Long before the advent of written language, storytellers used the spoken word to preserve a record of past experiences from one generation to the next. Oral history was transmitted in song or speech and took on many forms: chants, folktales, ballads, sayings, or songs–knowledge shared without a writing system. This was especially key where people of a society were denied access to education or were afraid to leave a written record of their knowledge.
In America, slaveholders forbade slaves from learning to read or write to keep them in ignorance; the idea was to discourage escape or rebellion. In fact, the legislation that denied slaves formal education likely contributed to their maintaining a strong oral tradition, a common feature of indigenous African cultures.
African-based oral traditions preserved history, mores, and other cultural information among the people. This was consistent with the griot practices of oral history in many African and other cultures that did not rely on the written word. The folktales offered African Americans the opportunity to inspire and educate one another.
It is the rich, local history that Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives (GRAAMA) now seeks to preserve by interviewing the elders of a bygone era–the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. It doesn’t really seem that long ago, but once the keepers of the stories are gone, the histories will be lost forever.
The new organization has recently launched a multimedia project called ‘Grandma’s Voice.’ Made possible in part by a $25,000 grant from The Michigan Humanities Council through funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the acronym is a play on the word, ‘Grandma,’ which conveys the museum’s core mission: to document the oral history from some of the area’s oldest living people–particularly women–who can offer insight into their long-ago experiences. Some people are 80 to 100 years old, so time is of the essence.
GRAAMA has teamed up with the Grand Rapids Urban League and the Kutsche Office of Local History at Grand Valley State University. The organization is looking for elderly folks who can tell the story of early Grand Rapids or the surrounding area.
You don’t have to be a grandma to share your stories. GRAAMA encourages families and individuals to inspire others by sharing skills, experiences, and knowledge with other creative minds. Call the elders of your family, and then email firstname.lastname@example.org. The organization says that those who are interviewed will receive a small stipend. The finished audio/video disk will be the main attraction at Museum once it opens in 2016.
For more info, go here.
Images courtesy of GRAAMA