Teaching Cultural Competence: an Innovative Strategy Grounded in the Universality of Storytelling As Depicted in African and African American Storytelling Traditions

March 14, 2007

By Carter-Black, Jan

Social workers serve a varied population. Therefore, exemplary social work practice requires a depth of knowledge and skills that cut across diverse cultural contexts. Because of the universal characteristics of storytelling, this article proposes the use of storytelling as a viable conduit and instructional strategy for teaching cultural competence in schools of social work. By investigating the content, structure, and process of storytelling among, between, and across cultural groups, social work students will be able to develop and integrate an awareness, sensitivity, understanding, and appreciation for the experiential realities of diverse client groups.

[T]O THOSE OF us who share these storytelling traditions as well as [a] window through which those who have been brought up to look inwards only can peep and learn a little about their neighbours. (Kuzwayo, 1990, Introduction)

Social work is a profession devoted to enhancing the general well being of people who frequently are the most vulnerable, oppressed, and marginalized members of a given society (Council on Social Work Education [CSWE], 2001; Hepworth, Rooney, & Larsen, 2002; National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 1996). Within this broad description lies the reality that the populations served by social work practitioners cuts across a widely diverse and varied range of sociocultural contexts. Differences among targeted groups include, but are not limited to, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, social class, religious affiliation, and those with mental or physical disabilities (CSWE, 2001, as cited in Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman, 2004).

It is clear that if practitioners intend to develop and maintain an exemplary social work practice marked by high standards in the provision of services, they must procure a depth of knowledge, develop a comprehensive bank of practice skills, and acquire expertise replete with a range of viable intervention strategies. This repertoire of foundational knowledge must include a degree of cultural competence as well as a practical familiarity with the unique characteristics of varied client groups, such as those noted above. Two areas emphasized by CSWE reflect the significance of this undoubtedly daunting task. First, CSWE seeks to ensure that social work students obtain functional knowledge and skills for building a culturally competent practice. second, CSWE encourages practitioners to continually expand their knowledge and understanding of diverse cultural groups (CSWE, 2001; Nakanishi & Rittner, 1992).

Schools of social work around the country have implemented a spectrum of curricula that incorporate cultural competency practice strategies intended to help students recognize, respect, and value diversity. It is unfortunate that, all too often, these methods have tended to be overly general in nature, focusing on broadly defined group characteristics observed in contemporary sociopolitical, economic, and cultural contexts. As a result of the inadequacies entrenched in these abbreviated curriculums, much of the rich, historically-based cultural texture is lost. “[A]n eric (broad generic cultural awareness) approach can be too theoretical, generic, global, and abstract to be useful to students [or practitioners] with varying levels of educational and cultural sophistication” (Nakanishi & Rittner, 1992, p. 30). Early educational efforts in schools of social work focused on “cognitive content rather than on intervention strategies or skills [and]… group powerlessness and oppression rather than in terms of coping strengths and vitality” (Chau, 1990, p. 125). On a more condemning note, “these educational efforts have never become an integral part of the educational mission and core curriculum” (Chau, 1990, p. 125). As the major supposition of this article I propose the use of storytelling as a viable strategy for enhancing the effectiveness of cultural competency instruction in schools of social work.

Storytelling: A Universal Expression of Culture

Storytelling is a universal experience shared by every social group. Indeed from Johann Gottfried von Herder’s point of view “the oral literature of a people was both the highest and truest expression of its authentic national culture and the appropriate foundation of its national literature” (as cited in Bauman, 1992, p. 1). Similarly, in Henry Louis Gates’ (1989) introduction to the book Talk That Talk (Goss & Barnes, 1989), he expanded on the universality of storytelling by suggesting virtually every written literature is predicated on oral and performance narrative traditions.

One need not look far to discover the universal nature of storytelling across multiple cultural contexts. Numerous accounts of unique and varied forms of narrative performance exist in the research literature (Dance, 2002; Goss & Barnes, 1989; Miller, Wiley, Fung, & Liang, 1997; Scheub, 1996). However, the structure and process of storying-how stories are told, by whom, to whom, under what circumstances, and for what specific purpose-vary according to socioculturel prescriptions. “We must recognize that the symbolic forms we call folklore have their primary existence in the action of people and their roots in social and cultural life” (Bauman, 1992, p. 2).

By investigating the idiosyncrasies that structure the process of storytelling among, between, and across cultural groups, social work students and practitioners will be able to better understand varying perspectives, worldviews, and paradigms inherent among divergent cultural contexts. Efforts to increase awareness, understanding, acceptance, and tolerance through instructional methods are enhanced when critical dimensions of cultural elements resonate with students. “Intercultural learning … is a process that occurs in complex ways through increasing levels of cultural self-knowledge as an integral part of understanding how responses to culturally different persons are manifested. Stated simply: ‘we’ must learn about our own culture before ‘we’ can learn about Other’ cultures” (Nakanishi & Rittner, 1992, p. 29). Consequently, the universal yet culturally defined, prescribed, and sanctioned phenomenon of storytelling has been chosen as the means by which an intercultural learning experience can be constructed for social work students and practitioners. The primary goal of this instructional strategy is the creation of a more effective, efficient, and meaningful learning process. If students and practitioners are able to develop and integrate newly acquired awareness, sensitivity, understanding, and appreciation for the experiential realities of diverse client groups, they may become more adept at relating to those with whom they might otherwise have assumed they have very little in common- in other words, learning about their own culture will enable them to learn about other cultures.

