by Luana Graves Sellars
Griot – a member of a class of traveling poets, musicians, and storytellers who maintain a tradition of oral history in parts of West Africa.
Traditionally, Gullah culture has relied on face to face communication. The oral practice, kept alive during slavery, is rooted to the shores of West Africa. The verbal and musical sharing of life skills and generational wisdom, has always been considered a key form of how stories and in some cases, critical information is passed on from family to family or village to village.
The value that a Griot brings into the community, in addition to maintaining key traditions, is significant. It not only establishes a connection that binds generational gaps, but it also provides a personal perspective on the past that can be shared into the future. The continued custom of a griot’s storytelling is a welcomed addition to any community and for Hilton Head’s Gullah, there is a clear understanding for the importance of what elders can share.
Every Thursday morning, from February to May, under the Big Oak Tree in Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, up to 30 children from pre-Kindergarten through 3rd grade gather to experience The Griot’s Corner, a literacy program that’s themed around the importance of history, diversity and identity. Each month, titles like Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky, One Love and The Empty Pot bring various experiences to life for the children, so that they understand not only the value of themselves, but of their community. Once read, the specially selected age-appropriate children’s books are donated to the teacher, so that they can build “a library within their classrooms of titles that would not usually be included in their book collection” and it “also enables the children to have continued access to the materials,” says Ahmad Ward, the Executive Director of the Mitchelville Preservation Project.
The return of a Griot’s Corner to Mitchelville “takes history and brings it to an area where West African history is still felt,” The program is a great one, “in that it establishes a connection with an age group to Mitchelville in a way that they would not normally be involved with the park” and “it also illustrates the importance of learning about history and culture,” he said.
Historic Mitchelville, is the site of the first self-governed town for freed slaves who developed the first compulsory education program in South Carolina. The Griot’s Corner is provided by the Mitchelville Preservation Project and is underwritten by a grant from the Breedlove Foundation and the Town of Hilton Head.
The Griot’s Corner is every Thursday morning at 10:00 a.m. through May 16. The cost is $2.00 per child.
For more information or to visit the Griot’s Corner, contact the offices for Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, 843-255-7301.