I am griot, master of eloquence, the vessel of speech, the memory of mankind. I speak no untruths. This is the word of my father and my father’s father. Listen to me, those who want to know. From my mouth you will hear the history of your ancestors.
—West African griot opening chant
For thousands of years, West African griots (men) and griottes (women) have served as human links between past and present, speaking the ever-expanding stories of their ancestors and the history of their people—accounts of births and deaths, conquests and defeats, times of plenty and times of famine, vast empires and small villages, nobles and heroes and commoners. These men and women are not simply oral historians, genealogists, storytellers, and teachers; they are also spokespeople, exhorters, interpreters, judges, poets, musicians, and praise-singers. Their wisdom and their voices preserve not just a family or a community but an entire culture and its values.
In his book Griots and Griottes: Masters of Words and Music, Thomas A. Hale writes, “No other profession in any other part of the world is charged with such wide-ranging and intimate involvement in the lives of people.” These “wordsmiths,” he continues, are the “social glue” of society. Their words and the layers of meaning behind those words influence how each person views himself in the present and on the continuum of past and future. In the eyes of West Africans, griots and griottes are fundamentally different from other human beings. Even their burial rituals are unique. Though neither religious icons nor sorcerers, they hold an aura of power and mystery that makes them at once frightening and revered.
American slave owners successfully abolished many African customs, but the tradition of oral history has held strong. For many African-American families, including mine, this tradition is all that preserves the legacies our ancestors left for us. In the “official” history of America, their stories were excluded, ignored, marginalized, or distorted. But in each generation of my family, the griot has kept the stories alive and added his or her own important lessons and personal tales to the saga in order to leave evidence that they, like their predecessors, existed and, though often confronted by restrictive circumstances, did all they could to make the most of their lives.
Our first wordsmith was a slave called Mandy.
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