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Sugar House Journal

Stories of achievement shared at Granite School District Black Excellence event

Feb 01, 2019 10h05 ● By Justin Adams

Charlotte Blake Alston performs the telling of a story as part of Granite School District's Black Excellence event. (Justin Adams/The City Journals)

By Justin Adams | [email protected]

The first story told by Charlotte Blake Alston during Granite School District’s Black Excellence event was about a traditional oral story from Liberia.

It tells the story of Ogaloussa, a man with five sons and one more on the way. One day, Ogaloussa doesn’t return from his hunt. Weeks and months pass. Eventually, his sons stop asking what happened to him.

Then, Ogaloussa’s wife gives birth to her sixth child. When that child grows old enough to talk, he asks, “Where is my father?”

Together, the six brothers go into the forest to try to find their father. They soon find his remains.

At this point, a little bit of magic enters the story as the five older brothers bring their father back to life. One puts his bones back together. Another reattaches his muscles and sinews. And so on.

When Ogaloussa and his sons return to the village, he says he is going to reward the son most responsible for bringing him back to life. The five older brothers who put his body back together argue over who was most important.

However, Ogaloussa decides to reward the youngest son. “Had he not asked the question, ‘where is my father?’ I would still be lying cold and stiff in the land of the dead,” he says.

The story underscores a long-held belief of the Liberian people that one is not truly dead unless he is forgotten and never spoken of again, Alston explained to the crowd in attendance at West Lake Junior High.

“And so it is we must share the stories of our history or the possibilities of our human understanding may lie cold and stiff in the land of the dead,” she said.

The theme of remembrance was present throughout the event, organized by the Granite School District’s office of Educational Equity in conjunction with the Timpanogos Storytelling Institute.  

The night began with a dance performance by members of Hunter High School’s African American club. Nimaa Osman, one of the club officers said it was a great experience.

“It’s a way for us to express our culture and share it with everybody. There’s people from so many different places here and we all get to be a part of it,” she said.

After the dance, Alston, a professional storyteller, took over the stage and captivated the audience with her stories. Some, like the story of Ogaloussa, had their roots in African oral tradition. Others were more modern, such as a rap written by Alston about the life of Louis Armstrong.  

She also told the story of Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license.

Because no one in America would teach Coleman, she had to attend a flight school in France (where she had to walk six miles every day just to get to the airfield). Eventually she returned to America and became a successful stunt pilot. She was so popular in fact, that she became known as “Queen Bess” or “Queen of the Skies.”

Coleman used her popularity as leverage to promote social equality. At one point she refused to fly in an event where there was to be a seperate entrance for white and black people.

“They took a look at how much money they would lose, and they decided to have just one entrance,” explained Alston.

Remembering how people like Bessie Coleman overcame their obstacles to achieve great things is a big part of what black excellence entails, said event organizer Michelle Love-Day, the associate director for the district’s educational equity office.

“It encompasses a lot of who we are as a community,” she said. “Making sure that we are successful no matter what situations are put before us. It’s rising above each and every day.”

The same sentiment was echoed by Alston when she spoke with the West Valley City Journal.

“[Black excellence] represents what people of African ancestry in this country have always had to do in the midst of obstacles that have always been put in front of them. You continue moving forward, to strive, to present yourself to the world with character, dignity and respect,” she said.

As a student, Osman said it was empowering to listen to all the stories. “It makes me think, ‘I can be part of that,’” she said.

Osman said she wants to become a writer, and that she really looks up to Maya Angelou.

“She’s just this perfect woman who wears her culture on her sleeve. She’s so amazing and I wish I could be like her one day.”

The Black Excellence event is just one of many organized by the Educational Equity office. Earlier this school year they hosted an event on Latino culture. Later this year they will be putting on a Polynesian cultural night as well as a Holocaust remembrance event.

Love-Day said these events are an important part of the district’s efforts to create an inclusive environment.

“It’s important to get to know other people and their culture so you can be comfortable and respect one another. We all have to work together in our differences to make our communities successful.”