- Can you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to become interested in Black children’s literature and folklore?
I have loved books since I was capable of reading. Many books as gifts have been given to me and I have most appreciative of each one of them. I find value in the words as well as the illustrations. I have always believed it was a gift to know how to read and because of my ancestors, I was obligated to do it well. When my son was born, I began to buy books for him. I wanted books that had characters that looked like him. I know that schools place a large value on books for children but if the image of the child is not reflected in that story or any stories inside the books presented then it is doing a disservice to the child as well as other children that now see these invisible children more invisible. That grows into disrespect.
My love for folklore began with the librarians at the public library that told those tales. As an educator, I began walking away from folklore when I noticed that folklore was taught in elementary school and mythology was taught in high school. Folklore was the tale about people of color while mythology was clearly European. I began looking up the definition of each and there it was . . . mythology included gods and goddesses. And then it occurred to me the folktale I loved the most, Ananse the spider from West Africa had a relationship with Nyame, the sky god.Once I began researching, I knew the false division between the two was antiquated and I moved on to research the power of folklore both outside the United States as well as inside.
- What inspired you to become a storyteller and how does storytelling play a role in your work with African American Studies?
While trying to write children’s books, I became a storyteller. Telling the stories without an illustrator got me into the community through festivals and school visits throughout Detroit. Telling the stories was more powerful than holding up big pieces of cardboard with crayon drawings (smile). I realized my voice and expressions were pretty good and people liked hearing me telling tales. As my family moved about, I made sure to join a storytelling organization or myself attached to the state humanities program that could pay me to speak across that state (Iowa, Illinois, and South Carolina). Storytelling is part of my culture. It is apart of the African tradition. In the beginning was the word . . .and the word was oral! Enslaved African people passed down their home stories, they embellished them, restructured them, updated them, and created new tales. What people don’t realize is that folklore is not just stories, folklore is homage to home, culture, and traditions. I teach folklore from a Black perspective (Black Folklore, Southern Black Folklore, and Black Women Folklore). And even when discussing Black children’s literature – Black folklore is part of that. I love a Black children’s book that is a folktale.
- Can you share with us some of the challenges you’ve faced in your research and work with Black children’s literature and folklore, and how you have addressed them?
In my beginning research, it was rather a difficult process because there were few articles discussing Black children’s literature. Black (African or Southern) folklore articles were mostly written by white scholars that wanted to focus on how the stories had European origins. And we all know that was not true. How can someone walk into a village with an interpreter, listen to tales from people who have never seen white skin, and then make such statements? Later, it was a joy reading articles written by Black children’s authors and illustrators.
I still struggle with books that include Black images that are not written or illustrated by Black people. I am from the old school and claim Black children’s literature is written by and illustrated by someone Black. I’ve read books and found myself sick when trying to analyze the story, why there were so many stereotypes, or why all the settings were about Black children either living in apartment buildings (projects) or living on a farm. This disturbed me because I grew up in a single home with a driveway, backyard, and three big fruit trees and I lived in a city. At conferences, I would talk about those early images and push back when I was told I didn’t know what I was talking about when I really did, and others agreed with me.I was even told by a famous Black children’s writer that I must not know children’s literature because those books exist. And sadly, that person was wrong, wrong, wrong. Now books are being published that include settings like mine as well as a variety of home dwellings.
- You have been a Fulbright scholar/lecturer at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. Can you tell us about your experience there and how it has influenced your work?
Being a Fulbright scholar/lecturer was an experience I will always cherish. I had a full Ghanaian experience because I took my two daughters with me. So as a mother, I had to enroll them in school, negotiate their hair maintenance, and arrange transportation to get them to school each morning. As a teacher, I taught several courses in the Education Department at UCC, and sometimes I believed my teaching tried to take all my time. As a researcher, I enjoyed talking and listening to people who knew folklore and Ananse. I loved hearing their stories, as well as talking with those who wrote Ghanaian folklore. I was blessed to meet the author of my first Ananse the Spider book that I received when I was nine years old.I had been writing Peggy Appiah for many years, ever since my first trip to Ghana in 1995. So finally, I was able to travel to Kumasi and spend a weekend with her. It was a thrill to be there with her and hear her story. My Fulbright experience encouraged me to pursue Ananse across the world, if not with an airline ticket but through articles and books. I know that I have the largest collection of Anansesems. I have learned to appreciate the word “trickster” and to understand that it does not mean a lazy person (another European interpretation) but more so a survivor and innovator.
- What do you believe is the importance of diversifying children’s literature and ensuring that Black voices and stories are represented?