Storyteller I Have Known

Initially [I] found the movement between my training as an “objective” social scientist and my daily experiences an as African- American woman jarring. But reconciling what we have been trained to see as opposites, a reconciliation signaled by my inserting myself in the text by using “I,”"we,” and “our” instead of the more distancing terms “they” and “one,” was freeing for me. (Hill Collins, 2000, p. ix)

Concurrently referred to as oral tradition, performance narrative, oral literature, and/or folklore, storytelling is a complex, dynamic, integral component of the process by which children are socialized into their cultural world. Succinctly stated, “These everyday speech activities are in fact socializing activities, the basis for the transmission and reproduction of culture” (Schieffelin, 1990, p. 1).

As a child, storytellers from multiple areas of my everyday life surrounded me. Performance narratives were incorporated into the daily activities and interactions that made up the experience of my childhood, particularly in three critical areas: my family system, church community, and school environments.

The Family Circle

In my family, skilled storytelling was regarded as a gift. Any and everyone who had this gift, including parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, told stories to whomever would listen. Sometimes these oral treasures would touch one’s emotional core, producing floods of tears from anxious listeners. On other very special occasions, we were endowed with stories that made it difficult to clear one’s mind, stories that left seemingly indelible images of pain, sadness, and suffering. Typically, stories narrated with an unmistakable seriousness were intended to impart moral lessons to an attentive audience. Other stories were told with flamboyance, flair, and a flourish usually attributed to talented humorists. These favored stories often resulted in sidesplitting laughter and could even be classified as a narrated event (events recounted as a story) worthy of being reperformed in the near future. Family members frequently told these types of stories purely for the sake of entertainment. Regardless of the particular genre, performer, or physical context, stories were an omnipresent, dramatic, and significant influence on my yout\hful development.

My Church Community

I recall with absolute clarity the biblical stories that resounded from the pulpit Sunday mornings and most Sabbath evenings. The pastor of our church recounted highly stylized versions of the story of Job, David and Goliath, and Paul’s life-altering journey to Damascus. Shouts of “Amen” issued forth from churchwomen. Similarly, “Pastor” was skilled enough to consistently elicit the familiar singsong response of “Well” primarily spoken by the all-male deacons and trustees as they sat in regal repose in the prestigious and coveted pews reserved for church dignitaries at the front of the sanctuary.

The stories that issued forth from these “men of God” were believed to be divinely inspired “manna from heaven.” Therefore, strict adherence to these lessons on how to live a Christ-like existence would sanctify one’s life on earth, affording his or her salvation and ultimately securing him or her a place in heaven for eternity.

Monday Through Friday and All-Day Sunday

Sunday school teachers had an uncanny flair for telling stories as well. Their abilities afforded priceless lessons for African American children who would need to draw strength from within to both survive and flourish in a society that devalued them because of their race. Frequently, these stories were presented as lessons that taught children that their birthright as a “child of the King” (Hudley, Haight, & Miller, 2003, p. 54) was irrefutable regardless of what they might have to endure in everyday life. In this way, African American children were imbued with the belief that struggle on earth is to be expected but to not give up because “trouble don’t last always.”

In contrast to White teachers, my African American public school teachers relied on storytelling in much the same way as those responsible for my spiritual education and guidance. They told stories that encouraged students to strive for academic success as a means of “racial uplift” (hooks, 2003, p. 80). Often, the teachers related their personal stories of achievement to serve as an example for the students to follow. These were inspirational legacies that endowed me with the belief that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to.

The Significance of Physical Space

The place where stories were told held as much significance in the importance, purpose, and meaning of the story as the relationship among the narrator, narrated event, and audience-the who, told what, to whom, and why they told it. The back porch was a common physical space associated with informal storytelling. On warm summer evenings, neighbors would emerge from the narrow gangway that separated our house from that of our next door neighbor’s. They announced their presence in our backyard with a friendly and familiar, “Yoohoo; it’s just me. How you doin’ this evenin’ Miss Brooks?” Kitchen chairs covered in shiny red, yellow, green, or blue vinyl were dragged out onto the porch by whichever child was available to “take that chair out to Miss Johnson.” The storytellers reminisced about “the way things used to be down home when we was growin’ up;” reminiscences that served as “elaborate arrays of conceptual and expressive instruments-ideas, beliefs, stories, songs- with which community members produce and display coherent understandings of it [the physical environment]” (Basso, 1996, p. 54).

These place-related narrative events function as ways in which “culturally diverse peoples are alive to the world around them, of how they comprehend it, of the different modes of awareness with which they take it in and discover that it matters” (Basso, 1996, p. 54). Often, these “back porch tales” were accompanied by the clinking sound of ice melting as it was swirled about in tall sweating glasses. More often than not, just plain, old jelly jars full of water, sweet tea, grape or, perhaps, orange soda sufficed. The manner in which large tawny to ebony hands gracefully, skillfully, and methodically manipulated their glasses with a sure, smooth rhythm accentuated certain elements of the story being told.

