It’s been a little while since we had a Library Favorites blog post. We’re still figuring out where we want to take this blog, and I’ve been spending a lot of time working on our library and getting our storytime program up and running. We’ve had a lot of fun doing virtual storytime with you this winter, and we’re so excited to be in-person this summer. We’ll be talking more about our summer dates soon!
One of our favorite storytimes sessions this winter was when Accokeek Foundation Outreach Specialist Shemika Berry portrayed Cate Sharper, a woman who was enslaved in the 18th century, to tell us some of her favorite Anansi stories. During storytime, Shemika covered some of the history of Anansi stories and why we believe Cate Sharper would have known them, but we thought that a bit more background for interested adults would be a nice supplement to the information she shared. So if you are excited to learn more, read on! Of course it is beyond the scope of a single blog post to do justice to the importance of Anansi, so at the end I’ll link to more resources to check out as well as to the Accokeek Foundation’s YouTube playlist of Shemika Berry as Cate Sharper recounting more Anansi tales.
Anansi stories come from regions across West Africa; generally speaking, the most well known stories originated in Ghana where the word “anansi” meant “spider” in the Akan language. They were part of a strong oral tradition, meaning that instead of being written down they were memorized by the storyteller and passed down to those who listened who would then, in turn, tell these stories to others. Oral traditions like this inevitably result in a number of different versions of the same story, but the core or essence of the tale remains intact, even after generations of re-telling. Because these stories were not written down, they were able to not only survive the brutality of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, but to thrive. Oral traditions simply cannot be erased the way recorded information can; they live in memory and inside the people who carry them rather than as a vulnerable external object that can be left behind or destroyed.
These stories, then, were a link back to Africa for those who were kidnapped and sold from their home. They helped enslaved individuals maintain a sense of cultural identity even in captivity, and they helped create community within enslaved populations. Further, Anansi the spider was a celebrated symbol of resistance and survival. Though the stories can caution against bad behavior by emphasizing Anansi’s faults (such as his avarice and over confidence), for the most part they celebrate his cleverness and feature Anansi using his cunning to outwit powerful figures of oppression who routinely underestimate him. To borrow from Lieke Van Duin’s “Anansi as Classical Hero,” Anansi surpasses the traditional “trickster” role and becomes a classical hero, a figure of both inspiration and aspiration.
We’re so glad that you participated in this oral history tradition with us at storytime! For more information on Anansi check out the following resources.
Zobel Marshall, Emily (2012) Anansi's Journey: A Story of Jamaican Cultural Resistance. University of the West Indies Press: Kingston
Zobel Marshall, Emily (2018) Nothing but Pleasant Memories of the Discipline of Slavery: The Trickster and the Dynamics of Racial Representation.’ Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies. (Wayne State University Press).
Watch Shemika Berry as Cate Sharper telling more Anansi Stories on our YouTube Page (Accokeek Foundation)
Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti by Gerald McDermott
The Pot of Wisdom: Ananse Stories by Adwoa Badoe