Rod Ambrose was a 2016 recipient of the Southwest Folklife Alliance’s Master-Apprentice Award for his work as a storyteller, pulling from the oral traditions of West Africa. For over 47 years Ambrose has studied, learned, developed, composed, written, acted in and directed plays in addition to storytelling in hundreds of elementary, middle and high schools, universities and community colleges throughout Arizona. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, he now lives in Glendale, where he runs the Talking Drum Performance Studio Network. He spoke with BorderLore about the tradition of storytelling in African-American communities, sharing the history, of course, through stories.
B: Can you share some experiences from your youth that inspired you in the traditional art of storytelling?
RA: I’m a product of generational chain of storytellers. It actually starts with my great grandmother. When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I spent a lot of time with her because everyone else in the house was working. It was a blue collar Chicago family. We were stuck with each other. She was a diabetic and I had to get up at 5:30 every morning and give her an insulin shot and fix her breakfast according to a special chart. She taught me how to drink coffee. And over coffee, she would talk to me. She was a very quiet, solemn little lady. So it surprised my mom how much she’d actually shared with me, because the old woman rarely talked to anyone else about these things. So, Mama Rosie, I think, led me to believe that these stories were sort of our secret.
She told me how our family migrated from the South from Alabama and Arkansas to Chicago around the turn of the century. She was married at 15 years old, given in marriage to an older man, the Right Reverend Robert Lee Williams. That was something they did during those times. Once they landed in Chicago she pulled her 15 brothers and sisters, one and two at a time, up to the windy city with her.
A curious thing was that my grandma, Magnolia, told me about this great migration story from the south to the north from the front of the buckboard wagon in which she rode. They traveled with horses, and chickens, and cows and goats. But initially it was her mother, my great grammy Mama Rosie who told me the story from the top front seat of that same buckboard looking down the road ahead. When I turned seventeen, my beloved Mama Rosie passed quietly away while I sat curled up in a chair by her bedside. Following her home-going ceremony, my grandma Magnolia continued the storytelling tradition that night trying to console me. I lay face down sobbing in Mama Rosie’s empty bed. She softly patted my back as she shared her memories of sobbing so hard as she rode the back of that buck board flap because they were leaving the only home she knew, where she and about nine of her brothers and sisters had been born. It did occur to me one day, that I was hearing this story from two different generations, each seeing the world from their own vantage points and therefore expressing the shared experience from different perspectives.
I loved all things poetic and I love literature. This was fostered in me by my mom. My mom was the president of her high school graduating class, in Chicago. She was a poet. She was best friends with Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote “A Raisin in the Sun,” the first Negro playwright to have a show produced on Broadway in New York City. In her biographical book To Be Young Gifted & Black, Lorraine describes when she was attending Englewood High School in the late 40s. There were very few colored people in that school. Rumor had it that the white kids were going to jump the few black kids that went there. So my mom organized a group of black students from Dusable High School — now a famous museum — to go help out their peers. My mom ended up walking with Lorraine Hansberry so that they safely got home. Lorraine describes a tall, gaunt, dark-complexioned woman. That was my mother. They became best friends. They shared a lot of dreams. Both died early at 36. Prior to 1963 my mom, an RN, registered nurse had gone back to school to become a neurosurgeon, but unfortunately passed away before she’d complete her internship.
My mother read to me every single night: the English literary classics, Chaucer, Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, Longfellow, until I was old enough to read to her but she was an excellent reader. My favorite poem for her to read was “Hiawatha’s Song.” Her voice was as smooth and sweet as honey!
Growing up in Chicago, my best friend was a white boy named Wally Walendorf whose family was last of all the families to do what they now call “white flight.” I started sharing those stories with him and his mom. His mom was like my mom and my mom was like his mom. Kids in the neighborhood would come and sit around on the porch. I shared the stories I learned from my great grandma. That’s where it actually started.
I had an uncle and a cousin come in from Birmingham once. My cousin was the same age as me, 13. He sat on the porch with me and I told him about my comic book collection. Mama Rosie hated comics. She said they were from the Devil, but I had stacks and stacks of them hidden in the basement under the stairs. My cousin Charles was trying to get me to give him one of my sacred Marvel comics. He said he’d tell me a secret if I gave him at least one cool book.
So he began to tell me about how he was supposed to be in the choir with the four black girls — Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair — who all died in the bombing of the now legendary 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. They were his neighbors and lived down the street from him. He just happened to be sick with flu that day and couldn’t go to church that morning. He described how the KKK was targeting “colored” kids in Birmingham. As Charles spoke, his whole body seemed to stiffen in fear. He said his parents were getting him out of Alabama and that they were moving to New York, where he is to this very day.
So, wherever and whenever I could, I felt compelled to share what my cousin Charles told me. This might have been when the bridge between storytelling and social justice was connected in me, for it was during these transmittances that my cousin’s shared experience became so real that people began expressing how much they were touched by the telling.
B: Can you take us through a brief history of storytelling in the African-American tradition?
RA: Within last 10 years I have recognized my work as part of the griot tradition. In ancient Ghana, the griots or storytellers were the media, the journalists. People depended on them to go from village to village to tell the news. They had to be an oral archivist, someone who knew the history of the villages — who was born when and who died when. As it became more formal, they took instruments like the kora and talking drum, which they used to advertise from miles and miles away, “I’m on my way.” The griot would also bring messages from the king to the provinces.
At first, I didn’t know that what I was doing was storytelling. I simply transmitted the experiences that interested me and connected them to a past that folks may not have learned about from their own families. In the years to follow, I began to resemble the ancient griots as I shared my personal experiences from the Civil Rights movement and the 20th century message from an African American king, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I think storytellers are an amalgam of that cultural exchange, from back then. It was an oral culture, and you had to have a phenomenal memory. You had to know how to be an entertainer to engage folks and keep them interested.
