“I’d say that I’ve found stories the most powerful way to communicate.” – Amina Blackwood-Meeks
Before moving to Jamaica to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, my knowledge of the country was limited at best. Living here as a ooman fram farrin has been like a crash course in Jamaican culture, but who better to share what Jamaicans are really like than Jamaicans themselves?
Voices of Jamaica is a platform for that Jamaican perspective. On a semi-regular basis, I’ll highlight a Jamaican individual’s voice. You can read their story from the comfort of your living room, BART train, desk or favorite coffee shop (hey there, nostalgia!). This is Peace Corps’ Third Goal in essence!
As a fitting start to a storytelling series, our first voice is that of “Auntie” Amina Blackwood-Meeks, a famed Jamaican actress, educator and professional storyteller. Auntie Amina was recently the special guest at my school library’s grand opening and I had the pleasure of speaking with her about stories, community building and the importance of preserving oral tradition.
Name: “Auntie” Amina Blackwood-Meeks
Resides in: Kingston, Jamaica
How long have you been a storyteller?
“The truth is I think I’ve been a storyteller all my life because I grew up with parents in rural Jamaica. That’s how they raised us – they knew how to tell a story. And I thought everyone spoke in anecdotes.”
One memory from when you realized the power that stories hold?
“There was an 8 year old boy in my [storytelling] group in Antigua whose father is Nigerian and mother Antiguan…one evening we were telling stories and Adakondé told me a story which his Nigerian father told him in Nigeria, and it was a story that my Jamaican father used to tell me. It was the most awesome experience! I was awake, I was alive to the fact that how storytelling had allowed us to survive from the fact of what stories did survive and that we’re still telling them from across the Atlantic and over 500 years…
“And so I began to look at stories differently. I began to look at stories for the reservoir of history that they are, as reservoirs of cultural practices which they are, and how story telling can open and assist a conversation between continental Africa and diaspora Africa. And of course storytelling has been strong in Jamaica.”
What kind of advice would you give to aspiring storytellers?
“The Ghanians say there is only one story you can tell…it’s the one your heard from your grandmother. And I understand that to mean ‘tell authentic stories.’ Tell the things you believe, tell about your family, about your life, about your aspirations. Speak the truth about who you are and your vision of the world and just keep practicing it.”
Can you tell me more about using stories as a means for community building?
“It’s a fun, non-threatening way of sharing information. We come to listen to stories, we enjoy the stories and stories remind us of a time passed. But in my view, there is no such thing as a time passed. The past is the present and the present is the future and the future is here…
“In a few weeks we’re going to be starting the hurricane season in Jamaica. What stories do we have where wood houses survived when concrete didn’t, and what were the building techniques of our grandparents who would build a house so that the entire house could be raised and transported to another location when they moved? What are those stories and how can we bring those stories into a foundation on which we build, so that we don’t believe that we’re starting from scratch all the time…
“Communities need whatever stories they have of a similar nature of how to make development attainable and sustainable. And how to break or prevent the so-called generation gap that makes collective me think that because I use the computer I’m brighter than my grandparents, I’m not! […]Story telling can do that for us. As a way of building the relationships on which economic development survives.”
“Auntie” Amina Blackwood-Meeks grew up in rural Jamaica and currently resides in Kingston. She serves as the director of culture in the Ministry of Education, founded and acts as the Creative Director of Ntukuma, The Storytelling Foundation of Jamaica. In November 2014, Ntukuma successfully lobbied Governor General Sir Patrick Allen to declare November 20th National Storytelling Day. Ntukuma holds a Storytelling Festival every November in Jamaica, according to Auntie Amina, “to focus attention on the unique value of Jamaica’s rich oral tradition and its potential for enhancing national development.” Read more about the festival here.
Voices of Jamaica is a regular feature that highlights Jamaican community members and shares their stories. It was created as a platform to share stories of what Jamaica is really like, straight from the people who live here.