American slave owners successfully abolished many African customs, but the tradition of oral history has held strong. For many African-American families, including mine, this tradition is all that preserves the legacies our ancestors left for us. In the “official” history of America, their stories were excluded, ignored, marginalized, or distorted. But in each generation of my family, the griot has kept the stories alive and added his or her own important lessons and personal tales to the saga in order to leave evidence that they, like their predecessors, existed and, though often confronted by restrictive circumstances, did all they could to make the most of their lives.
Our first wordsmith was a slave called Mandy. When it came time for me to take on the role, she and our family’s other griots, living and dead, helped me to discover and add my own lessons and personal tales. Their words encouraged me to write down their legacies and include my own for the coming generations. But it was Mandy who held me up when I doubted I could become the griotte. Sometimes I felt so close to her I could hear her voice. It was like a xylophone: precise, clear, musical. The melody’s lilt slid down at the end of each sentence, the consonants percussive, the vowels soft—the inflections of the Ga language of Ghana.
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