JONESBOROUGH, Tennessee—The Courthouse tent can hold a thousand people, but it was not big enough for this event. Perched on cushions on the banks of the railroad track, the crowd clustered outside the tent. They had come to hear Kathryn Windham tell stories. She was one of many speakers at the 37th National Storytelling Festival, which occurs on the first weekend of October each year.
At 91, Windham's slim back was bowed with age, but she spoke as if each listener was a friend on her front porch.
She told of her Aunt Bet opening the front door to greet her pastor. She was wearing a kitchen apron and white gloves to hide her hands which had turned purple from making blackberry wine on the Sabbath.
When Ms. Windham was invited to the second storytelling festival 36 years ago, she thought it was a prank. “Mr. Smith is sending me a ticket to Jonesborough. Hmm. If they’re fool enough to send for me I’m fool enough to go.”
Again and again, she interrupted herself. “I’m not going to tell you about that. Time gets away from me. I need to tell you things you need to know. Like about breakfast, dinner, and supper, and about not putting sugar in cornbread.”
Ms. Windham urged her audience to remember “and tell stories because you love the people. There is nothing that says I love you more distinctly than to tell the stories.”
Far from Ms. Windham’s Alabama home, Baba Jamal Koram grew up in foster care in New York State. The MC explained that “Baba” is a title, meaning he honors all who are in his care. He learned to gather family around him because of his foster care experience.
Both Baba Koram’s great grandmother and his adopted mother, Mary Mac, were storytellers. His family is from the low country, the coastal Carolinas, Gullah country. The area is culturally rich, with a unique patois and some undiluted African traditions.
Baba Koram told the story of Sunjaata, who at only seven years old was as big as a man but had never walked or talked. All the other boys climbed the Baobab trees to get leaves for their mothers, but not him. Finally his mother, hurt by another woman’s taunt, asked him why he did not walk or talk. Why had he never brought her leaves like the other boys did?
“Because you never asked me,” he replied. “Mother, do you want leaves? I will bring you the tree.” And he did.
Baba Koram said that if we want our children to do great things we need to ask them. “There comes a time when we have to upgrade.”
He told a funny story of hatchling eagles taking flying lessons. Another about an abolitionist who would not call himself that but just wanted to help somebody. He enlivened a Robert San Souci story about a low country merwoman. “You can find it at the library but it won’t read like I told it,” he said.
He described his first love who kept setting him up to fight larger and larger men. She used to stroke his cheek and head when she was proud of him. He gave her up before she got him killed. Later, she married a marine, but when he had a heart attack in 1997 she came to his hospital room. She stroked his cheek and healed him.
He’ll always love her, but refuses to answer her email. He has his wife, children and grandchildren.
Like Ms. Windham, Baba Koram called on the audience to tell their stories, too. “If you can’t look back, if you don’t know your ancestor’s stories, tell your story of 2009. Someone will come looking for it one day,” he said. "The greatest weapon against oppression and fascism is a long memory."