In my community we learned at church from the preacher who was the inspired storyteller. He would transmit the stories of the Bible and engage the congregation in the telling. Those things impacted and influenced me. I knew that I loved music and songs, and those were forms of story telling. A good ballad, a good R&B song, a good rock song — them low down dirty blues and all that cool jazz, they all have stories and messages in them!
Storytelling was also big at the barber shop. They didn’t have any filters there. If you were a kid of 10 or 12 years, boy, you were immediately immersed in the latest gossip in hip talk! It was all about the neighborhood and who was doing what to whom and what relationships were busting up and why and who had what new bad-assed car! That was the most fun.
That same kind of gossip fest was going on in all the kitchens in the inner-city black belt in Chicago where all the aunts and cousins would all get together and “fry hair” with curling irons and hot combs. I’d be under the kitchen table getting an earful all about the men and how they were no good and this that and the other. Boy, that language was so colorful. It was there one day when I heard my aunt Georgia Mae say, “Child, I told my son, Lester, I don’t care who you choose to jump in or out the sack with, out there in them streets, but if she can’t use our comb, you bet not bring her home!” I knew right away that I loved language. I loved the sound of words and how people used them. I loved to hear a cackle and a howl. The banter on street corners, folks arguing sports between front porches, teens playing the dozens on the city bus to school! The rhythmic themes spoken by a Mac man, I loved it all, even as a young kid.
One hair-frying Saturday morning in my grandma’s kitchen, I was playing with a truck on the floor — I remember it like it was yesterday. I heard my great grammy Rosie say — and she hardly ever said anything — that she was married to my great grandfather for over 50 years. I heard that and came out from under the table. I couldn’t contain myself. “Whoooooheeee! 50 years? You must have really loved PawPaw!” She quipped, “Naw, I didn’t love that old thing, I just knowed you chillum would need a grandpa, that’s all!” All the women in the place hooped and hollered in laughter!
When I turned 16, I met Dr. Martin Luther King, along with other Civil Rights leaders like Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson. They were marching for fair housing. As kids we went to the Civil Rights Movement camps. I learned a lot about reinforcing stories through the camp, because they told us stories and we learned from them.
B: How is your work critical to both contemporary social justice as well as centuries old tradition?
RA: I would hear things like in the Bible or from a preacher, things like “I give to you a new commandment to love one another even as I have loved ye.” I decided it was the role of the artist or the expressionist to give meaning to those verses for the rest of society. I saw myself as an interpreter. I put on myself the yolk of responsibility to become competent in my social justice understanding and knowledge so that I could transmit that knowledge and info through storytelling.
I was one of first “colored” kids in high school to win the oratorical award. It was for learning the “I Have a Dream” speech. My white high school English teacher Mrs. Schwartz told me to learn it. I was afraid to speak in front a group, but she helped me. She said, “You read so well young man, I want you to do that speech from the March on Washington.” I always say she won that contest. In about 1965, I happened to be one of about 160 kids that piled in to St. Raphael’s Catholic Diocese in south Chicago and sat on the floor Indian style while the while Rev. Jesse Jackson and his big afro taught us, “I Am Somebody.” That became a mantra for me. That was probably the beginning of my understanding of a social justice context. It was a particular piece of literature that I never forgot and that I kept repeating, on the bus, on the “L” train, everywhere.
But the very next year, at 16 years of age and shortly after my dad passed away, I was assigned the role of “minister of information” in the biggest urban street gang in America, the Black Stone Rangers. It was at a time when gang leaders in Chicago’s south side were trying to replicate west coast gangs. In other words, they were politicizing us like the rapidly growing Black Panther party. I had become one of those guys and had no idea what I was getting involved with. After six or seven of my best friends were killed by rival gangs, I myself became involved in a shoot out. It was on the very day that Dr. King was assassinated, April 4, 1968. It happened in a pool hall. Two days later I was on a train to parts unknown. Those parts turned out to be Phoenix, AZ.
B: What are the main themes of the stories you tell these days?
RA: These days, the main themes of the stories we tell are addressing in addition to ancient Aesop Fables, Anansi, the Spider, and numerous old favorites. My project, the “Talking Drum Story Program,” works to connect African born artists with African American born artists. We deal with 21st Century issues, like Civil Rights, mass incarceration, Black Lives Matter, the criminalization of poverty, and others.
B: As a recipient of the SFA Master-Apprentice Award, you are you working with Billy Ramsey to pass on the tradition of storytelling. Can you tell us about him and your work together?
RA: My choice for apprentice, Mr. Billy “Issim Dark” Ramsey, happens to be among the most talented, brilliant and dedicated performers that I have had the good fortune to work with during my 50 years of storytelling-community theater experience.
Billy finding me throughout the years. Like a sponge he’d soak up my many writing and performance sessions. His own father passed away when he was still a young boy. Billy’s Mom, a lay preacher, told me that her son just loved the work I was doing with folks and asked if I would take him with me when I was doing these things. I agreed. The rest is local legend.
Billy is the co-founder of BPV (Black Poet Ventures), and there are few poets or spoken word artists as popular in this state. He is the only other local artist that I know who has conducted storytelling workshops with 3rd through 8th graders, taught high school teens poetry slams, and performed extensively as I have in the city and state.
B: You have a performance coming up in February, what can you tell us about it?
RA: A production team consisting of local African and African American college students, historians and professional artist-activists, dancers, storytellers, drummers, spoken word and hip hop expressionists will perform at the 17th annual African Diaspora Reunion in the Dome at Phoenix Community College on Thursday & Friday, February 16 & 17, 2017.