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Renown Storyteller Reveals Deeper Meaning in African Folk Tales

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

Donna Washington
Master Storyteller Donna Washington

A month ago, on Aug. 11, Donna Washington spoke on Zoom to a group of more than 300 seniors who had tuned in to hear her presentation as part of the virtual Levy Lecture Series sponsored by the Levy Senior Center Foundation.

Ms. Washington is an internationally known master storyteller, educator and published author who has been performing for audiences of all ages for more than 30 years — even before she graduated from Northwestern in 1989.

Her rapt audience heard her tell African folk tales from the point of view of the enslaved people, not from the ones who did the enslaving.

Words matter. Ms. Washington was very specific about why she was using the term "enslaved" instead of the more commonly used "slave:" Those who were enslaved had something done to them; their freedom and families were taken away, and all sense of control was lost.

It should surprise no one that those who had survived being captured — ripped from their families, chained, starved, beaten, and transported thousands of miles across the seas to a place where they were viewed as property and sub-human — were the strongest, smartest, and most resilient members of their community. One had to be to survive such horrors.

These survivors had a responsibility to keep the folk tales alive, not only because they were inspiring, but because it helped wrest control of their lives from the enslavers.

Ms. Washington believes it is critical to hear stories told from the point of view of those who were experiencing the actions of others; it is a dramatic and necessary shift in perspective.

The folk tales handed down offered ways to cope with the indignities they were experiencing, and a way to laugh at the enslavers.

The stories about being free helped keep the enslaved people alive. They included knowledge about how to escape, as in the first tale Ms. Washington told. They included these tales in their church services. The stories offered hope.

Ms. Washington addressed the misconception of those times that slaves were incapable of taking care of themselves, of reading and writing and learning, that they were "less" than the people who enslaved them. The idea that slaves were not fully human was perpetuated, retold, and spread by the enslavers and those in charge.

Laws and societal systems were put in place to justify this false narrative, and gradually the enslavers started to feel self-righteous ("look how much good we are doing, taking care of these poor/ignorant/savage slaves") while the enslaved grew more indignant and angry.

The stories the enslaved told were of consolation, persistence, fortitude and cleverness. Fantasy mixed with facts, as in the second tale Ms. Washington told, about an African people who could fly. These stories were food for their minds.

Another disturbing behavior Ms. Washington highlighted was how African folklore was often misappropriated by white people who did not understand the content of the folklore. Joel Chandler Harris, a writer and editor who spent most of his life in and around Atlanta during the latter part of the 19th century, heard many African folk tales while growing up. He tried to write them down and to capture the stories accurately using specific phrasing, dialect and narrative. It is from these tales that the world was introduced to the popular and well known Uncle Remus character. Uncle Remus and his adventures, as recounted by Mr. Harris, were considered a breakthrough in children's literature.

Even though Mr. Chandler's heart and political beliefs were sympathetic to the enslaved population, as a privileged white person, he could not begin to understand or empathize with many of the enslaved people's experiences, and he was apparently unaware of the subtle messaging buried within certain characters.

Ms. Washington describes how the character of Br'er Rabbit, a character in Mr. Chandler's stories of African folk tales, changed when the rights to it were purchased by the Walt Disney Company. Neither party understood the character of Br'er Rabbit. The movie that followed, taking place in the South during Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War, suffered withering criticism for being racist ("too minstrely," one critic offered) and was boycotted by the NAACP and other organizations.

"Song of the South" remains a controversial film even in 2020; Disney has never released it to home video in the United States, although it has been released overseas.

Ms. Washington describes Br'er Rabbit as "the spirit of the African American people." But he was not always Br'er Rabbit. Initially he was a trickster character who came from Africa, a spider by the name of Anansi.

Anansi was clever; he used his brain to get out of situations, often of his own making. Sadly, during the passage over, when the enslaved Africans were not allowed to use their language, tell their stories, or practice their religion, Anansi became another cultural casualty.

The enslaved turned the idea of Anansi into the character who became Br'er Rabbit, "Br'er" being short for brother. The overriding message in every Br’er Rabbit story was, "If you have a problem, best you think your way out of it, because if you don’t, and you try to fight your way out of it, your problem will get bigger," Ms. Washington said.

Ms. Washington also said, "The stories are about using your brain, laughing at what you can't control, and knowing that in your stories, you have the upper hand, because you are not what they think you are."

Many of the characters in the stories would appear to be making fun of Black people, but that is not how the stories were designed: the characters are actually laughing at their white overseers, but one has to know to listen for that.

For many of the attendees, listening to Ms. Washington's presentation was revelatory. A month later, her words still resonate. One woman wrote, "I need more help decentering the whiteness in my thinking."

The presentation addressed how the country never truly dealt with the aftermath of the Civil War; that the South was "allowed" to believe and perpetuate the myth that their side fought for states' rights rather than to maintain slavery; that Reconstruction only codified many of the societal rites to keep Black people "in their place"; that Black people were still viewed as unworthy of the privileges associated with of being free in the United States.

Ms. Washington observed, "Racism in America is not a Black problem. It's a thing Black people have to deal with. Racism is in America is a white people problem, or a majority problem." In her view, the only way to address this kind of institutional racism is by changing the way history is recounted, altering the narrative so that it is told from the point of view of the people being enslaved, not the enslavers.

Ms. Washington concluded her presentation by saying, "When you look at American history through the eyes of African Americans and their stories, it looks very different from the stories that we as a society tell us. Because if you want to know a people, don't listen to the stories other people tell about them. Listen to the stories they tell about themselves."

Those interested may watch Ms. Washington's presentation on the Levy Senior Center Foundation's YouTube channel. Levy Lectures, which are free and open to all who register, resume Sept. 15. By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.


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