The Exhibition: African Traditions and Storytelling

As we move through the exhibition, the second theme introduced is African Traditions and Storytelling. The subjects of the stories include beliefs, taboos, and myths along with moral messages aiding children in their transition from adolescence to adulthood. These stories serve as a benchmark in understanding the context of African-American storytelling, while appropriately uncovering the bitter truth African people endured throughout colonialism and the slave trade. These narratives of African-American children’s literature can be seen as a continued commitment to nurture the guiding principles and culture of a people who’s ancestors come from a different continent.

The books included within the section are African Beginnings, Ashanti to Zulu, Beautiful Blackbird, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, To Be A Drum, and Turtle Knows Your Name. Below is a brief synopsis of each book.

African Beginnings. Written by James Haskins & Kathleen Benson. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard Books, 1998.

African Beginnings breaks down ancient African culture and society by spotlighting various cultures, empires, and countries. Throughout the book, readers engage with the values of ancient Africa including the trade of goods and ideas, engineering advancements, and cultural homiliaries including music, dance, art, religion, European trade, colonization, and slavery. In focussing on each topic individually, the reader gets a better sense of African history as well as the incredible diversity within the continent. African Beginnings also shares a detailed look into the power and control African had prior to Western involvement. A detailed timeline of the milestones of African people is included in the back of the book spanning from 100,000 B.C.E. to 1800.

Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions. Written by Margaret Musgrove. Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Dial, 1976.

Ashanti to Zulu was the second book to be awarded the Caldecott Medal for excellence of illustrations. This book uses the alphabet to introduce 26 different cultures to the reader, each letter representing the name of a new culture and their practices. In doing this, Musgrove provides the reader with additional information about their culture and a tradition they practice regularly. Many of the cultures relate to younger readers by explaining family and child life within the culture.

Beautiful Blackbird. Written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan. Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003.

Beautiful Blackbird received a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award in 2004. This book retells the tale from Zambia about a flock of birds of all colors in the first. Blackbird, the only bird who is colored black in the flock, was voted the most beautiful, as it absorbed all the sun’s colors on it at once. The other birds longed to be a beautiful as Blackbird. Blackbird tried to explain that beauty comes from within, but the others still longed to be as beautiful as Blackbird. He painted each bird with a black, unique pattern showing them again that beauty comes from within.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Text by Langston Hughes. Illustrated by E.B. Lewis. Published by Jump at the Sun/Disney, 2009.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers is a poem written by Langston Hughes in which E. B. Lewis has created visual representation for each line of the power. Hughes compares the various aspects of African history to a river, alluding to the depth of African culture, as well as the continuity of it. The final line, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” conveys a timeline of the harsh reality of slavery and the continued hardships that African Americans still face today.

To Be a Drum. Written by Evelyn Coleman. Illustrated by Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson. Published by Whitman and Co., 1998.

To Be A Drum is told from the perspective of a father talking to his children about their heritage in Africa. He begins by explaining that long ago the people of Africa played the drum to mirror the heartbeat of the earth. He continues, revealing that this drum is what has kept people of African heritage to their roots in Africa, and that when colonists came and sold African people into slavery the slaves embodied the drum, preserving their culture and human dignity. The drum continues as a motif throughout their history as the freedom to invent, create art, make strides in civil rights and so forth. The father states that the drum is inside you and that it is your freedom to achieve anything you want. As long as you ignore the outside noise you can hear your inner drum and heartbeat.

Turtle Knows Your Name. Retold and illustrated by Ashley Bryan. Atheneum, 1989.

Turtle Knows Your Name is an African fable in which a little boy has such a long name that no one can remember. He becomes incredibly frustrated because he can remember all of his friends names, but in return they call him “Long Name,” instead of learning his real name. After asking many of the animals if they know his name the turtle states that he remembers it, explaining that he never forgets a name he learns. After meeting the turtle, he goes home and  confides in his Granny, prompting her to ask him what her name is. He is puzzled, thinking her name is Granny. Before he gets his dessert, he must go out into his village and find his grandmother’s name, but no one in the village knows it. After asking every person and animal in the village, the turtle tells him her name, further reiterating that he never forgets a name. The story stresses the importance of learning names and truly knowing someone for who they are.


Written by Caroline Bastian