Michelle McCullers Segbefia is recounting the “epic tale” of how she met and married her husband, and thus begat Eden. Her lips are pursed–sassy-like, as she fixes a pear-shaped face to prepare for her narrative. Around her neck she wears a string of red baubles (this is the only word that can accurately describe the enormous glass beads); the red is reprised in her spherical ring and banded watch. Her glasses are black-rimmed contraptions.
“I went to Ghana to visit a professor of mine and she introduced me to a young man…” she begins.
Segbefia, a UNC-trained folklorist who is from South Carolina, comes from a long line of dynamic women. “I seem to remember lots of stories about strong women, because I can directly apply it to my life,” she says. “My grandma always told me, ‘you’re a sixth-generation, college-educated black woman,’ which is huge in the South. And she also told me about this ancestor who didn’t go to college, but who was Cherokee and survived the Trail of Tears, and also ended up outliving eight husbands. And she was just strong-willed, and just amazing; she’s a strong mythological figure in our family at this point. She was also known to be able to speak the fire out of a burn–if someone burned their hands or their body, she had the ability to take that pain out of them–and so she was a healer woman as well as a survivor.”
Segbefia’s colleague, Joy Salyers, is tall in her black and powder blue; a fancy old-lady-thrift-store-bag garnishes her chair-leg. Descended from a long line of mountain people, Salyers is the daughter of a preacher who was the son of a coal miner. They often told stories, these Appalachian folk (her daddy called himself a “story theologian”) and Salyers remembers one of her favorites as the tale of the horse that got caught in the feed-bin: “Horses will eat until they die if you let them have unlimited access to food,” she says.
“Stories have always been very important in my upbringing,” says Salyers. “My family is from the mountains of East Tennessee, so rich stories that I heard growing up, have always interested me. … I really believe in the power of stories to promote change and in using creative aspects [of storytelling] to work with people.”
Segbefia and Salyers are co-founders and directors of the Triangle organization In Our Hands, which specializes in using oral history, imagination and other empirical tools to connect individuals and communities.
On Saturday, Jan. 24, the two will lead Documenting the Family, a class on recording and retelling family stories, as a collaborative offering of the Duke Center for Documentary Studies and the Continuing Studies Short Course program.
“Your family is so instrumental in helping to shape who you are,” says Salyers. “A lot of times you’re told stories that really impact how you think of yourself and sometimes you don’t even remember those stories … Going back and relearning those stories gives you insight into yourself and helps you decide ‘what of this do I want to embrace and pass on?’”
Also important, is being aware of the history of family diseases and behaviors, which often come out though storytelling. “On a more practical level, understanding the health conditions of your ancestors and the traits that they had–whether it’s tendencies towards alcohol or whatever–is really important,” says Segbefia. “You might not have all the health records of your ancestors, but if you can know through oral history what ailed certain people, or what struggles people dealt with, that’s really important too. And it’s amazing to see, looking back generations, how strong certain traits are. I’ve discovered poets really far back in my family lineage, and it just blows my mind that somehow a poetry gene keeps getting passed down in our family. … You have to look at all sides. Genealogy and looking at family history is not an easy thing, it’s challenging and it’s not all warm stories … But I think it helps people grow just by hearing them.”
Participants of Documenting the Family, in addition to learning ways to present family stories, will also gain insight on conducting oral history interviews, getting people to open up, refreshing worn-out stories, ethics concerning privacy and representation, uncovering sensitive family issues and “getting at the truth.”
Salyers and Segbefia, who also teach community groups how to use storytelling as a organizational tool (upcoming is a course that will teach nonprofits how to use documentary tools to further their missions, co-presented by In Our Hands, The Center for Documentary Studies and Duke’s Certificate in Non-profit Management) both agree that storytelling is more than just spinning yarn.
“I think opening yourself up to the importance of stories makes you realize how stories permeate our culture,” says Salyers. “Most of the major religions in the world are fundamentally infused with stories–whether it’s parables or stories in the Talmud. We structure our lives through stories; humans are storytelling animals. So learning about stories, and the power of stories and how to pay attention to stories really helps you in the corporate world [from] figuring out what’s going on with your clients–what they’re really trying to say–all the way to understanding your kids.”
And don’t forget to find out what happened with the husband and the horse. They’re very good stories …
Documenting the Family (Class ID 8202) runs from Jan. 24 through Mar. 6, at the Center for Documentary Studies in Durham. The 15-hour class will be held six Saturdays, from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. There is an 18-student limit, and a $10 materials fee will be due at the start of class. For more information email Joe Salyers at email@example.com. To register for the class visit http://www.learnmore.duke.edu/shortcourse/register.htm.