Five questions with: storyteller and speech pathologist Mama Edie Armstrong

Mama Edie Armstrong at Community Table Festival

Franklin Junior High, Des Moines, Oct. 8 at 3:30 p.m., Free

Mama Edie Armstrong performs for the Illinois Art Council. — Courtesy of Mama Edie Armstrong

On Saturday, Oct. 8, the Des Moines Public Library will hold its first Community Table Storytelling and Local Food Festival at three different locations around Des Moines. Alongside food vendors and activities, the festival will feature a lineup of acclaimed storytellers from across the country. One of these performers is Mama Edie Armstrong.

The Chicago resident is a trained speech pathologist and began using storytelling as a tool to engage her students and teach them more about the world around them. Quickly, her coworkers and community members recognized her talent and encouraged her to take her stories on the road. Now, Mama Edie travels all over the world telling stories, singing songs and spreading love.

Little Village sat down with Mama Edie ahead of her performance on Oct. 8 to talk about language, representation, and how stories can teach us about ourselves.

Why is storytelling important?

Well, storytelling is important for me for so many reasons. For one thing, it has the wonderful potential to connect people: within families, within communities, across communities, cross culturally, internationally and what have you. Because all of us have pretty much the same basic human desires, and needs, and joys, and sorrows. As long as people’s hearts and minds are open to it, to the stories of somebody from another culture, or another part of the world or another religion, then there can be something wonderful that they can get from anyone’s story. And storytelling can remind us that we all have a lighter side, and to give ourselves permission to let it shine no matter what anybody else says.

And that’s actually how I got into storytelling. I did prose and poetry in intercollegiate competition when I went to Northern Illinois University, and I also became a part of Black theater. And I wrote productions and I did producing and that kind of thing when I was in college, and I did well with the intercollegiate competitions around the country. But then, when I became a speech and language pathologist, I worked for a while in a hospital with stroke patients, and even the storytelling came in handy there too. Especially for people who may have had an injury or brain injury that might have resulted in a loss of memory, or a loss of language symbolization. And then I was able to use storytelling, talking about their family members, trying to help them to recall memories and that kind of thing.

So on a therapeutic level, you know, storytelling can be useful with people who are actually dealing with certain medical pathologies, such as stroke and traumatic brain injury. But storytelling can also be therapeutic on the level of helping people to deal with some of the propaganda that they have been generationally bombarded with, with negative images and perceptions of who they are.

What story do you wish someone had told you when you were a kid?

I wish someone had been in a position to tell me a real story about life in Africa. So that I could have something to counter these images of Tarzan that I had. Having gone through the ’50s, it’s been an interesting journey for many of us trying to become comfortable with being children of African descent. And I think one experience that probably did more damage than any one thing was the production of the Tarzan movies. Because when we would look at Tarzan and see, first of all, that only the Europeans in the Tarzan movies had good lighting so that you can see their features. Because their features mattered. The Africans, or the people who were represented Africans, who were in the movie, oftentimes their faces were obscured, or either they had on war paint or something like that. But it was clear that their faces, what their faces looked like, didn’t matter. And so that’s, you know, that’s a visual thing that makes a statement without words.

And then if you’re watching the interactions among the people, and you come to reckon with the idea being promoted, that the Africans weren’t intelligent enough to gather themselves when they have a problem, to resolve it among their own elders and among their own leaders, that they had to wait for a little white boy, you know, who was raised by monkeys to come and save the day. How are you gonna feel proud of that? Who would feel proud of being an African if that’s all you know about Africa? And I didn’t start meeting continental Africans until I got to college. And I mean, I knew, of course, way before then that the images in the Tarzan movies were not real, but they had certainly done their damage.

You’ve been all over the world with your storytelling. Can you tell us one of your favorite travel stories?

Yeah, well I have two, but I can make them brief. The first one that I should mention, is my first trip to Africa. It’s the first time I went to Ghana in 1996. It was amazing. Absolutely amazing. First of all, landing at the airport and looking out the window, and seeing practically nothing but Black people all around was absolutely overwhelming. It was a culture shock from a different kind of perspective. The closest that I’ve been to a situation like that was when I went to Trinidad and it was the same thing. I was like, “Wow, look at all the Black people!”