The Who, Told What, to Whom, and Why

Despite “adult-child interactions [that] are hierarchically organized, and children are not expected to interact with adults as peers, initiating interactions and participating as equals in conversation” (Haight, 2002, p. 106), during these storytelling visits, children were frequently allowed to listen to and even participate in “grown folks’ talk.” We sat fascinated and entranced by their stories of “choppin’ cotton down on old Mr. Dudlow’s farm” or their arduous trek to school during the cold winter months on the Mississippi Delta, holding hot baked potatoes in their hands. “That way we could keep our hands warm and have a little somethin’ to eat for our noontime dinner meal. see when you ain’t got much to start with, you got to be smart. You got to figure out ways to get by on that little bit of somethin’, else you won’t make it in this world.”

These narrative events remain deeply embedded in my psyche. They inform me about what is required to live adequately and properly, with efficiency and efficacy. They remind me that I must always be prepared to meet life head on even “when you ain’t got much to start with.”

The Disparity Between Social Science Research and My Experiences

The African American oral tradition was tremendously significant and influential during my childhood. Consequently, I have always cherished storytelling across the various genres associated with narrative in the African American community. However, as my childhood faded into life as a young adult woman, I had fewer opportunities to hear these stories being recounted, particularly those stories as told by the elders who constituted our family’s master storytellers. My professional life in the field of social work with a specialization in child welfare became the impetus for my subsequent interest in the development, socialization, and acquisition of African American children within their families, as well as the larger systems in which these families operate.

Socialization is defined as a process whereby multiple agents teach later generations what they will need to know to appropriately participate in the various social activities of a given society (Strong, DeVault, & Sayad, 1998), the preponderance of which occurs within the family (Hepworth & Larsen, 1986; Hill & Sprague, 1999). Anderson and Sabatelli (1999) concluded that the culture-specific attitudes and behaviors advocated by minority groups often reflect “standardized formulas developed to promote children’s competencies and socially adaptive behaviors within a given societal context” (p. 221).

Black parents face a dual challenge as they socialize their children into society. Although they must prepare their children to function as successful adults like any other parents, they must also prepare their children to face a world that may be aligned against them. Therefore, the process of racial socialization is necessary if Black children are going to be prepared to cope with the realities of racism in America (Billingsley, 1992). Sanders (1997) offered the following definition of positive racial socialization. “[T]hat which is positive towards one’s racial group of membership, and that promotes a healthy racial identity as well as an awareness of and constructive responses to racism without promoting hatred or discrimination toward members of other racial or ethnic groups” (p. 91).

Historically, research on the African American family has been based on a deficit model. In 1898, W. E. B. Du Bois argued that an accurate, factual, and just understanding of African Americans is not possible without considering the influence of significant historical, economic, political, and sociocultural forces (Du Bois, 1898). However, a review of the research literature has revealed that, in the past, social scientists repeatedly appraised and attempted to understand African American families by analyzing and interpreting them through simplistic comparative methods.

Rudimentary conceptualizations based on comparisons that effectively satisfied the needs, experiences, and preferences of one racial/ethnic minority group against those of the dominant group created notable controversy among researchers. Nonetheless, the appraisal of African American family stability and structure, survival strategies, success, and achievement outcomes that were grounded in comparisons on the basis of narrowly defined, standardized assessment and/or evaluation criteria remained the norm. Consequently, social scientists erroneously concluded that many of the values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors characteristic of minority racial/ethnic groups were at best deviant and most often pathological, portraying “the positive as negative, the patterned as chaotic, and the normative as deviant” (Alien, 1995, p. 579).

Whether framed by a biological or sociocultural deterministic perspective, perceived failure to meet limited parochial and ethnocentric standards using White, middle-class family form and function as the gold standard often has resulted in a determination of deficiency. The concept of deficiency in the Black family wholly conflicts with the image of life in an African American family characterized by my childhood.

As a child, many of the impressions I had of my family were gleaned from the plethora of stories I had heard from my earliest years. These stories conveyed African American families and indeed individual family members as heroes. We were told these heroes of our past and present, possessed a deep love for family and community, stamina, an unswerving determination to survive no matter what, and a commitment to God that was both unparalleled and the source of their seemingly unlimited inner strength in the face of overwhelmingly oppressive circumstances. Clearly, a dissonance existed between what was presented to us a\s the reality or truth of Black family life from a culturally-based African American worldview and the empirically-based evidentiary conclusions reached by social scientists investigating African American families.

