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Voices Spring-Summer 2007:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Mind-Builders: Training Youth Interns as Beginning Folklorists” by Deidre Lynn Hollman here.
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Voices SS07


Volume 33
Mind-Builders: Training Youth Interns as Beginning Folklorists by Deirdre Lynn Hollman
Every summer for the past eighteen years, youth interns, ages twelve to eighteen, have gathered at Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx to be trained as beginning folklorists as part of the Dr. Beverly Robinson Community Folk Culture Program. Through the broad lens of examining the past, current, and ever-evolving cultures of peoples of African descent who migrate to New York City, interns discover and interview folk artists, musicians, storytellers, dancers, and craftspeople in the Bronx community from Africa, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and various regions of the United States. The internship program is named for the late Dr. Beverly Robinson, a folklorist and professor at the University of California-Los Angeles who inspired the program and who came to the Bronx each summer for years to codirect it.

Summer 2006 folk culture interns outside GroundWork, Inc.
Summer 2006 folk culture interns outside GroundWork, Inc., where they interviewed twenty young people about folklife in East New York-Brooklyn in August 2006. All photos courtesy of Mind-Builders.

After two days of orientation designed to help teenage interns unpack the weighty concepts of immigration and folklore studies, this intensive six-week program requires interns to research cultural traditions in their own families, conduct community fieldwork, create multimedia projects documenting folk and folklife, and finally, participate in community folk culture presentations. The fieldwork section of the program is rooted in the following statement of purpose: As folklorists we are interested in the things (cultural markers) that people bring to the new place that connect them to home, the traditions that are maintained, and the memories that remain.

Why was immigration chosen as the underlying theme of the folk culture project for the past two years? This theme seems especially timely in this community with large numbers of families of Caribbean descent, especially as there has been a steady increase in the population of native Africans in area schools and churches, as well as new African and Caribbean restaurants, businesses, and tailors opening along the nearby commercial strip on White Plains Road. There has also been an increase in the diversity of the Mind-Builders’ student body, which presents an opportunity to talk with these families so that they can share their stories and teach young people about their cultural backgrounds. The goals of the program at its inception remain true today: to help students define, acknowledge, and appreciate a rich community, their families, their neighbors, and all that has helped to make them who they are. In addition, we strive to help young people combat prejudices and biases within black student groups regarding skin color, nationality, accents, and other vestiges of the self-degradation that slavery and colonialism cultivated. Madaha Kinsey Lamb, the founder and executive director of Mind-Builders, wants the young people to embrace the idea that “different is just fine, different is rich.” In addition to lingering perspectives that view lighter skin and straighter hair as “good” and more attractive, the reticence to celebrate the birthplace of themselves or their families when it is other than New York seems a worthy wall to break down.

A young performer in the Garifuna dance company Hamalali Wayunagu sings
A young performer in the Garifuna dance company Hamalali Wayunagu sings at a folk culture presentation at Mind-Builders in August 2005.

Over the past two years, the interns have identified, documented, and presented more than fifty folk artists and tradition bearers from the Bronx community. Who better to tell you about a few of them than the interns themselves?

George Sakyiama, Bantoma Market
Genre: Traditional Ghanaian Foods and Cooking
By Ariel Snipe and Khalea Johnson

On Thursday, July 28, 2005, we went to Bantoma Market, an African food store at 180th Street and Grand Concourse. We learned about the importance of having an African grocery store and its cultural connections for African immigrants that come from Ghana and neighboring nations to the Bronx. Mr. George Sakyiama opened the Ghanaian food store in 2004 in order to provide Africans with food from their home. Most of the food is from Ghana, with a few items from England, France, and the Caribbean.

One of the store’s popular items is palm oil, produced from palm fruit that comes from a palm tree. The oil is very popular in Africa and tropical areas. You can cook fish, chicken, and other things in palm oil, because it is used like vegetable oil. Other things that sell well are the spices. They are made by grinding together a whole bunch of different vegetables and herbs and are put on meats and in soups and stews. Another popular item is dried okra, which is used a lot in soups. Ground nuts are also popular. Ground nuts are peanut butter with no added sugar or anything.

