I am a storyteller. The earliest storytellers were those who did cave drawings. I like to tell stories about history. I think one of the easiest ways to learn about history is to ask someone who was there at the time what it was like. I grew up in New Jersey in a household of makers and doers. My world was filled with working-class folks who claimed and expressed themselves through work, out of necessity and through creative exploits for joy. As a child I was surrounded by gardening, hat and dressmaking, flower construction, leather working, and a myriad of other pursuits. Hands were rarely still at our house. My folks would not have called themselves artists, but I see now they were that and more. To a person, they had amazing singing voices and big personalities. I thought it was normal but now understand how remarkable they were. I was an only child, so I spent a lot of time listening to Elders’ stories about their lives and how and where they were raised.
I grew up in the 1950s and 60s in the city. What my friends and I loved to do was play street games. We had so many neighborhood games that I don’t ever recall being bored. Few families had telephones. Fewer still had televisions. Most often, younger boys and girls played together. There were street games like hopscotch, marbles, jump rope; ball games like three flies, dodge ball, baby-in-the-air; and porch games like jacks, school, paper dolls, shoebox. We had song plays like Little Sally Walker, Punchinella, Zudio, London Bridge, and many more. Some days we would play one game all day like cowboys or storefronts. We made up our own rules and everyone was allowed to play. To be sure there were fights, but by the end of the day, it was mostly over and the next day started fresh.
When I wasn’t playing, I was often in the service of older women in my family as they prepared food for canning or gathered to make quilt pieces and quilts. I would be called upon to fan flies, fan the ladies, collect and tote (carry out) unwanted or unusable scraps, and other small duties. If I dragged my feet enough (behind a closed door) and stayed still and quiet I would hear the best stories. Stories that kids my age rarely heard because these stories were meant for grownfolk sharing. I think this is how I began to love storytelling. It was exciting! The ladies were expressive in their ways of telling, so much so that for me, their tales took up lives of their own and played out before my very eyes.
Some tales were sad and spoke about slavery and hard times and some were very funny. I always learned something about how to live life from these stories—how to get by in this world. As an adult, one of my greatest joys has been the privilege of interviewing many elderly Black women. Their stories have been jubilant, painful, expansive, instructive, insightful, and hopeful all in turn. But, I feel their voices are fading. I feel useful filling in the gap and telling their stories or stories like theirs. I don’t want them to be forgotten.
With historical research, I craft dialogue and narratives of their lives. I sometimes express stories in poetry, sometimes as monologue. I love to try to take an audience with me, back to a specific period with the happenings of the day acknowledged for context. Then I paint pictures with words, music, and often costumes and props that allow the audience to lean into that reality.
Finally, I encourage the audience to ask and answer questions about the lives and times of the character(s) they experience with me. I generally concentrate on elderly everyday Black women in the years between 1845-1960s in the U.S. I feel framing story snapshots in this way allows us to explore valuable old/new lessons history is holding for us.
I call what I do “Framing the Past in the Peace and Possibility of the Present.”