African-American Master storyteller

African-American tales are teaching tools

African-American tales are teaching tools

February 19, 2006|by MARIE GILBERT

HAGERSTOWN - Bunjo Butler knows how to craft a good story.

He can take a remembrance and turn it into an unforgettable tale.

He can teach you about life, values and conflict resolution.

And he shares his African-American heritage with ancient stories that give a new generation a sense of identity.

Butler is a storyteller.

"I've always loved words," he said. "I've always loved to read. I can't remember a time when I was not a reader. Books took me places, introduced me to people, taught me lessons."

But while he loved to read about other people's adventures, he never thought he could create his own stories.

"Sometimes you're not aware of what God has prepared for you," the Baltimore resident said. "He knew I had this talent deep down inside. I just had to discover that for myself."


A librarian at Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Butler credits children's librarian Fellisco Keeling with bringing his storytelling skills to the forefront.

"She thought I had a gift for storytelling, which I didn't believe to be true," he said. "One day, she challenged me to write a story, and the rest is history."

More than 15 years later, Butler travels around the country, sharing stories with both children and adults.

Butler creates many of the stories, but also takes old tales and develops his own twist to the plot, "making it my own."

Butler was at the Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown on Saturday morning to share several stories with a young audience.

"I share my stories with all age groups, but I love spending time with children," Butler said. "Kids are wonderful. They're always accepting and open to so many kinds of stories."

Butler specializes in African, Caribbean and African-American stories, proverbs and songs.

"Africans have always revered good stories," Butler said. "Ever since ancient times, storytelling has been a way of passing on the traditions and beliefs of society from one generation to the next. Entire histories have been carried down through the centuries by the spoken word."

Butler said storytelling in the African culture was not solely for entertainment, "but also to teach the principles of life and morality, provide patterns for problem solving and teach codes of behavior to both young and old."

"African storytellers had many roles," Butler said. "They were educators, mediators and the social conscience of a community. I try to stay true to that. I recognize that people must be entertained, but I want them to walk away with a shared message - whether its about morals and values, respect for adults or correct behavior for our youth."

Butler uses many of his stories in African-American communities to help people, especially youth, identify with their heroes or learn about significant events and happenings.

He uses African drums and a cow tail switch as part of his performances and explains the ancient traditions of the jeli, an African term for storyteller. He also enjoys sharing his heritage with other cultures as a means of learning and educating.

"It's important to share cultures," he said. "It's critical and enlightening to have this exchange. From this, we learn that we have a lot in common, regardless of our background. Often, when I share stories with other storytellers, it's difficult to determine the origin of a story because it cuts across all cultures."

According to Butler, everybody is a storyteller.

"We share stories about school, home, experiences, and we each tell them in our own way," he said.

He especially is excited when children become inquisitive about telling stories.

"I have a granddaughter, 11, and a grandson, 8, who have both become young storytellers," he said. "They started out with proverbs, and as their talents grew, they started to identify stories they could share. They're following in their grandfather's footsteps."

As a member of the Griots' Circle of Maryland, a storytelling organization, he also is proud of that group's youth division, Growing Griots, which encourages young storytellers through reading, writing and public speaking programs.

"You're never too old or too young to tell a story," Butler said. "Everyone has a story to tell and their own way of telling it."

Butler is a past president of the National Association of Black Storytellers Inc., a 23-year-old organization co-founded by storytellers Mary Carter Smith and Linda Goss.

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