Discovering Great-Great-Aunts Mary and Martha: The Impact of the Oral Storytelling Tradition
by Dr. Janice D. Hamlet
When members of Angelica Chéri’s family told her stories about her great-great-aunts Mary and Martha Clarke, two African American women who passed for White and were believed to have been outlaws in post-emancipation Texas, she became heir to a rich and powerful tradition in African American culture – oral storytelling. These stories became the substance for Chéri’s musical, Gun & Powder, as she weaved the various scenarios, interpretations and perspectives of her great-great-aunts’ lives into one cohesive story.
The oral storytelling tradition is as ancient as civilization. It began on the continent of Africa where African nations developed around a worldview that was predicated on a very sophisticated religious practice and an impressive communication style. During the devastation of enslavement, African peoples were intermingled and forced to abandon their homeland, indigenous languages, native rituals and traditions. Yet, despite efforts to suppress, if not fully destroy, elements of African culture, many enslaved people were able to maintain a shared and unifying element of their oral tradition. The enslaved communicated their hopes, fears and ideas through story and song.
This oral tradition is, in fact, one of the cultural vestiges that Africans transported to America. It consisted of an impressive communication style that was rich in allusion, metaphor, and imagery and prolific in the use of body language and other nonverbal nuances. Also, the communication patterns of the enslaved stemmed from their creativity and will to survive – in most states in which slavery was legal, slaves were not allowed to learn to read. The oral tradition became not only a means of communication but also expressed personal presentation, verbal artistry and commentary on life’s circumstances. 1 The fields where they worked and the hush harbors where they worshipped and found a temporary release from their chaotic experiences were also venues for telling stories. Consequently, African Americans became heir to an oral culture, one they could not “write down,” but one they created, crafted, personalized, and shared with each other and their offspring. This tradition of oral storytelling remained and grew among enslaved people of African blood, whose ancestors originated storytelling with the creation of civilization in Africa. 2
The oral tradition consisted of stories, old sayings, songs, proverbs, sermons, and other cultural products, many of which have not been written down or recorded. These forms of oral communication are still kept alive by being passed on by word of mouth from members of one generation to members of the next generation. These diverse forms of orality reveal the history, values and beliefs of African Americans, whether they are stories of ancestors, family elders, community members or folklore. Black storytelling is an art which has been mastered by many for generations. 3
People’s cultural norms, values, histories and religious beliefs were transmitted from generation to generation by elders known as griots. The griot is that revered individual in a community who was entrusted with the community’s cultural history. These storytellers gave listeners stories that contained elements of realism and magic in situations and characters with whom they were familiar. They infused their storytelling with dramatic flair and power that evoked laughter, provided solace and fostered a temporary release from the misery of chaotic experiences. 4
African American culture was a true “underground” culture during and after slavery, shared clandestinely, by word of mouth. African Americans nurtured a private, but collective, oral culture, one they often could not write down; it was created, crafted, shared and preserved for subsequent generations out loud, outside of the hearing of the White people who enslaved them and later discriminated against them. It was in this isolated and protected Black cultural space that African American vernacular culture was born and thrived. 5
Storytellers continue to play important roles as teachers, preachers, poets, filmmakers, musicians, rappers, historians, comedians, singers, dancers, healers, liars, painters and more. 6 Even the drunk on the corner has stories to share. Their stories are full of emotion, sometimes funny, oftentimes suspenseful, and always told with rhythmic language and wisdom. The legacy of oral storytelling influences modern music, literature, poetry, drama and dance, from children’s schoolyard clapping games to Zora Neale Hurston’s writings to modern hip hop.
Oral stories fulfill a variety of cultural functions: they preserve history, teach children social values, empower men and women, honor ancestors, connect people together through a shared identity, and are really entertaining. These stories are shared and/or passed down during conversations on the porch, in the car during Sunday drives, visits to the beauty salon and barbershop, at the dinner table, at family reunions, in the classroom, in the church sanctuary, and to children at bedtime.
Women are traditionally the keepers of African American culture, gathering and incorporating disparate strands of story while also advocating for personal empowerment, a stronger sense of cultural identity and an understanding of our rich heritage. 7 African American women are often made to feel invisible in America, and Angelica Chéri exemplifies their ability to turn the weight of invisibility into strength and empowerment. Linda Gross and Marian E. Barnes inform us in their dynamic collection, Talk that Talk: An Anthology of African American Storytelling, that to watch these storytellers communicate is to experience an African ritual that is, at its best, a total theatrical performance. 8
African American history is disseminated through the art of storytelling. The stories that we tell and the stories that are told to us are embedded in who we are and how we live, and perhaps what we will become. In return, our identity and means of survival are embedded in the stories that we listen to and the ones we communicate to others. Telling ourselves and others our own stories, interpreting the nature of our world, asking and answering epistemological and ontological questions in our own voices and on our own terms, has as much as any single factor, been responsible for the survival of African Americans and their culture. 9 Storytelling, notes Andrea Collier, is our roots and our wings. 10 Such is the story and songs of Gun & Powder.
Dr. Janice D. Hamlet is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Public Communication at Northern Illinois University. She is the co-editor of Fight the Power! The Spike Lee Reader.
1 Gay, Geneva and Willie L. Baber, eds. Expressively Black (New York: Praeger. 1989).
2 Gross, Linda and Barnes, Marian E., Talk that Talk, Simon and Schuster Touchstone, NY, 1989, 9-17.
3 Geneva Smitherman. Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the American Corner. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994, 29
4 Smith, Arthur L., “Socio-Historical Perspectives of Black Oratory,” in Smith, Arthur L., (Ed.) Language, Communication, and Rhetoric in Black America. New York: Harper and Row,
5 Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms in American Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.
6 Goss, Linda and Marian E. Barnes, 10.
7 Williams, Imani C. Storytelling from the Soul: Black Women’s Stories Matter. Oct. 9, 2015
8 Goss, Linda and Marian E. Barnes, 10.
9 Goss, Linda and Marian E. Barnes, 17
10 Collier, Andrea. Why Telling Our Own Story Is So Powerful for Black Americans, Feb. 27, 2019.