Storyteller Linda Goss: Telling the truth
Linda Goss was born into a storytelling family in Alcoa, Tenn. Her grandfather was a superb spinner of tales, followed by both of her parents. Goss is an award-winning storyteller and author in Philadelphia, and with Mary Carter Smith of Baltimore founded the National Association of Black Storytellers.
In her own voice, Linda tells of her storytelling origins and the people who influenced her:
I was raised on storytelling. It comes out of my being and my birth. I was born into a storytelling family, a family who quilted, who cooked, who preached, who could sing, who could dance and who could tell stories. My mother was a public speaker and she was very formal. She wrote her speeches and she was very precise and spoke very well. She would tell me stories and so would my father.
But it was my grandfather who more or less really just put the bug in my ear as to why black storytelling was so important. His name was Granddaddy Murphy. I was scared of him. He was 6 feet 5, weighed over 250 pounds and he carried a gun. And people considered him mean. He never smiled. So we didn’t really talk that much.
There was an incident where I was at a neighbor’s home and he came in and I did a no-no. He came in and I didn’t speak to him. And so he was teased by it. And he left there very angry but I did not know it. My father and mother they really got on me. They said that I, who was very little, had to make up with this great big old man who reminded me of John in ‘Jack in the Beanstalk.’
I was afraid to even set foot on his yard. But I stood at the edge and he came to the door and he kind of asked me what I was doing. In those days I had very long braids and I was standing there picking with my hair because I was scared to death. He said do you know I used to have braids. And I looked at him like what are you talking about. And he said I used to have braids and I wore dresses, too, dresses made out of potato sacks. So I didn’t dare say, Granddad what are you talking about. So I listened and he started laughing. And when he laughed, he had a beautiful smile. He had gold teeth right up front.
So, that’s how we started talking to each other. It wasn’t a situation where he was sitting in a rocking chair and I was sitting at his knee and he’s telling me these stories. It really started with him just standing up in overalls, him on the porch and I at the edge of the sidewalk listening to him and then his stories drawing me in. And once that happened, every time we’d go up there, my brother and I, he’d tell us a story.
To me, storytelling is really a calling. I have been called to do this, just as people have been called to preach. And I view it as being something sacred and something very valuable, something that I believe is from a divine spirit, something I have been called upon (to do), to wake up the people, to share with them a truth or encourage them to tell their stories.
Once I became a professional storyteller I told (Granddaddy Murphy) what I was doing and he brought out this bugle and said he used to play this bugle on the plantation. According to him, now my grandmother said he was lying, but according to him the rooster would crow, the rooster would wake up the dog Shepp. Shepp would come and lick my grandfather’s hand, that would wake him up and he would blow this bugle and he would wake up the people. And he said that’s what I was doing. I told him I ring bells and he said you’re waking up the people. And many of my storytelling programs are called “Waking Up the People.”
My mother told me this story out of the clear blue sky one day when she was in the kitchen (when Linda was a child). I think his name is Pappy, they call him Pappy. This would be her grandfather or her great-grandfather and how he was known for being a real good cook and could cook fried chicken. And just about every other Saturday or on a particular Saturday – you never knew when – just as dusk was coming they could hear these horses and it would be, they called them the nightriders or the paddy-rollers, and they would come up to this place and they would make him kill one of his chickens and fry chicken for them.
They would eat that chicken and drink and then they’d shoot at his feet and make him dance for them. He would buck-dance for them. I was also told that the women knew to be hidden and to stay hidden. And if they asked for the women he would say they aren’t here. I never heard the whole story. I don’t know if the women in my family at the time were abused or raped. They could’ve been, and he wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it. This went on for some time.
Why she told me this story I don’t know. In those days, when people told you those stories you didn’t ask questions. You didn’t talk back. You just listened. So I didn’t get the full story. Two of my uncles told me the same story. And now they have all passed away.
The very first black storytelling festival was held in Baltimore in 1983. Mother Mary Carter Smith was a Zeta and she and I had met back in the 70s and we were just in love with storytelling. Every time we would come together, we would talk about starting an organization to promote black storytelling because most of the festivals we would go to, we would be the only black people there. And I remember telling her that there was plenty of salt here but not enough pepper. So in 1982 on the grounds of Jonesboro, Tenn., at the national storytelling festival, she and I got together and we said we’re going to do it. She said I’m going to take this idea to Baltimore and work with the Zetas and see if they can help me, because we had no money. They loved the idea and so that’s how we got started.
I said Mary since you’ve done it, I’m going to bring it to Philadelphia. So in 1984, I went to the Zetas and they were just so helpful. And they said why don’t you become one of us, and I said OK.
There’s so much misinformation, so many lies that have been told about our culture. There were stereotypes out here, people saying what storytelling was.
I remember having a two-hour conversation over the phone – over two hours that I paid for – with this grantor up in Harrisburg. He was going to tell me the reason why I couldn’t get the grant because I wasn’t a black storyteller. I say, ‘Who are you to tell me what I am or what I ain’t.’ It’s like how dare you. We got into this long thing …
I had to tell him we as black people, we come in all shades, all sizes. I said now you’re saying I’m not a black storyteller because I’m educated, you’re saying this because I’m not illiterate and I’m not down in some obscure rural place with half of my teeth missing barefooted and you haven’t discovered me and I’m not … no, no you’re not going to create who we are. That’s over with, you being a scholar of our people.
I tell stories that come from my family that have been passed down to me. Sure I tell stories from books. I make up stories. I steal stories like everybody else. But you’re going to tell me I’m not a black storyteller? We tell all kinds of stories, so you can’t stereotype us. And we’re not going to stereotype ourselves.
Well, needless to say, I got the grant.