We learned about what certain foods are eaten with. Fufu is eaten with stew or soup the same way Americans often eat potatoes in soups and in stews. Fufu is made of cassava, plaintains, or corn meal. We also learned about how some of the foods are made. Fufu is made with ground yucca and cornmeal, then it is boiled in water and becomes like sticky dumplings. Most people in Ghana and Senegal love fufu and soup. African eggplant is also a popular item for soups. African eggplant is different than American eggplant, because it is yellow and much smaller.

George Sakyiama, a native of Ghana, introduces students to traditional foods of Ghana
George Sakyiama, a native of Ghana, introduces students to traditional foods of Ghana at Mind-Builders’ African Folk Culture Expo in March 2006.

When making some African dishes, Mr. Sakyiama taught us that Ghanaians use a large clay pot called adanka. Adanka is a bowl made of clay and sand, and it can hold heat very well. Africans are creative in their cooking methods and let little go to waste. Corn husks are used to package kenkey. Kenkey can be eaten with pepper sauce or corned beef and is considered African fast food because it takes only minutes to prepare. When eaten alone, kenkey tastes like flour and water.

On how he became a good cook, Mr. Sakyiama later told us, “In Ghana, traditionally women learn how to cook from other women. My grandmother was catering food for the school in Akropong. My mother learned from her. My father died young. I was the last born, and so I would do everything for [my mother]. She wasn’t supposed to teach me, but she trained me very good. And all my wives, I teach them how to cook. At my store, I always have dishes ready, and people love it. They eat it like crazy.”

Mr. Sakyiama was very informative. He was a natural and true teacher. He was very fun to spend time with. We learned a lot about the native foods of Ghana at his store, Bantoma Market.

Luz Solis, Hamalali Wayunagu Garifuna Dance Company
Genre: Garifuna Dance, Drumming, and Family Life
By D’ontre Daniels, DeAnna George, Ivorie Claire, Linda Kontoh, and Adrien Harrison

Ms. Luz Solis, whose name means “sunlight” in Garifuna, was born and raised in Honduras. Ms. Solis is a free speaker and a natural teacher. She taught us that the Garifuna people are a mix of Carib, Arawak, and African peoples who lived for hundreds of years on the island of Saint Vincent in the Caribbean. Garifunas speak an indigenous dialect that is a combination of Arahuaco, Swahili, French, and Bantu. Later, when the Garifuna people were exiled from Saint Vincent to Honduras by the British, the people spoke English and then learned Spanish.

Luz Solis, Garifuna folk artist, performs with two traditional dancers
Luz Solis (center), Garifuna folk artist and founder of Hamalali Wayunagu, performs with two traditional dancers at a folk culture presentation at Mind-Builders in August 2005.

It was interesting to learn that traditional foods play a large role in Garifuna culture. Foods like the cassava, which Ms. Solis says is known to help prevent cancer, is made into the popular cassava bread. Cassava milk is also used to feed babies. Another well-known traditional dish is hundutu, made of mashed plantains. In Honduras, coconut milk is a staple in the Garifuna diet.

Ms. Solis has been a performing artist and dancer her whole life. Her specialty is the history of the Garifuna people and the practice of Garifuna music and dance. She formed the Hamalali Wayunagu Garifuna Dance Company in the Bronx to celebrate and preserve her heritage. Hamalali wayunagu means “voices of the ancestors,” and when the whole group performs, a community of more than twenty people fill the space with voices and rhythms.

