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United Way of Lancaster County


Juneteenth 2024: The storytelling tradition, and praying for rain (opinion)

Kesha Morant Williams (Source: Provided)

(Editor’s note: This essay is part of a collection examining the intersection of history, memory and education in connection with Juneteenth.)

There is so much repetition in this work. It spans all my life. And reminds me of how my elders tell me the same stories over and over again. Hearing the same story makes it impossible to forget. And so I tell my story here again and again and again. — bell hooks

First and foremost, I am a storyteller.

My mother recognized this intergenerational gifting and found ways to mold it throughout my formative years – writing awards, school clubs, college projects, and my entire professional career center on storytelling. I earned a master’s degree in Humanities and a Ph.D. in Communication and Culture to gain the agency and access to tell more stories about people like me on larger platforms.

The gift of storytelling exemplifies the connection between African Americans and ancestral Africa. In the traditional setting, African griots or storytellers perform rituals, entertainment, and community education to pass on the story through the oral tradition, which has an enduring history within the African American community.

Stories shaped the early education of Black people in the U.S. It was illegal to teach the enslaved how to read or write, so communities passed on knowledge through stories and songs. During Jim Crow, sharecroppers’ children worked alongside their parents and attended school sporadically, typically until about fourth grade.

On Juneteenth, I pause to honor and reflect on the gift of storytelling as a way of honoring my elders – telling their stories again and again. During Reconstruction, Black people made considerable progress in educational and civic life, which was destroyed with intention by the dismantling of The Freedman’s Bureau and the onslaught of Jim Crow laws. Still, the Black community continued to educate in traditional and nontraditional outlets, holding on to their belief that education provided freedom and latitude to gain access to a better life.

Education equals access and opportunities that white supremacist ideology aggressively fights to deny. As I retell my family stories, I wrestle with the complicated layers of systemic oppression and centuries of deeply engrained legal educational inequities.

Praying for rain

On the first day of school, my mom and her sisters, kindergarten through third grade, put on their best outfits and ran down the dirt road to catch the bus to their elementary school. Filled with anticipation, they met their teachers and classmates and reconnected with old friends. However, just like the years prior, they attended the first day of school but did not return for most of the fall season.

“Daddy let us go to school on the first day every year,” said my mother, “but the rest of the fall, we had to work in the field.”

If it rained, they went to school. Unfortunately, it didn’t rain often.

Like his children, my grandfather also attended the first day of school. Much like his children, I’d imagine he entered the kindergarten classroom full of wonder and excitement. I envision my grandfather’s small, calloused hands holding onto his sack as he and his classmates filed into their humble learning space. His thin legs dangled as he settled in his seat, his piercing gray eyes glancing around the classroom. In my mind’s eye, he headed home curious about what was to come; he was excited to share his new experience with his family. But when he arrived, his stepfather told him he didn’t need an education to work in the field.

He never attended school again. For the next 50 years, he worked in the field.

My grandfather was a survivor who lived in the present, focusing only on his family’s immediate needs. As far as he was concerned, formal education was not one of those needs. By the time his children came along, Black codes limiting access to equal educational opportunity were heavily enforced throughout the South. Clarendon County, where the family lived, was no exception.

The year my mother was born, community leaders challenged the school board over the lack of equality in Briggs vs Elliott, which was later combined with Brown vs. The Board of Education. This landmark decision changed the face of education across the country.

Hearing stories about my mother’s family of origin helps me better understand her approach to life and, more specifically, education. Her innate commitment and dogged pursuit that, at all costs, her children would be educated humbles me.

Nearly eight decades after she prayed for rain, my mother regularly watches me, the granddaughter of a sharecropper, carry on her legacy and love of education. I am privileged to tell the stories of my elders over and over again – making it impossible to forget.