Like many others around the world I have been soul searching lately.  I am a person of white privilege.  I think of myself as an idealist.  I want to live in a world of equality and compassion.  However, I am realising more and more, how naïve and sheltered I have been.  I live, and was brought up in, rural Shropshire.  It is not ethnically diverse.  I don’t think I’m racist, but I have been passive.  I need to actively engage.  I am re-evaluating what part I play in maintaining the balance of power – what I can and should do to support change.

As a storyteller, my life is all about language.  I think about words and the layers of meaning they encapsulate.  Over the past weeks, I have been re-evaluating the stories I tell; what stereotypes and prejudices I am passing on without realising.

When I was at school, I learned a counting rhyme.  ‘Eeny meenie, minie mow, catch a n***** by its toe, if it squeals, let it go, eeny meenie minie mow’.  It was not until years later that I learned what n***** actually meant.  I thought it was a fish and it was just a playful nonsense rhyme that the fish had a toe.  I was shocked and mortified when I realised what the rhyme was actually saying and the countless times I had mindlessly repeated it.

Language is resonant. It shapes the way we think.  It holds echoes of past customs and beliefs in everyday sayings and proverbs.  It creates assumptions, reinforces prejudices and manipulates the way we see the world, often without us knowing.  The old saying ‘sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words can never hurt me’ is blatantly untrue.  Words are powerful.  Echoes of words and taunts spoken can leave bruises that remain tender for years longer than physical bruises.

Storytellers use shorthand all the time.  Stories use archetypes – strong, symbolic characters that come up again and again, that represent more than they necessarily show on the surface on the story, that carry the weight of a thousand other stories with them. Archetypes carry a tide of meaning and resonance with them.  Traditional stories are so powerful because of the traditions and layers of meaning that have accrued over generations, so that a short, apparently simple story can carry a different meaning for each listener who hears it.

The problem is that sometimes a word or phrase can acquire a new meaning incompatible with the other layers of meaning, that sets up a dissonance.

This is what has happened with the word black.

It seems to me a terrible irony that we have ended up with the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ to describe skin colour, when we have almost every colour under the sun, but very rarely black or white.  The terms black and white are make it much harder for us to come together.  When we talk of black and white issues, the insinuation is that an issue is clear cut, there are two polar opposites and it is a way of saying that there is no compromise between two positions, no middle way.  Having the labels black and white applied to skin colour, sets up an expectation of utter difference, it places people as opposites with nothing in common, which is incredibly unhelpful as we seek to establish a collaborative equal society.

The associations of black and white in traditional British culture have dreadful connotations, which go back long before they were the terms used for skin colour.

Black is bad, associated with night and things that happen under the cover of darkness.  We have the black arts, black hearts, black souls. Black is bad, literally, it is associated with things going rotten, the colour of blighted crops.  White is good, associated with day and light.  We have white witches and unblemished souls.  Milk is white.  It is healthy, a symbol of a mother’s love, the most pure, non-sexual love.

It is hardly surprising that racism remains institutionalised and deeply embedded within our culture when it is constantly reinforced through the imagery of the language that we use waking and sleeping to communicate, think and dream.  It doesn’t matter that these images and connotations began before we decided to inflict these labels, and with them, their many layers of meaning, on people – it’s been done, now we need to find a way to extricate and slowly unpick and untwist all these negative strands that have taken centuries to weave together.

It is going to be task worthy of Hercules or Jack, but one that we have to begin – and the harder we try, the closer we may come to succeeding.  I’m determined to try, though I feel rather overwhelmed and it’s going to take time.