She explained how dance was a part of everyday culture in her childhood community. Many dances were tied to rituals performed by men and women, young and old. The punta dance was a ritual dance performed at wakes by couples and has now evolved into a social dance. Paranda is a social dance with a song that tells the story of a dark-skinned Garifuna woman who is sad because she cannot identify herself in the faces of the white Catholic saints. Ms. Solis told us that “many social issues are revealed in the songs and dances of the Garifuna.” Wanaragua is a masked dance that is a dance of healing. She says that the masks were worn by men so that they could practice the dance of war while disguised as women in layers of dresses, aprons, and fabric. The men wore cowrie shells around their legs, and the dance is known for its elaborate footwork. Other traditional dances are the gunche (a ballroom-type dance), sambe (men only), and chumba (originally performed by older women, and now by young girls).

Ms. Solis taught us that dances are performed to a variety of drum rhythms. Traditional chants like the abenyhami are performed by women, and the arumahani is performed by men as part of the popular ancestral celebration called the Dügü. This celebration is had whenever the elders call for it. Another major Garifuna celebration is held on April 12, the day the Garifuna people landed on the shores of Honduras and transplated their vibrant culture to a new homeland.

“When you don’t travel, you cannot see,” is a saying that Ms. Solis shared with us from her culture. At the age of 15, she moved to New York City—to the Bronx, where the largest population of Garifuna people live outside of Honduras. Ms. Solis has a big job trying to keep her community together through dance, song, and drumming. She is determined to teach the young people the importance of writing about the Garifuna, so that the living history of her people does not die with the elders. Her story inspired us to listen to our grandparents more. We thank Ms. Solis for sharing her childhood traditions and memories with us.

Vickie Fremont, an artist from Cameroon, demonstrates how to make junjun puppets
Vickie Fremont, an artist from Cameroon who specializes in using found objects and recycled materials, demonstrates how to make junjun puppets out of sticks, wire coat hangers, and yarn at Mind-Builders’ African Folk Culture Expo in March 2006.

Pat Lindsay, Pat’s Exotic Juices
Genre: Jamaican Juicemaking
By Desiree Rodriquez , Ricardo Dyer, and Shanard Kitt

Ms. Pat Lindsay is a successful entrepreneur who specializes in making exotic beverages. She is a very hard-working woman with great vision and good taste. Her beverages give you a bit of the Caribbean in every bottle.

As a young girl in Jamaica, Ms. Lindsay’s grandmother taught her to make fresh juices, such as sorrel, ginger beer, sour sop, and grapefruit punch. As she grew older, she would only make juice for family meals and celebrations. One day, one of her friends told her she should bottle it and sell it. Today, she still tastes each batch before it goes out to the client. She explained that her recipe for each drink changes depending on the batch of fruit. “Every mango doesn’t taste the same,” she said, “so I have to adjust the other ingredients to make the juice just right.”

Program interns interview Pat Lindsay, Caribbean juicemaker
Program interns interview Pat Lindsay, Caribbean juicemaker, at Mind-Builders in April 2006 about how she learned to make fresh juices from her grandmother as a child in Jamaica.

Ms. Lindsay showed her physical strength by carrying fifty-pound bags of carrots and sugar to her house, which is right around the corner from Mind-Builders, in order to make juice. She is a positive person all around, because she never quit and her business has been growing for seven years. Now she has a plant on Tiemann Avenue. When she started her business, she and her crew would bottle five hundred juices a week. Now they bottle six thousand juices a week in eighteen delicious flavors. She uses only the finest tropical fruits, roots, and vegetables from New York, and many rare fruits she buys in Jamaica, freezes, and brings back to the Bronx. She is committed to quality!

Pat Lindsay migrated from Jamaica to New York at the age of eighteen. Over the course of a few short years, she has taken a family tradition and turned it into a successful family business that continues to thrive in the community, where each bottle of juice provides a visceral taste of “back home” for her customers. For a number of years, Ms. Lindsay’s nephew was a member of Mind- Builders’ teen theater company.

Bobby Gonzalez
Genre: Taino Poetry and Storytelling
By Delicia Myvett, Latesha Durky, Keshawna Johnson, and Makini I

Mr. Bobby Gonzalez is a Taino poet and storyteller. His culture originated in what is now Puerto Rico. The original name for Puerto Rico was Boriken. Boriken means “land of a valiant people.” His mother migrated from Puerto Rico to Miami, and then to New York City in the 1940s. He taught us that at that time there was a “big exodus from Puerto Rico to New York City, but the Puerto Ricans, who were Catholic, were not accepted in the Irish Catholic churches in the Bronx.” From her migration experiences, his mother taught him that “life is hard, but it is fair.”

