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Learning from stories: Speak Story Series celebrates start of new season

By Staff | Mar 20, 2020

Storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston, from right, chats after the March 10 Speak Story Series event with Shepherdstown residents Mary Watters, Ushi Nottnagel and Andy Ridenour. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — The Speak Story Series celebrated the beginning of its eighth season, with storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston in Reynolds Hall on March 10.

For Alston, the event was another opportunity to share her passion for African fairy tales and stories about strong women.

“I made the decision six or seven years ago, to focus on stories with strong female characters,” Alston said, mentioning most fairy tales have strong male characters.

Alston’s decision to highlight strong female characters forced her to dedicate time to spend on researching stories. Although it took some time, she kept in mind the thought that “there have got to be stories with females as the central characters of the stories.”

Her search paid off, as she eventually found a number of stories, including one she told that night, which was from a book filled with African fairy tales about strong female characters.

“There aren’t many of the stories out there, but they’re there,” Alston said about the stories.

According to Alston, many of fairy tales were written to warn women to avoid certain types of people and situations.

“Many of these stories are cautionary tales at the time. Particularly when you reach menses, you had to be wary of ‘wolves,'” Alston said, mentioning these stories aren’t out-dated. “You still have to be wary today.”

For Alston, the value of fairy tales is often found in the meaning of the stories she tells, even though the stories can get dark.

“Our culture tends to look at fairy tales with Disney eyes, which takes out much of the meaning of these stories,” Alston said.

While Alston is primarily a storyteller for adults, she also tells many stories to children. As a former teacher of children in K-5 through 2nd grade, Alston understands how to tell stories to children. With them, just as with the adults, she believes they should be told complete historical stories, although it should be told on children’s comprehension level.

“It’s done at their developmental level, with interaction they could understand,” Alston said, mentioning she tells a rhyming story about Martin Luther King, Jr. to young elementary school students, while she raps a story about Martin Luther King, Jr. to older students. “The Martin Luther King rap was created the year before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was made legal. Rap is just a method I use for storytelling. When it first showed up the my son was 12 or 13, we thought it was just a passing fad, but it stayed.”

Although some people might shy away from telling younger audiences about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s full story, Alston tastefully tells about his assassination to her audiences, like she did with Martinsburg North Middle School earlier that day.

“A lot of storytelling, for me, is understanding the audience that is in front of you and knowing how to speak to them,” Alston said, saying of her determination to tell the truth about history, “We each have to make a commitment to be honest about our history.”

While historical stories may not be fairy tales, they do have one thematic element in common — they are both cautionary tales.

“What’s important is that we don’t make the same mistakes that we made in the past — that we learn from these stories,” Alston said.