For example, there is a story I was given by Duncan Williamson, a traditional Scottish Traveller story, Jack and the Black Thief of Slain.  In the past I felt comfortable telling it.  We know he is an immensely powerful sorcerer, a people thief and keeps slaves in his silver mines.  No one can describe him, because no one who meets him ever returns.  In the past, I rather liked playing with the assumptions people made and when Jack finally meets The Black Thief, we discover that he is a great giant of a man, his skin pale and pallid, with a full head and beard of black hair and his body covered in coarse wiry black hairs.  But now, I am realising that it needs to change. Yes, The Black Thief is a white man, but while he is overtly called The Black Thief because of his hair, all the layers of association are meant – he is a master of the black arts, he has a black heart and a black soul.  His land appears barren, no crops grow above the surface in the light of day, instead his harvest comes out of the hidden darkness beneath.  In traditional story lore, all that is summarised in that brief title, The Black Thief of Slain.  Now, I was gifted these Traveller stories and I want to stay true to the heart of them, but I am beginning a journey of finding a new common shorthand. The stories still need to flow and not sound painfully contrived to avoid the word black.  It should be a subtle subversive shift, a change in the core thinking of the language.

I think in this story, that actually, the simplest thing to do is to simply remove the word black. It will require a little more work and perhaps for me to be a little more explicit, to unpick and spell out, the associations of mining in the ground and sorcery, to include more description, but now I’ve starting thinking and examining how to do it, I think it might make it more chilling and a better story.

So, I am embarking on a rethinking, reimagining, redefining of my similes, metaphors and word-imagery, going back to first principles.

The black arts are secret, hidden, power with a price, power used for selfish ends, associated with the Devil, darkness, often bought with another’s pain.  They are vampiric, feeding off others – whether it is sucking out pain, blood, soul or life.  If black is associated with food going bad, many other colours/senses are too…pale, grey, green, pallid, stench, slime…

Grey has a lot of potential. Grey could easily be the new faceless face of evil.  Grey is the colour of mist.  It fogs mind and vision.  Mist is unstoppable and relentless, impossible to fight.  Grey is the colour of mould and mildew.  Grey is what’s left when the colour is leached out.  Grey is the colour of ash, once the life and vitality of a substance has been burned away.  Grey is the colourless colour, the colour of depression and hopelessness. Grey is the colour of soulless suits, of corporate business without individuality.  Grey is the colour of stone hearts and souls of stone.

As a society, our vision of evil has changed, or at least my perception of it has.  When we think of evil now, I don’t think most people imagine witches cavorting with the Devil.  What terrifies me is the switching off, the lack of responsibility. It is the march of the machine, the need to feed the economy, the weight of profit against compassion, red tape and layers of beurocracy obscuring what are often very simple questions, which, when you pare everything back to a simple moral question, the path is usually clear.  Grey is uncaring, unheeding, unaware.

Even so, we can’t simply swap black for grey.  I think grey may be very helpful as an alternative metaphor, but it will need to be spelled out why.  And although we don’t have grey people in the way that we have black people, there is a certain connection with older people – the grey vote, etc, though it is not as deep-rooted or particularly used in a flattering way, I certainly don’t want older people, which I’m well on my way to becoming, to think that I am undermining their wealth of experience, wisdom and value and denouncing them as evil!

I am just beginning this journey.  I am sure I’ll make lots of mistakes.  At the same time, it is an opportunity.  A time of openness and questioning – even if there is discomfort and resistance to change. We have opened a discussion and I welcome that – ideas, suggestions, comments and constructive criticism – I’m listening and I’m thinking… and there is so much to think about: the difference between archetype and sterotype and the importance and weight of both; whether we should be actively constructing positive metaphor associations with the word black and vice versa for white to reduce the resonances of both words and, particularly for me,  where the balance lies between constructing a new descriptive language and honouring the heritage and tradition of Scottish Traveller lore.

image of writing for blog

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When I talk to anyone about Duncan and ask what he was like, I hear all kinds of stories, but everyone always ends up talking about how generous he was.  Duncan was many things to many people, but all agree about his great heart and that he really did have a soul of generosity.

Ducan smiling 1

Duncan was the original Jack.  Jack, like Duncan, is many things – quick-thinking, self-reliant, adventurous – but at his core, he is generous.  So many stories start with Jack’s mother giving him the choice of ‘Take a whole bannock with my curse, or half a bannock with my blessing’.

