Black stories matter: storytellers and anti-racism.

Since the appalling death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a renewed call for greater equality has rightly dislodged the Coronavirus from the newspaper headlines.  What started with the atrocious murder of an unarmed black man has become a far reaching debate about our colonial past and how we teach slavery to future generations.  From my own experience of leading workshops about cultural identity at Vestry House and The William Morris Gallery, I advocated the issue be presented in a balanced, progressive way which celebrated the impact of diversity whilst accepting the practice was abhorrent but then the museums I have so proudly worked with for so many years became the centre of the storm.  I’m sure like many other people, these events combined with the lockdown have made me question a lot of things.

As a white British male I have no real understanding of racism.  I probably understand playground bullying but not out and out discrimination.  Working as a storyteller is a highly competitive.  I have had to work hard to achieve what I have but the colour of my skin has never been a barrier to my progression or mobility and perhaps this has allowed me to take greater creative risks. I wouldn’t have ever said I was racist but is keeping your head down and getting on with it whilst others struggle perhaps something I should have felt more guilty about?

I am regularly asked to tell stories from all around the world and have a repertoire that reflects the globe. If I am ever asked to tell an African story I will always favour telling children about Anansi’s colourful adventures.

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Anansi is a spider and a trickster who back when all the animals spoke and walked the same way as man was always getting up to mischief (often to fill his belly!). If I was then asked to tell a story from America I would want to tell you about Brer Rabbit.

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Brer Rabbit is another trickster. He is Anansi’s American cousin and their adventures bear direct comparison (eg. both Anansi and Brer Rabbit have encountered a sticky Tar/Gum Baby). Brer Rabbit is part of the folklore of the southern states of America.  The slaves who were forced to work on the plantations were denied their language and their culture but they couldn’t be denied their stories or their songs.  I love Brer Rabbit and Anansi because they always manages to outsmart larger animals (Brer Fox and Osebo the Leopard with terrible teeth).  I’m sure to those who were forced to work on the plantations these larger creatures represented their owners and that a bygone audience found escapism from misery in humour.

There is a rich tradition of oral folklore that can be traced across the world because of the slave trade but is sharing these stories cultural appropriation or anti-racism? Anti-racism as a concept was introduced to me by another storyteller who had witnessed an incident and after speaking to the victim vowed to no longer be part of the silent majority. It would be my view that every time a storyteller tells a story to an audience from beyond their own culture perhaps they do cherry pick the best stories but they do so to celebrate cultural diversity. If in telling the story they also help create a forum to address difficult issues (like equality) they can become powerful anti-racists.  One hundred and fifty years after its abolition, the folklore that derived from slavery is rightly recognised in the rich tapestry of American culture. Oral stories are not statues; they only exist in the mouths and minds of the storyteller and their audience and if a story isn’t told then it may be forgotten. In the same way historians remind us of the horrors of slavery storytellers keep their tales alive to celebrate their cultural contribution.

Many years ago I was asked by a school to tell the story of Rosa Parks, the black woman who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Back then I turned the work down. I’m not ashamed of that decision but as an older, wiser storyteller if the opportunity were ever offered again I would take up that challenge with relish because I now see that I have a choice: remain a secure member of the silent majority or be part of the change I want to see. I choose to tell the stories of black Africans and slaves to enthuse, entertain and enlighten a generation of anti-racists and because as I have said before, these days I’d rather be a Billy Goat than a Troll. I am a storyteller, I have a voice and I can use it.


John Kirk is a professional storyteller telling stories in schools and libraries and at events and festivals.  For more information or to make an enquiry, complete a contact form.