Enter Ethnography In Social Science Research

I am concerned with seeing the core of Black family life, with exploring their essential character…. In sum, the need is to understand Black families for who and what they are on their own terms. (Alien, 1995, p. 572)

Ethnography, defined as “descriptions of people who were ethnoi or Other’” (Miller, Hengst, & Wang, 2003, p. 219), emanated out of anthropology during the late 19th century. Several key epistemological advantages are frequently considered available to ethnographers. The first advantage concerns the inclusion of the “actor’s point of view,” (Becker, 1996, p. 57) which enhances the credibility of the particular research project. This advantage is recognized despite the potential for those under study to attribute unstable, inconsistent meanings to the phenomenon of interest. The second advantage accessible to ethnographers pertains to the quotidian-the everyday world, the everyday life, the taken-for- granted understandings and meanings-that contributes to the shared culturally-based actions of people. Last, ethnographers perceive their qualitative methods of research to be more conducive to developing what Geertz referred to as thick descriptions, “reproducing the ‘lived experience’ of others” (Geertz, 1974, as cited in Becker, 1996, p. 63).

In Interpretive Ethnography: Ethnographic Practices for the 21st Century, Denzin (1997) presented an organizing thesis using multiple components along with a proposal for what he termed “the sixth moment” (p. xvii) of interpretive ethnographic study described as “messy texts . . . grounded in the study of epiphanal moments in the people’s lives” (p. xvii). One of the elements comprising Denzin’s thesis is the proposition that writers of ethnographic study must relinquish the presumption that their objective account of the experiences of “others” will go unchallenged. Instead, these textual accounts will be presented as an interactive dialogical text, which includes the voices of both the “other” and the author.

Denzin (1997) also suggested that inherent within the parameters of ethnographic inquiry are moral, allegorical, and therapeutic designs that “record the agonies, pains, successes, and tragedies of human experience . . . the stories people tell one another about the things that matter to them” (pp. xiv-xv).

Qualitative researchers find themselves confronted with a unique, three-tiered crisis. The first of these, referred to as the representational crisis of interpretive ethnography, is based on the assumption that qualitative researchers cannot truly “capture lived experience” (Denzin, 1997, p. 3). Historically, ethnographers assumed their investigative methods resulted in substantially procuring their participants’ lived experiences. However, critics of this position suggest there are perforations among reality, lived experience, and the manner in which those experiences are expressed. Consequently, ethnographers are left with performed texts, “structured units of experience, such as stories, or dramas . . . socially constructed units of meaning” (Bruner, 1986, p. 7).

Denzin’s (1997) premise concerning the contributory role and responsibility of social science research to the polity of our society demands that, as social scientists, we must acknowledge our ethical and moral obligations to be as thorough, accurate, and factual as possible in representing the lived experiences of people. Interpretive ethnography offers a methodology capable of capturing the lived experiences of people with a higher level of detailed accuracy.

This edict is required in every case and most certainly in the study of populations who have been traditionally marginalized, oppressed, and otherwise neglected by forces wielding the lion’s share of social power. Those representing racial and ethnic minority groups, women, and disadvantaged social classes are capable of expressing a wealth of sociocultural, political, economic, and historical knowledge that is unequivocally essential if the scientific errors of the past are to be corrected. This mandate is critical if social scientists choose to finally acquiesce to Du Bois’ (1898) long-standing entreaty to the social science community to consider the impact various powerful social structures have on the development and evolution of a people.

Discovering Lived Experience Through Folktales as Ethnography

Hallowell (1947) reprimanded anthropologists for what he considered the mishandling of oral literature in cultural studies. His remonstration included the charge that although numerous oral texts were being collected, they were not being used as instruments for analysis and additionally suggested that the study of oral literature could greatly contribute to the “investigation of human psychology and the adjustment of the individual to his culturally constituted world” (Hallowell, 1947, p. 544). These assertions regarding the underutilized potential of oral literature were supported by literary scholars such as Ruth Finnegan as well as anthropologists such as Melville J. Herskovits. Following in the traditions of these earlier scholars, Schoffeleers and Roscoe (1987) claimed that, “[F]olktales, the ethnography of a people as well as their literature, will, if properly examined, provide a penetrating picture of a society’s whole way of life” (p. 9).

An Epiphanie Event Reawakens Storytelling as a Cultural Dimension

One often hears the ancient Asian proverb, “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” I was recently endowed with what I identify as an epiphanic event-an event that marked my readiness as a student for the appearance of a teacher in the form of, oddly enough, a group of students.

My lesson began with a journey in the spring of 2003 when I was invited to travel to Africa to work with a group of predominately young men and women who served as street workers in Kitwe, Zambia. In an overcrowded city, which lacked even the most basic amenities such as clean drinking water or adequate sanitation, these young people had the arduous task of combing the streets, alleyways, and marketplace each night searching for young childrenfrequently single or double orphans-who had been turned out of their homes for a variety of reasons, some of which are difficult for Western sensibilities to comprehend.

As is typical in countries the world over, children in Zambia are frequent victims of child maltreatment. Those who find themselves trying to survive as “street children” do so under enormously harsh and dangerous conditions. Whatever the dynamics that contribute to children being expelled from their home environments, their numbers are growing and the situation is becoming impossible to ignore. In fact, the practice is so pervasive that the banishment of children has become one of the most indelible themes present in the cante- fable tradition of the Tonga of southern Zambia (Okafor, 1983). It was the observance of impromptu storytelling, an ancient Zambian cultural tradition, that constituted my epiphanic event.