Jack would never take the whole bannock – the curse or blessing is almost irrelevant – he would never take extra for himself, to leave his mother with less.  When Jack sits down to eat his half bannock and a stranger appears, he shares his meal without thought or hesitation.  It’s an accepted line in a story.  It rolls off the tongue and we accept it as part of the formula. I think it’s rare that the storyteller or listener ever stop to think about it very much, except that Jack has followed story protocol and will probably be rewarded for it later.  But when you do stop and think, it is an enormous act of generosity, done without regret or bitterness.  Jack shares his food with a smile.  They sit, eat, talk and share company together and when Jack walks on, he has nothing left in his pockets.  Whatever happens later in the story, this is the act of a hero.  He has no idea where or when he will next be able to find something to eat or drink.  He has faith in the world and his own abilities.  When tomorrow comes, when hunger comes, then he will deal with it. How many of us could do that?  Share our last meal and not begrudge the giving of it in some small part of ourselves? Continue reading “Generosity: A True Act of Heroism”

The World Storytelling Café asked me to record a 45 minute set of stories to put up on their site. I’m flattered and slightly hesitant. 45 minutes?  Recorded?  Can’t I do it live?  Although we have agreed I’ll do a live sharing session, with stories, songs and discussion as part of Duncan project, they wanted me to do a straight storytelling recorded set first.

Well, I have been doing more and more online – getting used to Zoom, seeing myself on screen – and my experience of telling live online has been much better than I thought it would be! I love that I really can still feel the audience there – feel the umbrella of shared space created in telling a story, jointly creating the story between storyteller and listener to make a shared world.  I didn’t think it would happen – but it does.

So, here is the next challenge – recording rather than live.  At first, I decided not to think too much about it, to just sit at the computer and get on with it.  I know the more I think about it, the more I’ll get in a tizzwazz.  It will turn into a big thing and I’ll make a pig’s ear of it.  Then almost instantly, serendipitously, into my inbox came an invitation from Beyond the Border to a free ‘how to record your story’ webinar.  I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so up I signed and put off recording my WSC set until after the webinar.

I’m not sure the webinar was a good or a bad thing for me. Continue reading “Live or Recorded – Does it matter?”

Wow – what a World Storytelling Day that was!

World Storytelling Day has been going in a truly International way since about 2004 and I have usually celebrated it by telling stories from around the world in a school.  This has been a great way to celebrate different countries, cultures and storytelling with young people and raise awareness of storytelling.  However, this year was entirely different!  All over the world people have cancelled gatherings and are maintaining social distancing. While that sounds like it should have been the end of this year’s World Storytelling Day, it led to the most vibrant celebration of our global storytelling community I’ve yet encountered! Continue reading “World Storytelling Day 2020”

I am sat on a rather beaten up train, each person sat near me staring into phones, tablets and laptops, plugged into the digital world.  I’m on my way home from a Digital Skills for Storytellers Sharing Day put on by Beyond the Border in Cardiff.  Digital skills and digital storytelling is a fiery topic in the storytelling world. Some storytellers dig their heels in and have as little to do with technology as possible, eschewing mobile phones and televisions; resisting the threat of any dilution of the intimate connection of live storytelling. Most have ventured as far as maintaining a website and FaceBook page.  Some intrepid few are launching themselves into the world of live streaming, Facebook events and Skype storytelling clubs.  Personally, I think it is almost impossible to put on any event without interacting online… and as I try to reduce the plastic in my life, replacing the process of laminating posters and driving to various remote notice boards with facebook events seems like the ethical way to go (even though I know there are moral issues with Facebook!).  But that barely brushes the edge of using digital tools.  The possibilities opened by technology are huge!  While I find the prospect daunting – the time eaten by technology and the array of constant new skills demanded, I’m determined that if I’m going to enter this brave new world, there’s no point unless I embrace it wholeheartedly, play with it and make use of the myriad opportunities rather than dabbling in the shallow (on every level) waters. Continue reading “Digitial Skills for Storytellers Sharing Day”