In 2022, the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, will turn 50 years old, and a few years ago, ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah and others started thinking about how they wanted to celebrate the 50th anniversary.
Sirah said one of the things they always try to do is not just celebrate the stories that make up the entire nation, but to unpack those stories to see what other ways people can be thinking about the story of our nation.
“By unpacking the stories of the places that we live – Appalachia, Jonesborough, east Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, western North Carolina, southwest Virginia,” Sirah said. “These places, there are many stories that maybe we haven't heard, or we haven't appreciated or validated, or even recognized for all sorts of reasons,
“What storytelling does—it’s a tool to help us bring us to an equal space, an equal platform,” Sirah said. “They can get the highest politician on the planet, and a grandmother. or grandfather, a traditional teacher in a community [to an] equal space because stories belong to all of us. It’s a truly democratic artform. It levels the playing field. It helps us to be—not just give us voice—but to amplify the voices. And historically voices that might be on the margins – to bring those stories to the center.”
Sirah said they decided they wanted to lead up to the anniversary with a project that unpacks the mission and vision of the ISC and helps people see the “full story of who we are, as a people.” That project was the Freedom Stories: Unearthing the Black Heritage of Appalachia.
The Freedom Stories series is aimed at shining light on the parts of African American and Appalachian history that are often overlooked or underappreciated. The program marries the art of storytelling with humanities scholarship to provide the public with a deeper appreciation of the roles that African American stories have played in struggles for freedom, equality and justice in Central Appalachia.
Sirah said when they applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, they were flooded with letters of support from various different communities, such as the National Association of Black Storytellers, the McKinney Center, the Langston Centre and many more. They received the grant, which allowed them to have funding for the project and bring in program director Alicestyne Turley.
“I was so honored to be asked to do this project because I think when I first talked with Kiran and the staff at the center, it was like, ‘Well, people always told me there were no Black people in Appalachia,’” Turley said. “So now, I get a chance to really explore this very early history, and it's been fascinating – the people I've been able to talk with, the stories that the center has been able to put forward.”
A main component of the Freedom Stories project involves public discussion events that feature live storytelling performances followed by panel discussions with Black scholars, storytellers, thought leaders and community experts on topics surrounding African American and Appalachian history and present-day life in the region.
“This is a program where you get to hear the story behind the story,” Sirah said. “Because there's always a story behind the story. Everyone's reality is going to be different, but when do we have a safe space beyond our place of worship, beyond the visit to Kroger, right? When do we get to actually interact on a human level person to person? Not to shout at one another, but to be in discourse and to be in dialogue. And that is the essence of what storytelling this program is all about – not to shout at one another. It’s to listen and appreciate.”
Joy Fulkerson, Freedom Stories advisory panelist and director of ETSU Leadership and Civic Engagement, said she thinks the discussions have been powerful and conversational. She said for people like her, who learn and take in information in a variety of ways, it is nice to both hear sounds and see imagery around the topics. She also said it has been interesting to hear the perspectives of individuals who lived before her time.
“I think this project is just so important, because for many of us, we have not gotten this information in our prior settings, right?” Fulkerson said. “This is information that's not been readily available in classrooms – high school and really college – so I think there's a lot of value to it here in this space.”
Fulkerson was one of the people who wrote letters of support for the Freedom Stories. She said the project aligns with the work they do in ETSU Leadership and Civic Engagement, and she jumped at the opportunity to support the project professionally, as well as personally.
“You know I for me as a black woman, I am continuing to try to connect with my own identity and to learn about my history and my place in this in this world,” Fulkerson said. “And so, definitely these are pieces of information that I, that I am able to sit with, and ponder, and reflect upon and think about what's next.”
Although the Freedom Stories initiative was originally envisioned as a regional program for Central Appalachia, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the program to transition to an entirely online format, allowing them to reach far more people than originally intended. Their first discussion event held in early July 2020 titled, “Do Black Lives Matter in Appalachia?” reached 302,000 people, with actual participation from around 900 people. Sirah said they had people from the Czech Republic, Australia, New York City and other various locations across the country and world.
The program also has a digital toolkit that includes recordings of the Freedom Stories discussions and performances, auxiliary resources for those discussions, information about the contributors and links to external resources. According to their website, more resources, such as curriculum guides, book lists and other scholarly, community collaborations will be available in the future.
“We're trying to bring all this stuff put it into the toolkit, so it becomes a fully accessible teaching resource,” Sirah said. “Not just for Appalachia, but for the nation. I mean it's really about understanding [that] the story in Appalachia is integral to the story of this entire nation.”
Turley said she was a little nervous at first about how people were going to respond to these stories but that the response from people has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Folks have now started to do more research in their regions and wanting to get in touch with authors. ‘How do I know?’ ‘How do I trace this?’ You know, those kinds of questions,” Turley said. “So locally, I think people are developing a more of an interest in where they're from. Personally, it's like, ‘Wow, we didn't know we had these national or international connections, so I always see that as a positive.”
Sirah said this project has been an opportunity to celebrate some local heroes, such as Grammy-nominated artist Amythyst Kiah. The project has allowed them to build a sense of pride around the Appalachian region, which
Turley said is often dismissed by people as a “throwaway region.”
“People in Appalachia – we often think about how many times have other people outside of Appalachia written about our region or tried to define our region?” Sirah said. “But this program is about Appalachians defining the region for themselves. If we want to tell our story and to empower our own communities, people in Appalachia, to tell the story on their own terms so other people can listen,
“And that's a really powerful—not just a right thing to do, it's about building resilience about building courage, and it's also about building a sense of pride. This isn't just Black history, this is Appalachian history. We’re so interconnected; it’s our history. And so, whether you’re from here or not from here, whether you're from a particular group – it’s our history.”
The last public discussion is in June, signaling the end of the Freedom Stories events. Although they do not know exactly in what capacity yet, Turley said they want to keep this work moving forward somehow.
“I think we're all in agreement that we don't want things—we’ve had such a great momentum—we don't want things to just end abruptly,” Turley said. “So, I think most of our conversations that we have are about that. How do we go forward and keep people engaged?”
Sirah said that as a non-profit organization, their continuation of the project is partly dependent on funding.
“Some projects might have to come to a formal close, and it’s just really to celebrate something that has a beginning, middle and end,” Sirah said. “But that doesn't mean that something can't be built on top of that, grow from it.”
They hope to build upon the project through the online resource tookit. In addition to discussion recordings and other resources, Sirah said they want to create a digital map, where people can go on an African American history trail including locations such as the African American Center, the National Storytelling Festival and more.
Fulkerson said she thinks partners who have supported the project will continue beyond the project, and she thinks the center can continue to uplift these types of stories and messages through continuing to build and strengthen those relationships. She also encourages people in the community to stay connected to the ISC and its partners and to continue doing their own research after the discussions end in June.
“I think, you know, all of us have an opportunity and responsibility a little bit to do our own research—if you will—is the word, but I don't think we always have to wait on others to bring the information to us,” Fulkerson said. “I mean the beauty of the Internet is that there is access to books, and films, and podcasts and articles. I mean there's just so much available to us these days.”
The next Freedom Stories public discussion, “Are We There Yet? Continuing the Civil Rights Movement,” will take place May 8 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. The event is free and will be livestreamed on the ISC Facebook page.
To view recordings of past discussions and other resources, visit https://www.storytellingcenter.net/freedom-stories/resources/. To learn more about the ISC’s Freedom Stories initiative, visit https://www.storytellingcenter.net/.