Significant Themes in the Oral Literature of Central Africa

Schoffeleers and Roscoe (1987) reported that among the Bantu- speaking tribes of central Africa, which includes the country of Zambia, various traditional concepts, including “concepts of creation, matriliny and polygamy, religion, disease, and chieftaincy [reflect dimensions] … of man, his society, and his culture” (p. 10). Furthermore, a number of crucial concerns of the Bantu people of central Africa are represented in their oral literature as themes- famine and drought, fire and rain, social organization, organization of family, and, most important, the survival of the group.

Scheub (1996) suggested in his study of storytelling in Black South African societies [Zambia is situated immediately to the north of South Africa], that the central themes in traditional folktales revolve around “tradition and freedom, and the implicit dilemma created by the conflict between the two concepts” (p. xxi). Kuzwayo (1990) additionally suggested that in Black South Africa, stories are retained for longer periods of time than perhaps in societies where suffering has been a less prominent feature. Kuzwayo stated, “For so many years now, we [Black South Africans] have owned our stories while owning so little else” (p. 4).

The Storytolllng Culture of Zambia

Eghty percent of Zambians live in compounds-communities of squatters who live in small structures made of red clay mud. It is this population that bears the brunt of Zambian poverty and destitution. Yet it is also this population, along with those still living in tribal villages in the bush, who are the modern-day keepers of traditional Zambian stories.

Early Christian missionaries disapproved of and consequently prohibited the telling of Zambian folktales. Coupled with the urbanization of many former tribal village members who were no longer interested in carrying on the storytelling tradition, extinction once threatened this ancient oral literature. Fortunately, the Zambian government chose to intervene in an effort to preserve this cultural phenomenon by integrating story narratives in public school curriculums (Okafor, 1983).

My journey to central Africa afforded me the invaluable opportunity to observe spontaneous performances narrated by the staff of young men and women I met at a shelter for street children living in Kitwe, Zambia. The following three accounts are offered as examples of the performances I was privileged to observe firsthand during this brief but enlightening journey.

In the first observed narrative event, a young male street worker recounted with an amazing depth of detail the trauma experienced by one of theboys living in the shelter, the child’s condition when he was found by the street workers, and the staff’s efforts to restore the child to a pretrauma level of social functioning. The young man’s performance pointed to the development and retention of stories that address significant life events and transitions (Kuzwayo, 1990), such as the trauma suffered by a child, as well as the impact the child’s experience had on those attempting to intervene on his behalf.

In the second account, a spontaneously improvised narrative event was performed as a humorous skit purely for the purpose of entertainment by two other workers. Each performer assumed the role of an elected Zambian government official. Addressing the larger group as if they were speaking in a public forum, they created an impromptu audience-performer interactional dynamic characteristic of storytelling in central Africa. This humorous fictional skit provided an exceptional example of the ability of gifted master storytellers to “laugh and exploit the comic mode” (Schoffeleers & Roscoe, 1987, p. 11).

Last, an elder female worker directed a personal account to a young male shelter volunteer concerned about family conflict over the discipline of children. Standing up, walking to the center of the room where she faced the young man, this “grandmother” delivered a most eloquent and stirring oratory on the role of family in raising children. This last performance represented in exemplary fashion the premise that stories reflect the inner most values and concerns of people (Dance, 2002).

Never had I heard elocution flow so effortlessly, spontaneously, and with such depth of spirit, humor, and meaningfulness. None of the individuals engaged in these narrative performances had received formal training in oration. Indeed, neither of the two women performers had any formal instruction beyond a basic elementary education. Nonetheless, like the subjects in Okafor’s (1983) account of the Tonga, training in storytelling among the Zambians is typically an informal process that extends from childhood into adulthood (K. Kapesha, personal communication, March 2003).

Subsequent personal reflections made since my journey to Zambia, Africa, served to reinvigorate the interest and the passion for storytelling imbued in me since childhood. This regenerated enthusiasm for “storytelling” as a universal phenomenon permeating virtually every culture for millennia, has lead to my quest to better understand the aspects of storytelling in diverse cultural contexts in general and to explore the various ways storytelling can facilitate the development of cultural competence for social work students and practitioners. The following discussion is offered to illustrate how storytelling can help people transcend confining external cultural and environmental boundaries so they may recognize the similarities they share with others.

African American Storytelling: We Are Simultaneously the Same and Different

We all looked forward to the evening story-telling session, adults and young people alike. We would meet together, family and neighbours, at a chosen hearth and, relaxing in front of the fire, we would listen to someone telling us a story. (Kuzwayo, 1990, Introduction)

These words from Kuzwayo’s book Sit Down and Listen (1990) reminded me of the evening storytelling gatherings from my own childhood. Kuzwayo and I share this common memory even though the narrative events took place on two separate continents and at different points in time. This reality lends support to my premise that the universal phenomenon of storytelling can transcend diverse cultural contexts, thereby providing a valuable conduit for increasing cultural knowledge and understanding from an equalitarian rather than a power differentiated position-”we” as opposed to “us” and “them.”

