. While the free bird gets to fly around looking at all the awesome things life has to offer—like fat worms—the caged bird stands on “the grave of dreams.”

Dunbar’s bird can rage and fight because it seems to remember what it was to be free. Angelou’s bird has never been free, but—too bad, world—it still sings a song of freedom. Singing is all Angelou’s bird can do.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Soldier’s protest CJ’s death ~ NFL athletes, BLM, entertainers taking a stand.

To Our Audience:

Use privilege as a platform for justice

  • Paper Ball Experiment
  • White Ally Hotel Fight; viral media is the most easily accessible storytelling
  • Increase awareness of Who, What, When, Where, Why: black storytellers
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