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Visiting Storyteller Illuminates the Importance of Folktales

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Donna Washington is telling a story about a witch in a swamp, and Heathwood students are on the edge of their seats.  Eyes grow round as she describes the children who’ve lost their way, the dark water, the roots of trees like legs ready to rise up and move, and the mysterious red-haired woman in a house hidden deep in the swamp, until— “GAAAAAH!”—the witch pounces.  Students jump six inches out of their seats, then fall back laughing at their gullibility, and breathless for the story to go on.

“Now why do you think,” Ms. Washington asks suddenly, stopping the story, “swamps are always so scary in these stories?”  Hands shoot up, with various examples of why swamps are dangerous: alligators, snakes, deep pockets of water, mysterious lights that lure you to your doom.  “So people stay away from them mostly, right?” she goes on.  Heads nod.  “Did you ever wonder why those stories came about?”  Heads nod again. “Back during the time when Africans were enslaved,” she explains, “they spent a lot of time figuring out how to get away.  And they found that the colonialists didn’t like to go into the swamps.  So when the enslaved people could get away, some of them went deep into the swamps, and lived there.  And the more stories there were about the haints and the swamp lights and the dangers, then the safer they were.  You see, if you know the history around stories, they tell you a lot more about the world. Now let’s get back to it.” Her voice drops once again into the character of the haint, and once again listeners are back in the dark of the swamp, throwing magic kernels of corn to get away.

Ms. Washington, the Heathwood Library’s 2019 Visiting Author, is an internationally known, award winning storyteller, spoken word recording artist, and author. She spent all day at Heathwood on October 18, sharing her passion for stories and storytelling with Early Childhood, Lower School, and Middle School students.

After her performance, I asked Ms. Washington about the value of storytelling in a modern society so full of other forms of entertainment.  “I always say, if you want to know who a people are, don’t listen to the stories others tell about them—listen to the stories they tell about themselves,” she says.  It is through the stories we tell about ourselves, “from the time of the Founding Fathers onward,” that we create our reality.  “Folklore—stories about our people—let us know we’re in the right place; who’s good and who’s bad; they are anchors and emotional comfort.”  Understanding the history surrounding the creation of folklore allows for a richer understanding of our culture—where we came from, what is important to us, where we are headed.

For students, especially, she feels that teaching cultural history through folklore is an excellent way to ask students to think—about their assumptions, about what is fair and not, about who has power and who doesn’t.  In the broadest sense, too, familiarity with folklore is important because it is the story of us.  “Since almost all our important literature is based on cultural understanding, which is built on stories, it is essential for children to become good listeners, so they know what is real and what is fiction,” she says.  “We actually change our relationship to reality through stories,” she explains, developing our ability discriminate between what is true and possible, and what isn’t.

“A hundred years from now, the stories we tell one another every day, about the things that happen to us and our families—most of them will fade away.”  The stories that remain, she says, are the ones that take on a life of their own.  “The ones that last,” she says, “are the ones that become mythological, that become legend.”  These are the stories that live on long after particular people are gone because they touch on core elements of the human story and define who we are in relation to one another.  Folktales are the warp and weft of our experience together as humans, so they live on in our families and communities.  “We need those stories,” says Washington, “they are what binds us together.”

Heathwood is proud to be able to host visiting artists through our Visiting Author program, funded by the Great Used Book Sale, the Spring Book Fair, and proceeds from the Birthday Book program.  Thank you for your support!