The Taino people are the native people of the islands that are known today as Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, and the Bahamas. In fact, Jamaica is a Taino word meaning “land of wood and water.” Other Taino words that we use in English are hurricane, canoe, barbecue, and tobacco. We learned that Tainos lost most of their culture gradually since 1808, when in Puerto Rico, the Spanish declared the Taino extinct and forced people to define themselves as either white or colored. Today, there are only about three or four hundred Taino words left. Tainos’ main foods are cassava, cassava bread, sweet potato, pineapple, and peanuts. The most delicious delicacy is roasted iguana.
Taino storyteller Bobby Gonzalez
Taino storyteller Bobby Gonzalez reminisces in July 2006 about the stories, history, and gossip he heard as a child while hanging out in the bodega his father, a Puerto Rico native, owned in the Bronx.

Although the Taino people are considered a lost tribe, Mr. Gonzalez is trying to keep the group’s traditions alive. To help do this, he became a storyteller and a poet. He was inspired by his father to become a storyteller, because his father owned a bodega [deli] in the Bronx, which served as the meeting place for the Tainos who were moving into the area.

Mr. Gonzalez said that the bodega was like a traditional areyto, or gathering, where the chief would recount the history of the people with oral stories, songs, and dance. His father, a master storyteller who knew everybody in the community, opened that bodega every day until the day he died in his eighties.

Mr. Gonzalez collected oral histories and stories from sitting in his father’s store, from family members, and from people he would meet at pow-wows. Pow-wows are traditional gatherings and community celebrations of native peoples in the Americas. He taught us that the Taino people were known as healers, not warriors, and that Tainos and Africans that met in the Caribbean made connections because they had similar native beliefs about nature, spirituality, and family life. He told us that native peoples and Africans intermarried and created communities in the Caribbean and in North America largely due to the transatlantic slave trade.

We really enjoyed Mr. Gonzalez’s stories of the Taino people and their history. He shared a folktale about a baby manatee that was loved and cared for by a village man and one day disappeared. He also taught us about batu, a ball game that is native to Puerto Rico and was played before soccer was invented. The batu ball was made by rolling weeds in plant-based rubber and gum mixed with soil and sand. It was a hands-free game preceded by a ritual ceremony, the batey, that drew large crowds of natives together until the Spanish outlawed the game because of its spiritual connection.

Growing up, Bobby Gonzalez lived in the Melrose housing projects of the South Bronx, where the majority of his neighbors were Jewish, Irish, and Muslim. Over the years he has seen many changes in the community tied to the influx of people migrating here from the Caribbean and Africa. We really enjoyed Bobby Gonzalez’s visit because he inspired us to learn more about our own cultures by doing research. He also taught us not to believe everything you read in history books because sometimes there are other truths.

Annora Poole
Genre: African American Family History
By Shirnette Reid, Kenton Williams, Emeka Lamb, and Tesfa I

Ms. Annora Poole did research on her paternal family background and discovered answers to the question, Why were blacks moving from the South to the North during the Great Migration? Ms. Poole told us, “It was the discrimination in the South that prompted the Migration . . . the anger, the rage” that sent people packing in search of jobs and better opportunities in the North. The racism also caused many black men to join the military—like her father, who joined the navy in 1932, her uncle, and her cousin. Ms. Poole taught us that, for many, it was hard to escape the frustration of the times, and many people were victims of alcoholism and depression.

Ms. Poole’s family moved from Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Harlem in the late 1930s. Her Aunt Annie Mae was the first to move, followed by all of Aunt Annie Mae’s brothers and sisters, including Annora’s father. Her husband owned two stores in Harlem, a sweet shop and a novelty store. Family members who moved away found hope in the North, and her family took education very seriously. Born in the 1950s in Harlem Hospital, which was then known as Flowers Fifth Avenue, Ms. Poole moved to the Bronx with her father at the age of twelve.