In my own experience, we also looked forward to the gathering of family, friends, and neighbors that would eventually turn into storytelling performances. Instead of a fireplace, we gathered on someone’s back porch or around their kitchen table-perhaps in some ways similar to a hearth. Like the Tonga society with its generally egalitarian features, our audiences frequently included men and women, boys and girls, the old and young, and family and friends (Okafor, 1983). Certainly, those invited shared an intimacy with the host of the narrative event. The storytelling sessions of my childhood ranged from spontaneous events that occurred during visits between family and friends to more formal and deliberate sessions planned and structured into a larger event or ritual such as a Sunday morning church sermon.

Additional similarities between African and African American oral traditions include the process used to teach children the art of storytelling and the instructional value of storying. “He is given every conceivable opportunity while growing up to practice and to polish the telling” (Primus, 1989, as cited in Goss & Barnes, 1989, p. 11). Regardless of the context for the narrated performance, children and young people are frequently the audience to whom stories are most often directed, the purpose being the transmission of sociocultural values and norms. Storytelling is a longstanding strategy for socializing the young ones in various societies. “Children sitting in the shadows of the house are learning that greed, laziness, dishonesty, arrogance, and theft are all negative values which their society will not tolerate” (Primus, 1989, as cited in Goss & Barnes, 1989, p. 11).

In the African American cultural tradition, stories intended as lessons for children often take the form of animal tales. Initially, in these Hare and Tortoise (Morpurgo, 2004, pp. 13-17) or BrMb Rabbit (Hamilton Adoff, 2003) stories, the most powerful character seems to be the one most likely to vanquish his or her enemy. However, as these tales unfold, a character, who on first glance appears to be less powerful, succeeds in defeating the expected victor. The outcome of these David-and-Goliath tales teaches children that there are more powerful tools available to them than physical strength, social position, or elevated status. Innate intelligence, wit, and verbal acuity are often portrayed as the most valuable weapons in one’s arsenal, particularly when one must challenge or withstand the brunt of those who have the lion’s share of wealth, power, property, and prestige (Abrahams, 1985).

Scholars of African American folklore have debated the “Europeanist” as opposed to the “Africanist” perspective concerning the origins of the folktales most often associated with Blacks of the Southern regions of the United States. The Europeanist perspective proposed by folklorist scholars, such as Alan Dundes, and frequently grounded in racist bias simply stated “African- Americans were an ‘imitative’ people and must have borrowed their tales from either native Americans or Euro-Americans” (Bascom, 1992, p. x). What these contradictions indicate is the reality that common themes were represented in African, European, and American Indian cultural contexts simultaneously, thereby lending additional support to the universal and transcendental nature of folktales and storytelling.

Tonga narrative themes include topics such as famine, drought, infestations, innate intelligence and wit, and the supernatural realm (Okafor, 1983). African American themes, also revolving around a wide range of topics, include issues over power and control, freedom, the ability to outwit others, numerous tales of the supernatural, and living a good life, thereby, deserving a good death-dying in one’s sleep, without pain or long suffering, passing away quietly and calmly. Dance (2002) further iterated that, on careful analysis, folktales, whether real or fictional, reveal critical information about the inner domains characteristic of a community of people. It is this internal landscape that allows one to discern the thoughts, desires, concerns, and values of people. Henry Louis Gates wrote an introduction entitled “Introduction: Narration and Cultural Memory in the African American Tradition” (pp. 15-19), to Goss and Barnes’ book Talk That Talk (1989) in which he included the following excerpt.

And the stories that survive, the stories that manage to resurface under different guises and with marvelous variations, these are a culture’s canonical tales, the tales that contain the cultural codes that are assumed or internalized by members of that culture, (pp. 17-18)

As mentioned earlier, Kuzwayo (1990) proposed that storytelling has a special meaning, purpose, and place in the cultural lexicon of Black South Africans.

Things happen, people tell stories about them. Then life passes quickly-the events and stories are faintly remembered or totally forgotten. But in the Black communities of South Africa perhaps we remember our stories for a little longer than other people do. (Introduction)

Dance (2002) echoed Kuzwayo in the following excerpt in which he emphasized the importance of traditional stories to enslaved Black Africans who survived Middle Passage and found themselves in an alien and hostile world. Estranged from all remnants of familiarity, Blacks transported to the New World held onto stories and characters from the African folklore traditions. This was one of many survival strategies used by the Africans that allowed them to meet life head on even “when you ain’t got much to start with.”

Stripped of family and friends, every possible belonging, even language, name, and religion, the kidnapped Africans did manage to smuggle a few revered comrades aboard the slave ships that transported them to America: Brer Rabbit and Brer Anancy, whom Guyanese author A. J. Seymour called “the unregistered passenger[s] of the Middle Passage.” (Dance, 2002, p.l)

As expressed by these two authors, hardship as a collective experience among African and African American societies appearsto have contributed to the importance of retaining traditional stories related to those experiences as well as established the thematic patterns characteristic of the group in question.

Physical survival requires a specific set of behaviors, attitudes, values, and beliefs. For individuals and groups to survive psychically, emotionally, and spiritually, another set of strategies is required. Both types of survival demand techniques that involve the ability to rely on internal processes despite the devastation being visited on one’s physical self.

Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors-be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? . . . Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. (Frankl, 1962, p. 65)

Africans forced into slavery, like the heroic victims of the Holocaust as described by Viktor Frankl (1962), found the means by which they could survive physically, spiritually, and mentally “even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress” (Frankl, 1962, p. 65). Separated by time and space, Black Africans and their enslaved descendants shared with those imprisoned in concentration camps the common experience of utter degradation and oppression. Being captured, transported, auctioned off, and the long-term environmental context of slave life required a very special behavioral repertoire and psychological schemata if the goal to survive intact was to be achieved. In his introduction to the book Talk That Talk (Goss & Barnes, 1989)-Introduction: Narration and Cultural Memory in the African American Tradition (pp. 15-19), Gates discussed how storytelling provided Black Africans and their offspring a powerful antigen to total destruction of the mind, body, and spirit.

Telling ourselves our own stories-interpreting the nature of our world to ourselves, asking and answering epistemological and ontological questions in our own voices and on our own terms-has as much as any single factor been responsible for the survival of the African-Americans and their culture, (p. 17)

We Have Come Full Circle

In this article we have indeed come full circle in our exploration of storytelling traditions and their capacity to enhance cultural competency curriculums in schools of social work. This sojourn began with a discussion of the need for social work students and practitioners to acquire foundational knowledge, fortify their practice skills, and develop a familiarity with a wide and varying range of cultural groups. I have suggested that schools of social work develop a cultural competence curriculum component that uses storytelling traditions and folklore as a vehicle for helping students and practitioners gain a more comprehensive understanding of diverse social groups.

Schoffeleers and Roscoe (1985) admonished departments of literature for failing to ask questions regarding “the origins, nature, and basic functions of literature” (p. 12). They contend there is a void in corners of academia such that “the infinitely complex and intractable nature of man, whose contradictions, doubts, and hesitations, which, magnificently, oral literature mirrors” (p. 12) is overlooked. Rather than continue to disregard such culturally rich treasures, social workers could begin to gaze into these mirrors of oral literature and discover the uniqueness as well as the sameness in each other.

This article has followed a circular path, moving from a discussion of the less than productive condition of cultural competency curriculums in schools of social work to the suggestion that storytelling can serve as a wealth of instructional material for students and practitioners. I then turned the discussion to an exposition of the way in which trusted and revered adults in my childhood used stories as strategies to promote development, socialization, and acquisition of children. Family and friends, teachers, and spiritual leaders used performance narratives and traditional folktales as a means to help young people develop the required understanding, awareness, and skills to maneuver in a society that could be a dangerous place. They used stories to entertain, confront unacceptable behavior, integrate cultural norms and prescriptions, foster healthy racial identity development and an appreciation for our rich cultural heritage. In the introduction to the book Talk That Talk (Goss & Barnes, 1989), Gates (1989) stated the following:

The stories that we tell ourselves and our children function to order our world, serving to create both a foundation upon which each of us constructs our sense of reality and a filter through which we process each event that confronts us every day. (p. 17)

As a young adult woman becoming increasingly immersed in a professional practice specializing in child welfare, my connections to both the stories of my youth as well as time spent with storytellers became simultaneously less influential and less frequent respectively. Learning about the dimensions of child maltreatment and the characteristics of abusive family systems and developing knowledge, expertise, and skills in effective intervention methods consumed most of my professional life.

Dismay marked my initial foray into the research literature on African American family life and cultural phenomenon. Researcher bias and myopic methodologies resulted in culturally irrelevant findings and inaccurate interpretations. Despite numerous difficulties, groundbreaking efforts to rectify such bias in social science research have been spearheaded by pioneering scholars who have succeeded in bringing attention to the need to include the “voices” of large segments of previously excluded people. Sociocultural shifts have resulted in the excluded populous demanding access to political and economic structures and institutions, including science as a significant social institution capable of wielding tremendous influence over societal values, assumptions, beliefs, ideologies, and subsequent collective actions. Ethnographic research has become a viable methodology for accessing the perspective, knowing, and reality of the social world as viewed and experienced by culturally diverse groups. Last, interpretive ethnography, including performance narratives, oral traditions, and storytelling, have emerged. The potential for incorporating performance narratives as a vehicle for enhancing intercultural learning experiences and a strategy for teaching cultural competence has become clear.

Teaching Cultural Competence

Cultural competency is a process . . . [in which the] worker achieves cultural competency after developing cultural awareness, mastering knowledge and skills, and implementing an inductive learning methodology. (Lum, 1999, p. 175)

According to Hendricks (2003), social workers frequently find themselves confronted by culturally defined situations they find difficult to understand. If unattended, these situations may result in the worker experiencing “a state of acute consciousness of self” (Hendricks, 2003, p. 76) followed by the adoption of a defensive stance for the purpose of self-preservation. At times such as these, practitioners need to be reminded of their own self-efficacy through recognition and celebration of “their own cultural backgrounds and identities, and taking comfort in the positive and negative experiences associated with multiple cultural identities developed over time. . . . [and] learn to appreciate and use their own cultural backgrounds and identities in understanding others” (Hendricks, 2003, pp. 78-79).

