Wichita Griots, a 12-member group of storytellers, recently hosted the 35th annual National Association of Black Storytellers Festival, drawing national attention to its efforts to develop character and promote literacy through their craft.
Jean Pouncil-Burton, who founded Wichita Griots nearly a decade ago after retiring from a career as a librarian, told The Wichita Eagle the group visits local schools and other organizations to tell stories, teach character, and promote literacy.
“We tell a number of stories from folk tales to ghost stories to historical stories,” she said. “We inform, educate, inspire, motivate, uplift, and heal with our stories.”
The local group is one of 15 affiliates of the National Association of Black Storytellers, which held its annual festival at the Wichita Marriott for the first time on Nov. 8. The five-day event kicked off with a concert featuring local talent and activities that included performances by Wahoto, a children’s group; a drum line from the Bunker Performing Arts Magnet Elementary School; and a local choir called ARISE, the Eagle reports.
The events, built around the theme “The African American Story: From Chains to Wings,” continued with a series of concerts performances, dances, workshops, and contests through Nov. 12.
The festivities featured several “master storytellers,” as well as renowned drummers like Jeremie Meadows, a Georgia high schooler, and Kunama Mtendaji, a Missouri percussionist who specializes in drumming and dance from Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast. In addition to the festival at the Marriott, Wichita Griots also guided festival participants on a tour of the city’s black history sites, including The Kansas African American Museum, the site of the Dockum Sit-In, and the Ulrich Museum of Art.
Melody McCray-Miller told the Eagle one of the most popular events is the tall tales contest, which encourages adults and youngsters to craft outlandish yarns.
“They’ll get in a mood and a groove and they’ll tell some stories,” she said.
Immersing oneself in stories, and learning to tell those stories, is an essential part of developing a moral compass and good character.
Robert Coles, Pulitzer Prize-winning psychiatrist and author of The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, notes that “Novels and stories are renderings of life; they cannot only keep us company, but admonish us, point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course.”
Stories also affirm our belonging in a community, reinforcing the strength of that community. According to Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture founder James Davison Hunter in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America, “The story implicit in the word character is one that is shared. It is never a story just for the isolated individual. The narrative integrates the self into communal purposes binding dissimilar others to common ends.”
The storytellers festival provided both an opportunity for master storytellers to guide a younger generation to stay the course of good character, and encouraged youngsters to craft their own stories that will undoubtedly draw others along the same path.
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