Illustrator, Carole Byard stated it best “ I always loved reading, but none of the people in the pictures looked like me. When I worked on my first book I thought about the books I read when I was young. I knew it was important to make the most beautiful book I could make. This isn’t something I’m doing only for black children. Kids of all nationalities and races should see the world is made up of all kinds of people.” The visual representation of the Black experience is important for all to see throughout the year and not just on special occasions! I walked into this field because I wanted my children to see themselves strongly in books written by former children that looked like them.I wanted to research who these people were and why were they not shining. I had to realize there were many reasons but most importantly it was because of publishers/editors that didn’t believe they were important. The more beautiful stories published the more people will know that Black people fully exist in the world. All children should read these books because we must start with them for the change to come. If it is a regular habit, if these books are presented every day along with other books by and about other people then a breakthrough will come. Less hate, racism, and misunderstandings. We cannot lift one culture up by knocking other cultures down.My message is not to be heard or read on a mountain with a peak but on a tabletop mountain where many can stand together.
- In your opinion, how can we better support and promote Black children’s literature and folklore, both in academic and community settings?
Keep doing what you are doing. Spread the word (or the books) to anyone and everyone. Begin a storytelling group to celebrate folklore. Dust off those folklore books that represent our stories. Update the version if we must but allow the spirit of the story to remain. Don’t be afraid to teach Black children’s literature at the university level. It too is great literature and should be recognized as such. The great Langston Hughes wrote as many children’s books as he did his other books. Chinua Achebe’s children’s books are treasures, yet I bet they are not read besides his other books.
- You are a commissioner for the Columbia Museum of Art and an active docent. Can you tell us about your involvement with the museum and how it relates to your work with African American Studies?
I became involved in the Columbia Museum of Art because I was sinking into a great depression. My parents died two weeks apart and a few months earlier my mother-in-law and my dog had died. I knew I had to do something. I saw an ad for docents need at the museum and decided to apply. My classes were an ART 101 revival. I fell in love. I had already been collecting art but didn’t think anything serious about it until those 8 weeks. My final presentation was on Romare Bearden, and I was hooked. I discovered that the CMA had a healthy amount of Black art, and I began to learn about each piece. I learned the art so well that I began doing special Black Art tours.Those tours are quite popular, and I have been doing them for over five years now. I then became quite involved with the museum on different levels and again there was a list of openings for commissioners through the city of Columbia and I applied for the CMA. The mayor called me to let me know I got it. That was pretty cool. I never thought that I would be revisiting my nine years in banking again (smile). And now, I understand what’s on the other side of the curtain.
I do many tours for African American Studies as well as Art professors. I do special public tours depending on the exhibit. My tours sometimes have over fifty visitors and can last over one hour. I am thorough and excited about all the art that I know. I have even presented the importance of Black children seeing themselves in Fine Art. And educated educators on the importance of their local museums and discovering the Black Art that is in it. I have learned so much regarding Black art that I now have many new friends in the art world. I also visit museums when I travel.
- Can you share with us any upcoming projects or initiatives that you are working on related to Black children’s literature and folklore?
I am forever researching Ananse and have decided to finally stop and clean up chapters and let this book go. This is also storytelling season, so, I am telling tales throughout South Carolina now until the fall. Most of my stories are folktales. I am presently practicing a new story that originated from the Low Country of South Carolina that I will be telling in about a week. In the fall, I will be teaching Southern Black Folklore and presently gathering articles and videos to teach.
- What advice would you give to young people who are interested in pursuing a career in African American Studies or a related field?
Step into the field of African American Studies because there is still so much to know. African American Studies is not a discipline filled with disparity but truly one filled with everything because it is about the Black experience which is a part of everything and is everywhere. The study of African Americans didn’t stop at the Civil Rights Movement but continued to flow through the arts (literature, theater, music, visual, and dance), stand firmly in political science, and maneuver through the anthropological for the who, what , and where. It is through the study of criminal justice our students learn the rights and the wrongs of justice, historically as well as presently. Students who have graduated from AFAM have become doctors, lawyers, professors, artists, and beyond.
- Finally, can you recommend any books or resources for our audience to learn more about Black children’s literature and folklore?
I really and truthfully cannot think of one good resource book on Black children’s literature that is current enough to recommend.
I am serious when I state that a visit to the library and into the “Folklore” section is one of the most remarkable adventures that any lover of folklore can take. Many times, I am dusting off the books on account of them seldomly being touched. It is a true joy to go into the library and discover those books.
Nancy D. Tolson, an accomplished scholar and author, obtained her Master’s and PhD degrees from the University of Iowa, with a focus on the history and evolution of Black children’s literature. A Ford Fellow, NEH facilitator, and Fulbright scholar/lecturer at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, Tolson conducted research on West African folklore. As an Illinois Humanities’ “Road Scholar,” she spent three years traveling across the state sharing her storytelling skills. Tolson’s written works include Black Children’s Literature Got Blues: The Creativity of Black Writers and Illustrators (2008) and Tales of Africa (1998). She also serves as a commissioner for the Columbia Museum of Art and is an active docent there.Tolson’s critical and creative works have been published in various academic journals and books.