Denise Valentine, 60, Storyteller
By Melissa Simpson
Storytelling encompasses all of the things that I already love. I love history, I love research, public speaking, meeting people, and helping people. Storytelling was a way for me to do all of that.
I worked as a legal secretary and as an administrative assistant for about 20 years until I was introduced to an organization called Keepers of the Culture, Inc., in 1996. It is a Philadelphia-based Afrocentric storytelling group. That’s when I listened to master storytellers from all over the world, and I was hooked. I have been a storyteller ever since.
I’m also an activist.
First, with the Free Mumia Movement, then the Anti-Apartheid Movement, I found that storytelling was a way for me to speak out in protest — to speak but from a place of love instead of anger. Not that the anger disappeared, but it was a way for me to channel that anger. I had already decided to dedicate my life to human rights and social justice. This felt healthier and just as powerful.
I think the story that has been most impactful as far as the direction that my storytelling took was A Woman Who Has No Name. I call her “Betty’s Mother” or the “Little Slave Girl and The Silver Dish.”
She was delivered to Philadelphia by an earthquake with a cradle and a silver dish. She was owned by Isaac Norris. The Norrises were signers of the founding documents. It just so happens that this little girl survived an earthquake when Port Royal, Jamaica, fell into the sea in 1692. Her father died trying to save Thomas Norris. Thomas’ son Isaac brought the little girl and the silver dish back to Philadelphia where she was raised in servitude.
She then had a daughter, named Betty, who was raised as a slave in Philadelphia. Betty eventually gained her freedom. My research over the last 10 years or so has been tracing her mother — the little girl — and trying to find her name. I have never found her name. The silver dish has a provenance - an honored place in the Philadelphia History Museum, which is closed to the public now.
But the little girl was never named.
At the time, I was doing site-specific storytelling projects. They had research and performance components. As a part of that, I had to view archival documents and I noticed the way these families keep their genealogy. All of their material culture, including the silver dish, had a provenance. They keep very meticulous records, so leaving a name out was very deliberate. It was to strip these people of their identity, their humanity.
This story has odd connections to my own family history and ancestors. My mother and grandmother lived on Norris Street. My great-grandmother was born in Port Royal, Jamaica, where the Norris’ had plantations. All of my stories have derived from this search. At first to find this little girl, and then, to uncover these connections to my own ancestry homeland. I use Philadelphia street names, maps and monuments like compasses on this journey. I call it unforgetting and reconnecting.
I read the autobiography of Assata Shakur as a young woman and I really feel that she is part of the reason why I became a revolutionary and an activist when I was young. When I became involved in the Free Mumia Movement, I met Pam and Ramona Africa, also very strong influences in my life. The late Mother Mary Carter Smith and Mama Linda Goss — they are the founders of the National Association of Black Storytellers. They have greatly influenced the kind of storyteller that I am determined to become.
Becoming a mother made me want to do everything in my power to ensure that my children will live in a world that is safe, just and free. I think that these are things that we sometimes take for granted. I always wanted to teach them to stand up for themselves and to stand up for what is right. I want for my children what every mother wants — success and happiness, but more importantly, I want them to be people who live with confidence courage and compassion for other people. The closer I get to the age of an elder — I'll be 60 this year — the more I feel a sense of universal motherhood. I want for all children what I want for my own.
Blackness is deeper than the color of my skin. It is an inheritance of collective memory, of strength, of pride, and of joy. Of unspeakable pain and shame and dysfunction, too. But also the tremendous capacity for badassery. [laughs] And to overcome whatever we are faced with.
Womanhood is something that every woman has to define for herself. I am a descendant from so many countless examples — Harriet , Sojourner and Hatshepsut — all of these women who have shown the examples and power of womanhood: Michelle Obama, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Audre Lorde. So many examples. But I guess what I’ve learned from all of these women is that I don’t have to settle. I never have to settle.
Denise’s Revolutionary Picks:
“I read the autobiography of Assata Shakur as a young woman and I really feel that she is part of the reason why I became a revolutionary and an activist when I was young. When I became involved in the Free Mumia Movement, I met Pam and Ramona Africa, also very strong influences in my life. The late Mother Mary Carter Smith and Mama Linda Goss — they are the founders of the National Association of Black Storytellers. They have greatly influenced the kind of storyteller that I am determined to become.”