Sun | Oct 21, 2018

Religion & Culture | Storytelling: An essential art in this era

Published:Sunday | September 24, 2017 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
Dr Joyce Duncan

It's an era defined by political chasms, sociopolitical acrimony and disaffection. It is a political divide like no other time in recent history.

Dr Joyce C. Duncan has seen it all. She is a long-time resident of Washington Heights, New York, an elder who is renowned for her counsel, community service and academic achievements.

She is also a counsellor, mediator, speaker and an innovator at the prestigious Brooklyn College where she advanced the goals of SEEK (Search for Education and Excellence in Knowledge).

Duncan recalls a period when Jewish and Irish residents populated her district, followed by West Indians and black Americans in the 1940s.

She describes a changing demographic landscape. "Today," she says, "we have Asians and whites moving in. It has given the place colour."

But all is not socially harmonious. Many groups tend to be clannish. Still, Duncan remains affable, an attribute she says that characterises black people.

As founder and executive director of African Folk Heritage Circle, her social responsibility has grown. "We have about 40 active members ranging in age from 30 to 80," she states.

For a moment, she reflects on her involvement in what she calls a transformative group. "In 1996, I was asked by the National Association of Black Story Tellers to organise a New York Story Tellers group." The rest, as they say, is history.

Duncan concedes that, initially, she was not overly enthused over poetry and storytelling. But soon, she found herself drawn by the magnetism of the art. "I began to immerse myself in the discipline." Today, she unabashedly calls herself a folklorist.

With monthly gatherings and exhibitions at various venues in New York, Duncan's movement continues to grow in popularity.

"In this abrasive, rancid, toxic, political environment, the spoken-word artist, the storyteller and the poet are needed more than ever, "she argues. "The voices, the concerns of the people must be heard."

According to Duncan, storytelling is a medium for hope, a medium that offers a cultural and moral compass for black people.

She speaks of unemployment and a disingenuous, malignant pharmaceutical juggernaut that is deliberating defrauding the people. She refers to this social dilemma as a new form of slavery, despite some indicators of social progress.

Interestingly, she does not favour one political party over the other. "Both democrats and republicans are the same. The rich will always get richer as they avail themselves of tax breaks while we continue to toil. We are squeezed out of employment."

War, she says, is propitious to both parties and has always been the thrust of the government. "War is business. It's that simple."

She chides proponents of right wing, fascist politics - a phenomenon that is gripping the United States, and advocates the removal of every confederate statue and other vestiges of slavery and oppression.

"I prefer not to look at or be surrounded by steel and concrete images of death and murder."

When asked if it is fortuitous to erase dark periods of history she responds philosophically:

"History cannot be erased, because it lives in the hearts of people." Elaborating on the injustice that marks US history and its constitution, she aargues that Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States should be taught in every classroom.

According to Duncan, history as taught today is presented through the prism of the oppressor.




An avowed environmentalist, she sees a redemptive quality in nature and baulks at any suggestion that New York City is a concrete jungle.

"There are so many parks and trees around, rooftop gardens and apartment buildings adorned with plants and flowers. When we walk in nature we feed our souls." She calls this a spiritual experience that is very precious and vital to our well-being.

"It does not matter the name of your God or spirit," she opines. "Nature is spiritual nourishment."

Ever the existentialist, Dr Duncan sees the glass half-full, never half-empty. Despite global challenges, she is convinced that humankind will change course for the better.

She is encouraged by the growing number of people turning to alternative healing modalities, a clear rejection of pharmaceutical companies. And she is curiously buoyed by dialogue on a national and international level although these exchanges are sometimes far from civil.

Still, she refers to any kind of meaningful interaction as an antidote to dystopia, and her perennial message for those who seek her counsel daily is: "Keep doing what you love to do. This approach can only improve your life."

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the author of 'Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity'. His latest book, 'The Mystical Qigong Handbook for Good Health' is now available on Amazon. Feedback: or follow him @glenvilleashby