Ms. Poole started her family research by talking with the eldest relatives and then working her way down, generation by generation. She collected rich stories and photographs along the way that she shared with us. She reflected, “Hearing the narratives gave me such an enormous sense of pride because I realized that we were—and are—truly survivors.” Ms. Poole’s presentation was very interesting and inspired us to take a closer look at our families and to see their stories as part of American history.


Boy from Harlem kindergaren class learns how to make junjun puppets
A boy from a Harlem kindergarten class learns how to make junjun puppets from Vickie Fremont at Mind-Builders’ African Folk Culture Expo at the National Black Theater in Harlem in March 2006.

I believe that the most successful aspect of our internship program has been identifying the interns themselves as tradition bearers. This approach encourages them first to identify the cultural traditions that permeate their own lives, and then to identify the roots of those same traditions in others from throughout the African diaspora. The interns document their cultural traditions by writing essays on how their families migrated to New York City, sharing childhood songs and games, identifying cultural markers in their home and creating an exhibition of these artifacts, collecting family proverbs and sayings, and interviewing family members about cultural foods and recording recipes.

Collecting this treasure trove of personal folklore allows the interns to be intimately connected to the program. Their direct participation in the community presentations—not only as folklorists and hosts, but also as tradition bearers of their own brand of contemporary youth culture in this area—allows them to demonstrate aspects of their culture that contribute to their broadening sense of identity.

Last summer, Dr. Diana Baird N’Diaye, curator and cultural heritage specialist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, worked with us as a mentor and consultant to the folk culture program through the support of the New York Folklore Society’s mentorship program.

Three young men of Hamalali Wayunago perform
Three young men of Hamalali Wayunagu perform the wanaragua at a folk culture presentation at Mind-Builders in August 2005.

At the end of that phase of our work together, she provided a brilliant reflection that unified the work we are doing in the Bronx with the theme of family reunion:
It is amazing that people from all over the African world, whose ancestors were violently and ruthlessly separated from the continent and from each other through slavery and colonialism so many centuries ago, should find themselves side by side in New York City at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Our migrations from Africa, from the Caribbean, from other parts of the United States, have brought us together again in this place with our shared heritage and diverse histories. This is a family reunion, and like all family reunions, we come to share our stories, our food, and what we have learned in our travels and to renew our knowledge of each other and ourselves.
Just as a family tree grows branch by branch over generations, so grow the projects of the folk culture program. Currently interns are expanding their community fieldwork to include the histories and traditions of the Spanish- and French-speaking Caribbean, as well as those of additional nations in Africa, as we continue to investigate the vibrant cultural landscape of the Bronx. Our North American Regional Diversity Project continues to develop, as well, with two branches: 1) investigation into the variations of African American teen culture in the five boroughs of New York City, and 2) identification of family and community ties to folk outside of the city, in other culturally rich pockets of North America. This project will grow over the next year into exploration of communities of affiliation.


Deirdre Lynn Hollman directs the Dr. Beverly Robinson Community Folk Culture Program, managing the program, developing curriculum, and supervising interns. She is deeply committed to cultural heritage education for youth. A graduate of Princeton University in art history, she is currently studying for her master’s degree at Bank Street College of Education. She wishes to thank all of the folk artists who take the time to share their rich stories and traditions with the youth at Mind-Builders. To recommend to the program a folk artist or tradition bearer who lives in the Bronx area, please e-mail mindbuilders@hotmail.com.

Madaha Kinsey Lamb, the founder and executive director of Mind-Builders, wants the young people to embrace the idea that “different is just fine, different is rich.” In addition to lingering perspectives that view lighter skin and straighter hair as “good” and more attractive, the reticence to celebrate the birthplace of themselves or their families when it is other than New York seems a worthy wall to break down.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 33, Spring-Summer 2007. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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