American Griot

Thelma Young

Thelma F. Young has published  two oral histories, “The Stories My Foremothers Told Me,” conversations with women of color who witnessed the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South, and “All You Could See Was the Water,” conversations with children who survived Hurricane Katrina.  Ms. Young also served two years as a program manager for the University of North Florida’s Oral History Program, and currently teaches creative writing, storytelling and literature at Greenwood School in Jacksonville, Florida.  We talked with her about both of her published projects and a newer, ongoing project she started called Black Men In America.

The Recollective: What got you interested in storytelling in the first place?

Thelma: I grew up in the segregated South, and was one of the first African American students to integrate my elementary school.  I sat in the back of the classroom where I was constantly ignored by my teachers.  By ignoring my presence in the classroom (when I raised my hand to ask a question or to provide an answer), my teachers successfully silenced me by the time I was in the third grade.  As a result, I grew up without a voice.  As an adult I decided that no one should experience what I did in elementary school, and it became my mission to give voice to those who ordinarily would not have one. I decided to do this by listening to and recording other people’s stories.

The Recollective: How and when did you cross over from the oral tradition to writing and back again?

Thelma: The first set of interviews I recorded were meant to be used as dialogue for a historical novel set in the Jim Crow South; but after spending countless hours listening to the tapes, I realized the importance of what I had done–I had recorded my first oral history.  I transcribed all of the interviews on tape, each woman’s interview into narrative, and wrote my first book of oral history, “The Stories My Foremothers Told Me.”  Since then I see oral history in everyone I meet.

The Recollective: You’ve lead workshops on storytelling as it relates to family histories.  What have you found is the reason why people take your workshop?

Thelma: I lead workshops on storytelling, memoir writing, and creative writing, so people sign up for different reasons.  I let people know upfront that my workshops focus the art of telling a story, both orally and in written form.

The Recollective: Who comes to your workshops?  Are there any common characteristics to the people who participate?

Thelma: Good question.  My students are from all walks of life and are usually from very different age groups.  My former students include a 90 year-old war veteran, an eighteen year-old au pair from Sweden, an active duty female police officer, a mother of a drug addict, a retired doctor, and a young woman whose baby died as an infant.  The common thread is that all my students want to learn how to turn words into interesting stories.

The Recollective: With The Stories My Foremothers Told Me” you explore the Civil Rights Movement through the lives of five Black-Creole Catholic women.  What inspired you to investigate the Civil Rights Movement through the stories of these women?

Thelma: As I mentioned earlier, the interviews with the women in my family were originally recorded so I could use their words as dialogue in a novel, but the women told such rich and important stories that it was impossible for me ignore them as significant oral histories.

The Recollective: What are your earliest memories of hearing these stories?  What was the catalyst for moving from the role of listening to these stories to actually helping to tell them?

Thelma: I’m not sure why I don’t remember hearing any of these stories growing up.  Maybe the women didn’t share them because a lot of the stories were painful, or perhaps I wasn’t really listening.  And I didn’t have someone to tell me, “You should really pay attention when your aunt or your mom is telling you a story.  You’ll appreciate it when you’re older.”  That’s what I try to do for people today, especially young people, teach them to really pay attention to the stories of their elders, to remember the stories and to pass them on.

Tune in next month for part two of our interview with Thelma.


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