Festival in African griot tradition shows Baltimore's black children 'another way'

In African culture, one of the griot’s roles is to remember stories and pass them along to future generations.

But Bunjo Butler worries that those messages have been lost in black American culture — so he’s devoted to growing new griots.

He was among a group of authors, educators and performers who gathered in Druid Hill Park on Sunday to renew the griot tradition. The fourth annual African Griot Book Festival for Children aimed to connect children with history and culture that they don’t often learn about in school or see in the media — and empower them with a better sense of who they are, said Butler, director of the Growing Griots Literacy Learning Program.

“A lot of our kids are so confused,” Butler said. “If you know who you are, it allows you to go anywhere.”

Authors came to share books inspired by their own experiences.

Chaundra Scott became an author in 2015, writing “Curls and Coils” after a conversation with her daughter about how she could wear her hair naturally — not just straightened and treated like the way she saw black girls wear their hair on the Disney Channel. And she followed it up with “The All Star,” inspired by a conversation with her nephew about being a team player, and “Beautiful Shades,” drawn from a question from her daughter about differences in their skin tones.

She said she hopes her books help families engage with each other, and also help children in the classroom, drawing them to reading.

Ronald Campbell and Stephen McGill came to share “Mr. Powers,” a story of a single dad who is a personal trainer by day, and by night, a superhero protecting kids from bullies and monsters. It was inspired by McGill’s own experience as a single father, “a narrative that’s not talked about a lot,” Campbell said.

The collaborators, who met as classmates at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, said they, too, hoped to draw more kids into reading, and to help them understand their own experiences.

“There was a void that needed to be filled,” said Campbell, who illustrated the book. “People see something familiar and it pulls them in.”

Maureen Harris and her son, Marc Alexander, got inspired to write about black history when they noticed how little of it was included in the curriculum at the school they both attended in Pennsylvania. Decades after Harris was in school, Alexander learned the same basic lessons. Last year they published “We Did That! Stories of Black Achievement, Perseverance, And Excellence.”

“The only thing that people know about black people is what they see on the news,” she said. “Kids need to know that there’s another way.”

The festival also highlighted other roles of the griot, as a spiritual and musical leader.

It opened with a pouring of libations, a ritual that involves pouring wine or spirits — or, in this case, water — into the ground while invoking ancestors and asking for blessings. Local singer Ama Chandra took off her gold sandals to be closer to the earth while leading the ceremony, asking attendees to call out by name their ancestors, those that have been lost and those that have inspired them.

And a group of children, called the Next Generation Art Ensemble, followed that with a performance of drums, songs and spoken word.

“Oh Baltimore, ain’t it hard just to live?” they sang, before chanting: “Gunshots! Helicopters! Mothers crying!”

Gillette Dickens, the festival’s founder, said he was glad to see kids engaged in culture and history — as opposed to staring at screens. He said he came up with the idea for the festival after noticing how often people are focused on their phones, and recalling his own experiences raptly listening to stories at his aunts’ and uncles’ houses as a child, or noticing large stacks of books by his mother’s bed.

“People have almost totally gotten away from reading,” he said. “I wanted to open up those communication lines again.”

While the crowd was sparse on a cloudy Sunday, the retired property manager said he has dreams of expanding the concept across the East Coast and the country, exposing more black children to their history and cultural identity. He said he works all year to connect with authors eager to reach those readers.

“There should be 100,000 kids out here with their parents,” he said. “I’m looking forward to next year already.”

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