As Dwight James slapped and tapped the tops of his Conga drums, Queen Nur began to move her hips.
Her arms followed, motioning the movements of a whale and a bird as she told a tale of how those creatures learned how to live in harmony.
This “Stories in Service: Day of Neighborhood Storytelling” event at Lonnie Young Recreation Center was held in conjunction with Peace Day in Philly. It was part of a series of oral-storytelling events in four Philadelphia neighborhoods.
With drumming, dancing and singing in East Germantown, three women narrated pieces that centered on peace, freedom and risk-taking.
A color-spectrum parable
Jos Duncan, founder and executive director of GriotWorks, led off the event with a story that reflected the need for unity within communities. She used several hip-hop artists as metaphors.
Duncan told the story like this: There once was no rain because all the colors in the rainbow were fighting. Their argument stemmed from each color’s selfishness and the lack of understanding of each other’s purpose.
Using call-and-response, Duncan told the crowd to call out the words “Who are you?”
“Who are you,” the crowd collectively responded.
“I am yellow,” Duncan responded.
The story of yellow was of Chris Brown. Red was Beyonce. Green represented Biggie Smalls. Though not a color in the rainbow, pink was Nicki Minaj.
As each color boasted of individual greatness, Father Sky reminded them that plants, animals and people were suffering because there was no rain.
Realizing they depended on one another, the colors resolved their differences.
Also on hand was National Association of Black Storytellers President Queen Nur and local writer Denise Valentine.
Both of their stories humanized animals to illustrate themes of friendship, social change and embracing differences.
“Storytelling is the passing on of our history, our values, our morals,” Nur said. “We follow in the footsteps of the griots of West Africa, but we infuse our experience here as African Americans. We don’t tell stories just to entertain. It’s about passing on tradition. It’s about sustainability within our communities.”
Generation to generation
For more than two decades, Nur has worked as an oral storyteller.
Growing up in North Philadelphia, she told NewsWorks that she started on a storytelling path at the age of 9.
When she wrote poetry as a young girl, her father would record her while jazz music played in the background.
Other memories of storytelling came from Nur’s grandfather who was a photographer. His pictures narrated stories of community parties and trips to Atlantic City’s “Chicken Bone Beach.”
“A lot of times, stories would come from within the family,” Nur said. “What we need to do is reinforce those traditions, those family stories, because we’re passing on our culture.”
The meaning of peace
As Saturday’s event drew to a close, children were given construction paper, notebooks, markers, crayons, pens and pencils to write letters and short stories about peace means to them.
Denise Williams brought her three nieces — Nykarah, Kierrah and Naziyah — to the rec center’s playground. Williams admitted she did not know about the event, but was happy to have stumbled upon it.
Nykarah, a fourth-grader, then wrote on a piece of tracing paper what peace meant to her:
“Peace is no fighting in the world and making the earth a better place, that’s what peace [is] to me.”