Let’s Rekindle Our Oral Tradition
Junious Ricardo Stanton
Last weekend I attended the twenty-fifth annual International Locks Conference and I got a chance to speak with and interview representatives of the Keepers of the Culture an Afrocentric storytelling group. I was impressed with the family I met and their commitment to keeping the African oral tradition alive.
The oral tradition is/was an importance aspect of aboriginal and indigenous people’s lifestyle and culture. Oral communication was their fundamental way of social interaction, sharing information passing on values and linking wit their ancestors.
African people have always valued wisdom; which has nothing to do with formal education (indoctrination). Our transplanted ancestors who were denied formal education in this hemisphere called wisdom “mother wit”. In Africa we had long traditions of cultivating, rewarding and celebrating wisdom, promoting good character, righteousness and leaving a social legacy empowered by those virtues.
The oldest writings in the world addressing and promoting good character are found in the African Nile Valley’s Teaching of Ptahhotep, The Book of Coming Forth By Day and the Book of Creations. In the Nile Valley writing, Mdw Ntr (what the ignorant Greeks called hieroglyphics), was considered sacred, a means of cultivating good character and godliness.
But prior to the Nile Valley cultures, Africans throughout the continent used oral instruction as a means to inculcate and cultivate wisdom, pass on lessons that promoted good character and keen intellect. Fables, parables and stories were used to teach valuable lessons, stimulate wisdom, good character and social harmony. Anansi the spider was a common story telling character of the Ashanti and Akan people of the original Ghana in West Africa. “The Origin of Anansi the Spider is inspired by an African fable from the Ashanti people of Ghana. Anansi the spider often appears as a human being with a spider body or just as a spider; is honored as one of the world’s best known folklore characters. He is what Africans call a ‘trickster,’ a cunning character with immeasurable wit and wisdom. Anansi stories traveled from Ghana to the Caribbean during the slave trade, and then to the Americas. Anansi was a strong folklore character that the slaves looked up-to because of his ability to outwit the slave Master and win his freedom.” The Origin of Anansi the Spider Tameka N. Ellington, Kent State University, USA https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1806&context=itaa_proceedings
The oral storytelling tradition of the Ashanti and Akan became popular in Euro-American circles when they took on a new form as tales by Uncle Remus a fictional character written by a Southern white man named Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908). Harris lived around enslaved Blacks while working on a Georgia plantation spending much of his time near the slave quarters where he saw and heard the Blacks interacting with each other while in bondage, servitude and subjugation.
Later Harris used the African American oral folktales he heard on this plantation to structure his characters. His tales were based upon Black people’s oral traditions using forest animals such as Brer Rabbit a crafty rabbit who usually tricked and outwitted his adversaries like Brer Fox and Brer Bear by using his cunning. Harris became famous but his characters were based on stories he heard Black folks sharing among themselves in their quarters.
Harris in effect plagiarized our African, Caribbean and Southern oral traditions. The essential purpose of these stories by the Blacks was to connect the people in small groups; familial and extended family to teach Black folks to develop and use their wiles and wit to survive in a harsh, hostile and psychotic social milieu where they had little or no power. Anansi (and later Harris’s Brer Rabbit) showed them how to navigate in uncertain times were they never knew what mood an owner, master, overseer or ordinary white person would be in and how think to avoid abuse and maltreatment or even turn the tables on their adversary.
Like Anansi, Brer Rabbit taught valuable lessons but unfortunately Harris’ creations became nostalgia for white folks pinning for the good ol’ days of slavery. Because our stories were being told by a white man for his profit we missed the lessons. When Walt Disney used Harris character in his comic book and animated series we were embarrassed because of the way Uncle Remus was drawn and depicted not knowing Harris and Disney were getting rich of something they took from us!
Both Anansi and Brer Rabbit come from long traditions of storytelling and oral lessons. They were used to unite our people, share values and teach valuable lessons about survival, good character and success. We need to put the gizmos and gadgets down rekindle our oral tradition, relearn the art of conversation, listen to our storytellers, interact with the storyteller, give feedback and enjoy the experience. You will be surprised how much benefit you get out of it.
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