Tell The Children

by Damon L. Fordham

Last weekend, I went with my niece Tiffany and her parents to see the new Disney film Mulan. This movie, which is the story of a Chinese girl who overcomes sexism and opposition from everyone around her to boldly fight to save China from an invasion, is an example of family entertainment at it's best- plenty of excitement and action without a lot of unnecessary "blood and guts." I also felt that R was good for an 8-year-old girl to see a film about a young lady achieving her goals in spite of what her society told her. It's also interesting to note that the story of Mulan is not a recent invention, but was based on a 2,000 year old Chinese legend called The Song of Fa Mu Lan. Recently this tale was adapted for a children's book, which led to the making of this film.

Children are taught in school that there were many stories (usually Greek, European, and Asian) that are hundreds or thousands of years old and that the people of these countries keep these stories alive by passing them on to their young. But until very recently, few people were aware that there are and were African stories that are just as old and just as wonderful as the ancient tales of other lands.

In fact, the oldest story that is known to mankind is an African one. The Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers, written about 3,000 years ago, was the story of a younger brother who is tricked by his sister-in-law into fighting his beloved older brother and their attempts to get back together. For details, read The African Storyteller by Harold Schueb.

There are also a lot of stories of ancient Africa that are based on historical events. In Ethiopia, there was the Kebra Nagast ("Glory of the Kings" in English). This ancient book, which is about the great kings and queens of old Ethiopia is best known for it's tale of the romance of King Solomon and Makeda, the Queen of Sheba (I Kings Chapter 10 of the Bible gives a shorter version of this story). The heroic tales of Queen Nzinga of Angola, who fought the Portuguese for 40 years to keep her people out of slavery and of the Zulu warrior Bambaata who defeated the British over a hundred years ago (and whose story inspired a young Nelson Mandela) can be found in J.A. Rogers' World's Great Men of Color and in an inexpensive children's book from Empak Publications called A Gift of Heritage-African Kings and Queens.

One of the most interesting of the ancient African stories is Sundiata, An Epic of Old Mali by D.T. Niane. In 1959, Niane wrote down this 800-year old story that was told to him by an old African storyteller named Jali Kouyate ( pronounced Ja-lee Koo-ya-tay). This is the story of how Sundiata (Soon-dee ah-ta, which in English means "The Hungering Lion") grew from being a poor, crippled son of a king who dies and his kingdom is taken over by the wicked King Sumanguru (soo-mon-goo-roo). When Sumanguru invades the King's palace, he sees the puny Sundiata and considers Sundiata unworthy even of killing. However, Sundiata grows up, trains with wise men and goes on to fight a battle to win his kingdom back from Sumanguru. (Those who have seen Disney's The Lion King may notice the similarities to this tale).

At this point, some of you may wonder what good is it to dwell on these old African stories that few Americans know anything about. For one thing, these stories are very entertaining and good to read and listen to. Secondly, I have told some of these tales to children and the positivity that they get from these stories gives them pride, inspiration, and makes them remember these tales and tell them to other children.

Another reason is one that is that too many children today are exposed to the wrong things. During slavery, the slavemasters taught many of our ancestors hateful and ignorant things about themselves (i.e., "Black folks can't get together." "Black folks are lazy ignorant, and always late," calling people "Black and ugly," The "light skin vs. dark skin" feud, etc.) to keep them into mental slavery. Too many of our ancestors believed such things and passed these ignorant teachings through the generations to the point where even some of my fifth-grade students have told me that they still hear such nonsense in their homes!

Along with this, they may go out into the street and listen to illiterate, drunken old men give the young boys the worst type of advice on how to treat women and the young girls may hear gossipy, uninformed older women give them the worst advice on how to relate to men. In the homes, instead of reading to the children and telling them uplifting stories, too many parents today watch "Jerry Springer" and the sleazy music videos of Master P. and Little Kim in front of their children. And when the children go on to act as foul as the people on these programs, the parents wonder why!

This is why the children need to hear stories that are positive and inspiring as well as entertaining. The tales in the books that I have mentioned (they can either be found in libraries or can be special-ordered at a low price) will give the children something to aspire to and will help them to understand that they can triumph over tremendous odds just as the people in these stories.

In short, we as parents and concerned adults must tell the children stories of wisdom that will build them up high to achieve greatness instead of foolishness that will drag them down into the gutters of ignorance.

Tell The Children by Damon L. Fordham

© Copyright 1998. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

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