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Cultural Conversation Hour investigates importance of griots and oral history to black America

Griots were storytellers in charge of remembering and passing on the histories and traditions of their tribe. (photo/Wikipedia)

Griots were storytellers in charge of remembering and passing on the histories and traditions of their tribe. (photo/Wikipedia)

What’s your story? How much of your family’s history do you know?  Who is the storyteller in your family?

As part of Black History Month this year, the Office of Multicultural Development sought to discuss these questions in the context of black America; more specifically, the relevance of oral history to the story of black Americans.

When first coming up with the idea for the conversation, the term “the grio” came to mind. A lot of times history is passed down through oral communication as opposed to written communication, especially in cultures and societies where written documentation wasn’t as prevalent.

Griots are storytellers. The term references the storytellers who originated in West Africa, who had the sole job of remembering and narrating the stories of their tribe. Griots were born into their roles, and were very important considering nothing was written down. They learned to memorize events, songs, and dances, and played a key role in the progression of history for their people.

However, with slavery came forced forgetfulness.

When Africans were brought here under duress, they were taught, and forced into adopting another culture while forgetting their own, says Lashonda Gurley, director of multicultural development.

“Many had to start all over again in regards to their history and having a sense of belonging and understanding where they came from, because a lot of that was taken away,” she says. “Oral tradition became something that was needed to keep that history alive.”

Yet even today, many Americans are ignorant when it comes to the lives and contributions of blacks in America. As part of her presentation, LaShonda highlighted some of these achievements.

Sarah RectorThere was Sarah Rector, who as a young girl earned millions of dollars after oil was discovered on some land she had inherited.

The Black Panther Party is often portrayed as a group of angry young men with guns and berets, but the majority of members in the party were actually women, and the group did a lot of public good. They started free breakfast programs in their communities, which have continued until today. They also provided free health clinics and schools. There was even an official chapter in Lima in the 70s.

Katherine JacksonKatherine Jackson, known as “the woman who loved to count,” helped send America’s first man to the moon. She had gone to college at 15, become a mathematician, and worked for the organization we know today as NASA.

William A. Jackson was the first African American police officer in Lima, OH. A Detroit native, he started in 1891, served four years, retired in 1895, and was reappointed in 1898. 

Elizabeth Key Grinstead challenged the legal system when she sued for freedom from slavery. It was one of the first cases of an African American winning such a case.

Alexander Lucius Twilight was the first African American to graduate from college, and the first elected to public office.

These are just some of the many stories blacks have contributed to the United States’ history. LaShonda believes it is important for our education systems to continually highlight these contributions.

“Black history is not just celebrated during the 28-29 days of February, but it is part of our culture as is history from other cultural backgrounds. It should be something that is taught. When we’re teaching other history, it’s something that should go right along with the curriculum.”

At the end of the presentation, LaShonda asked the audience to reflect on each of their own histories. She emphasized that a lot of what we know about our families is passed down orally.

"It’s important to identify who the storytellers are in your family, or become one of your own—do some research…talk to someone who’s an elder in your family to start putting the pieces together, and that helps give you a better foundation as an individual, a better understanding, so you can pass it on to the next generation."

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