You know, you get this message that you’re a minority. And so you know, I didn’t realize until much later that while we may be considered a minority in this country, we’re certainly not a minority in the world. And so, that boggles my mind. And it warms me when I got off the plane and I’m going through the airport and even going outside, I felt so much at home. There was smells that I knew I had not smelled before, but they were somehow familiar. And to see the people in the way they walked, in the way they talked, they talked with their hands. And there was just, I mean, I was like, “You is my people!” And so to feel that sense of connection, to actually set foot on this land that I had heard so much about, that most of my ancestors — because of course, you know, being raised in America, you know, I call us the potpourri people, a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. You know, we’ve got the Native American ancestry of the Cherokee Seminole and Blackfoot on my dad’s side, and the Italian on my mom’s side, and who knows what else — but I felt so much at home. And that was an amazing, amazing experience.

Courtesy of Mama Edie Armstrong

And then, the first time I experienced an African sky. Utterly, utterly amazing, utterly amazing. And that gave rise to a show that I wrote up called African Skies. And wouldn’t you believe that I’m over in Ghaha just writing up these notes on this. I was so moved that stuff was just coming out, you know, thoughts and ideas are just pouring out in response to not only the sky, but as morning was coming, hearing the sounds of Africa waking up. To the little, small animals running through the bush and the sounds of crickets and birds, you know, starting to crescendo and rise and rise, it was so amazing. I felt like I had my own personal orchestration, you know, in African life, and it was all just for me at that moment. So I ended up coming back to Chicago, wouldn’t you believe that within the same week, I get a call from the Adler Planetarium, telling me that they had just put together a show called African Skies. And asked me, “Think you can pull together a show about our show called African Skies?” I’m like, “I just wrote a piece called African Skies.

What do you think makes a good storyteller?

I think the first thing is that if I can feel from the storyteller that the story matters to the storyteller. That’s the first thing. If I get the sense that a storyteller is telling a story, just for the sake of telling the story, you know, “Somebody’s paying me, they want me to tell a story about X, Y and Z. Okay, I’m gonna tell the story about X, Y and Z.” And it could be a good story. It can be an engaging story, but unless the storyteller really feels some connection with the story, it just doesn’t come across the same way. Not to me anyway. And I can tell when they feel connected to it, and when they don’t. And so if, if I feel that the storyteller was connected to the story, then it welcomes me into that space of also feeling connected to the story as well and the characters that are involved.

Another thing for me, and I guess I wouldn’t probably say that too many things are required from my perspective, but that the storyteller allows himself or herself to be open with their emotions. And I do storytelling coaching, too. And one of the things that I was saying not too long ago to one of my clients, she was going through her story, she’s a very beginning storyteller. And she’s telling her story, and it’s got an interesting storyline, but I just wasn’t feeling it happen. And when she was giving these descriptions, linguistically, the descriptions were rich, but unless I had a really good imagination, I wouldn’t have seen it.

And so I asked her, I said, “Okay, okay, hold on a second. This young lady that you’re describing to us now, in this beautiful scene that you’re describing, are you there?” And she said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Are you there? Have you put yourself in that scene? If you close your eyes, can you snip those flowers? Can you see the vibrance in your colors? Can you see that bird taking off over there? Are you there?” She said, “Well I guess not.” I said, “You need to go there.”

Be in the story. You can speak on behalf of the characters, but you got to be a witness. You got to be in there so you can smell and feel and taste, and see the wonder that you want us to smell and feel and taste. We want to do it. We’re not going to get it so well if you don’t get it. So, yes, vocal inflection and high pitches and low pitches and loudness and softness, all that stuff is important. But to be able to transport the listener into the story, you know, those are some of the things that make a good storyteller.

What can we expect from your performance at the Des Moines Public Library?

The performance is going to be kind of a bilingual performance. So I’ll be doing a bit in English and a bit in Spanish. And what that translates into for me is that the stories that I tell will be done — sometimes people have asked me to just like do the whole thing first in Spanish and then do the whole thing in English. I don’t like to do it like that. Because then somebody’s left out, you know, as you’re going along the way, and I don’t ever want anybody to feel left out. And so I might start out, like, “HabĂ­a una vez una familia de ratoncitas, once upon a time there was a family of little mice,” and then I’ll go back and forth, you know. Some may start out in English, or start out in Spanish. And then I’ll say the same line again, in the other language. And in fact that story is called The Barking Mouse, that is one I’ll definitely be doing, it’s one of the favorite ones.

Catch Mama Edie Armstrong at Franklin Junior High on October 8 at 3:30 p.m. View the full festival schedule here.

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