The role of the griot, a well-regarded village elder who verbally passes on tales of the ancestors, counted among remnants of ancient African traditions that survived the Transatlantic slave trade. For generations, these people have instilled hope and pride in African Americans facing insurmountable odds.
For two days during Black History Month, amid conditions that bring to mind both the racialized terrorist acts of the Jim Crow era and the promise of a modern-day revolution, a master storyteller divulged some age-old wisdom that he said could guide today’s youth along their path to freedom.
“Pencil, paper, and books are fine, but the oral tradition is as equally, if not more powerful,” Dylan Pritchett, a griot from Williamsburg, Virginia, said on Sunday afternoon, moments after wrapping up his second show at the Alexandria Black History Museum on Wythe Street in Alexandria.
Pritchett, sporting a tattered off-white shirt, a purple handkerchief around his neck, large gray slacks and brown shoes like those worn during the 19th century, spent nearly 90 minutes engaging an audience of more than a dozen people in call and response, singing, and drumming as part of a show touted as “Civil War Stories for Families.”
“We let paper hold our knowledge rather than the knowledge coming from our ear,” Pritchett added. “We retained most of what we learned from the oral. Africans believed that elders hold the future. That’s why grandparents are important.”
While Sunday’s show bore some similarity to another program titled “African American Stories for Adults,” that took place the night before, Pritchett said he fashioned this edition to impart gems on the audience, similar to how an elder would serve the youth.
For instance, a story he told on the afternoon of February 3rd involved a couple and their seven children, each of whom he described as live wax figures without feelings. At the end of the story, the children learned about the pain of loss as they watched their parents mourn the oldest wax figure who melted upon stepping outside of their house in his thirst for adventure.
Another parable involved an elder during the Reconstruction Era who toiled for her two daughters, Dove and Robin, so much so that the young women believed a treasure had been left for them in an old tin dowry box. When the elder transitioned, Dove and Robin found out to their amazement that the box had nothing but calls for hope that would the elder said would sustain the young ladies, by that time successful professionals in their own right.
The opening story, during which audience members openly conversed with Pritchett about the underlying meaning, ended with a nod to the ancestors, and a reminder that no one truly dies unless people stop speaking their name and about their great deeds.
“I liked how Dylan Pritchett made us think. He made you go deep into the stories and the time he spoke of so you could visualize the people and places he talked about,” said Stephana Miles, a congregant of nearby St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, located two blocks from the Alexandria Black History Museum, who attended Saturday and Sunday’s shows.
The parable about the wax figures struck a chord for Miles, as it forced her to reflect on her youth and desire to leave the confines of her community in the pursuit of a college education.
“The meaning of the story for each of us bring out of us who we are and what we should do with our children,” she said. “We used to tell stories to our children to give them hope. I don’t know what happened these days, if we’re so busy trying to make a way in life.”
Pritchett, former president of the National Association of Black Storytellers, regales youth with folklore during more than 200 shows throughout the year. He has also provided narration for a PBS documentary about President Thomas Jefferson.
For more than 20 years, Pritchett has contributed research about the African-American experience in Virginia for the Office of Historic Alexandria, under which the city’s historic sites have been preserved. That relationship led to his eventual appearance at the Alexandria Black History Museum.
“Dylan understands Virginia and the role of African Americans in Virginia,” said Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum.
“People don’t want to hear a lecturer, but this makes history come alive. He can read an audience and gear it toward them. That’s really important and it was interesting for people to give their perspective,” she added.