Baltimore City has a rich history that many don’t know about—though not through a lack of trying.
As more Black Baltimoreans try to learn more about their roots during a time of intense racial and political polarization, elders like Janice Curtis Greene are waiting to tell more stories of the community’s ancestors.
“Each of us has a story to tell. If you hold it in, it dies within you, and it does no good for anyone else,” Greene said.
A Baltimore native, Greene grew up in Baltimore City and has upheld the Black storytelling tradition for over 25 years. She is a former president of the National Association of Black Storytellers and a leader of its local affiliate organization, the Griots’ Circle of Maryland; she was appointed as Maryland’s official griot in 2022. In her Windsor Mill home, she has a room full of objects that she has gathered throughout her travels and storytelling work. To others, she says, this looks like “a room full of junk,” but she knows that each item is a conduit for storytelling and connection to culture.
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The National Association of Black Storytellers (NABS) visits community gathering and educational spaces to share Black folktales, legends, and history. Each storyteller is skilled in different genres and styles, and Greene enjoys working with youth, creatively incorporating her items to bring the history of African diaspora to life.
“I take it and let the children touch it, hold it,” Greene said, “because I believe that the ancestors can speak to them through this item. That it is a physical attachment to our ancestors and to our heritage.”
Ahmari Anthony: Tell me about the National Association of Black Storytellers and your work there.
Janice Curtis Greene: The National Association of Black Storytellers is a unique organization founded by the late Mother Mary Carter Smith of Baltimore, and Mama Linda Goss, a Philadelphia native who now resides in Baltimore. They would go to storytelling programs because they were both excellent storytellers at the time when there were no avenues for Black storytellers; Racism plagued this art just like it did everything else. So they started this great organization for the preservation of Black storytelling in 1982. We use the term “Blackstorytelling,” all one word. “Blackstorytelling” is a noun because the word represents how the art brings all that we are, all that we feel—all that joy, all our pain, all our growth, all our tragedies and triumphs—into stories.
Now, there are 13 affiliates throughout the United States of the National Association of Black Storytellers. Several of us, myself included, have been given apprenticeship grants. I was able to secure an apprenticeship grant so that I could train a young woman, one of the members of our Growing Griots literacy program. She is a powerful storyteller at 14 years old; [she] can get on a stage and wrap you around her little finger because she already has certain abilities. That’s the kind of thing that we as BlackStorytellers do. We train and we enjoy going into schools, especially when audiences are diverse. Especially now that we have people perverting Black history in their academics, in their structures—like DeSantis, who will tell the lie that slavery was good because it taught some Black people skills that they could use without even realizing that we came to this country with skills. You didn’t teach us anything. Being blacksmiths, cooks, seamstresses, we already knew how to do that and we brought it with us from Africa. That’s why it’s important, because the truth must be told. We are truth seekers and truth tellers.
Ahmari: How have your styles or your mediums [for storytelling] changed as the community changes and the kids change and the times change?
Janice: The kids made videos of themselves. Each student had to make a video of themselves telling a story. One young man made a video of himself making cookies. That was his skill; he could cook, Xavier. So he made cookies and [was] being funny in between and gave little anecdotes in between. That was great. So it gives the children an opportunity by doing things electronically and [with] technology. He could have never done that with us in the classroom. But [technology] stretches us.
Ahmari: What are some of those basic storytelling components that the kids are learning?
Janice: A beginning, a middle, and an end. Character, plot, resolution, antagonist, protagonists, the basics of any storytelling. You got to learn that in English [class]. It has nothing to do with Black storytelling. And then we add the Black storytelling component. Call and response, echo, how to include a song in your story. With your characters changing your voice, changing your attitude. When you tell your story, how to make something big, even bigger on the stage, and how to make it seem small on the stage. Rise and fall of your voice and making people get close to you and your story just by whispering asides, or glances from side to side.
Storytellers are always looking for ways of helping each other. You don’t just become a good storyteller. What you do is you make sure that you teach somebody and tell somebody and learn something new. We believe that the art of Black storytelling must not, cannot, die, and [helping each other] is just one way.
Ahmari: You’ve spoken to me about using storytelling to support people who are struggling with addiction and things like that. How have you seen storytelling be used to help our communities cope with trauma and violence in those types of really visceral struggles? How do we capture those struggles in storytelling, and then how do we use storytelling to address those issues?
Janice: Each of us has a story to tell. If you hold it in, it dies within you, and it does no good for anyone else.
I’m going to talk to you from a personal standpoint. I have three sons; two of my sons are deceased. One of my sons—smartest kid in his class, but through the trauma of having his biological father walk out, there was a certain part of him that was broken. And so he did succumb to a drug addiction. He had diabetes, and he was in depression. So the combination of drugs, depression, and diabetes was his downfall. Then my second son was a US Marine who died from his injuries in Iraq.
So I have lost two children. That is traumatizing. I wrote a story about my sons. And the first time I told that story was at their gravesite. And I recorded it. I later told that story to a women’s group and I was shocked that there were so many women who have lost children. And I kept on telling that story as a healing story.
It became not just a story. It became a ministry, a healing ministry for people who had lost children. First, they have to find their story; realizing that they have the story and can use that story is a method of healing. Because once you verbalize it and you hear yourself telling it it becomes your healing. And then it allows you to heal others. So, that’s what storytelling does. You take all of your pain, you mix it with your passion, and then you present it to other people, and it will heal. It can be a story about a loss, about a physical issue and addiction. But it’s finding it and letting it out. And when you let it out, then it frees you.
I suffered from depression because of the loss of my sons for more than a minute. Once I let it out, I began to heal. I thought I was the only one, [but] it’s just like any other epidemic that’s killing people and killing families, because when you lose one child, the whole family suffers.
Ahmari: In the Growing Griots program, what are you seeing and hearing from the children and how has that experience [of] working with them affected you?
Janice: Well, it’s what I tell the children in the beginning. I have three sons that I love. Because two of them are no longer here, I still have all this love in my heart and I’ve got excess love, so I give it to you. The mentors of the Growing Griots are more than just teachers; we become parents and friends and sisters. I’ve been a mentor for 14 [or] 15 years for the Growing Griots.
During Black History Month, they perform as different features in the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum. They bring the wax figures to life and they have to do their own research. We help them out with writing the script from their research. We’ve had them do TV programs. Also the Sankofa Intergenerational Oral History Program, and I’m so proud to say that I am the basis for that program. We help the kids write out interview questions. And they interviewed elders, and we filmed some of their interviews.
They interviewed Mama Edna Russell, who is now the oldest living member of the National Association of Black Storytellers and the Griots’ Circle of Maryland—100 years old—and asked these questions. And these elders give very insightful answers about what it was like to go into the military, what it was like being in school when they were in the early 1900s, what it was like to be the first Black nurse like Mama Vicky. There were patients who wouldn’t allow her to touch them because she was Black. They hear these things from their elders. It just opened their mind to how much the people have gone through and how much you have to keep working not to slip back.
So the Growing Griots Literacy Learning Program is more important now than ever to make sure that young people know some correct history. They can live it, they can dream it. They can prepare to be history makers of the future. How to tell a story, how to research, critical thinking, you know, they’ve learned all of these things in that program.
This interview has been edited for clarity, length and style.