If we accept Schoffeleers and Roscoe’s (1987) premise that folktales, representing the ethnography of a social group, can provide the opportunity to “peep and learn a little about their neighbors” (Kuzwayo, 1990, Introduction), what better way to begin social work students’ long and arduous trek on the road to developing cultural competence than by sharing stories with colleagues whose personal experiences differ from their own. seeley (2004) proposed the use of ethnographic inquiry in clinical practice as a strategy therapists might incorporate to gain insights into the lived experiences of clients bringing diverse backgrounds into the short-term intercultural treatment process. Similarly, I propose, in the vein of ethnographic narratives, sharing family stories and myths, historical accounts, stories intended to impart life lessons, and even humorous stories and tales that serve to enhance one’s awareness and understanding of diverse cultural elements from the indigenous perspective, which is more emic in nature.

Envision a set of experiential exercises where small groups of four to six students are instructed to share a story from their own cultural background (selection of the particular cultural genre is the student’s choice) that addresses an instructor-selected and instructorassigned topic. Instructor-selected topics would ensure consistency of themes being explored and discussed by the student groups. The desired effect is to increase awareness of both the similarities and differences in how communities of people fulfill similar goals, objectives, and socializing activities around a given social phenomenon. The list of possible topics might revolve around everyday events such as breaking bread with family and friends, productive work, adult-child communication patterns, and even matters of death and dying. The sharing of these personal stories, narratives, and folktales provides insights into the values, beliefs, customs, norms, rules, expectations, and behaviors of certain groups and societies, be they family systems, racial/ ethnic groups, regional communities, religious affiliations, social classes, and a myriad ofother sociocultural contexts.

Another experiential exercise might include having students complete a written account of a personally lived experience. These written assignments would also reflect culturally prescribed parameters around a topic selected by the instructor. Students working in dyads would share their accounts with each other, allowing their student partner the opportunity to read the account and reflect on the culturally defined worldviews, values, and belief systems, social constructions, understandings, interpretations, and meanings represented in and conveyed through critical analysis of the shared written accounts.

The most immediately apparent benefit of using exercises such as those described above during the initial stages of developing cultural competence is the absence of threat to students and practitioners who may in fact have experienced Hendricks’ (2003) conceptualizetion of acute consciousness of self and the subsequent defensiveness that tends to retard further professional growth and development in the area of cultural competence. These kinds of exercises are based on storytelling as a universal practice used for a range of developmental and socioculturel processes. Because these exercises rely on a familiar cultural element, they are less threatening. Reduction of threat combined with an elevated sense of common ground and safety help students begin to investigate the complex dimensions of this potentially emotional and highly charged subject, the mastery of which is critical to excellence in social work practice.

The inclusion of strategies for evaluating the effectiveness of experiential exercises based on sharing personal narratives, family stories and myths, and traditional folktales is beyond the scope of this article. However, researchers are beginning to develop instruments to test the effectiveness of other models for teaching cultural competency. One example, presented by Fenster and Rose (2003), used both qualitative analysis and quantitative methods (surveys) to test the effectiveness of a cultural competence curriculum aimed at students of color interning in mainstream agencies.

Interculrural learning experiences are being used in a number of schools of social work. However, the inclusion of a teaching strategy that is based on storytelling presents a unique perspective from which to begin the process of developing cultural awareness, sensitivity, knowledge, and, ultimately, a viable set of cross- cultural practice skills. As a universal mode for the expression and transmission of culture, storytelling could function as a vehicle to enhance learning about oneself as that person simultaneously learns about the other, as suggested by Nakanishi and Rittner (1992).

The following excerpt offered by Gates (1989) serves to quell concerns regarding the efficacy of stories as carriers of collective history, experience, and culture.

The values that we cherish and wish to preserve, the behavior that we wish to censure, the fears and dread that we can barely confess in ordinary language, the aspirations and goals that we most dearly prize-all of these things are encoded in the stories that each culture invents and preserves for the next generation, stories that, in effect, we live by and through, (p. 17)


Storytelling as a component for cultural competency training in schools of social work is both feasible and viable. Mudimbe (1991) stated that fables are fictitious tales that impart a lesson to the listener. Parables also claim to illuminate normative lessons. Therefore, Mudimbe’s presumption was that the interpretation of any cultural group can be reduced to these two foundational lines- fables and parables. Dance (2002) was even more pointed in his conviction that folklore reflects the essence of cultural substance. He proposed to those interested in understanding diverse cultural contexts and realities that they should begin by exploring the traditional folklore. Quoting Ralph Ellison, Dance wrote, “In the folklore we tell what Negro experience really is” (p. xxxiii). This devotee to the study of folklore asserted that it is a direct means by which one is able to gain knowledge and understanding of culture and lived experiences, providing important support to my premise that the study of culturally defined storytelling and folklore as a means to aid in cultural competence instruction for social work students and practitioners is worthy of serious consideration.

According to Dance (2002), folklore is a more comprehensive source for studying sociocultural dimensions of diverse social groups for several reasons. First, he suggested that the study of folklore is a richly textured and informative source for the study of any racial and/or cultural group. second, the inclusion of the human perspective, the individual point of view minus researcher bias, makes cultural folklore an important resource in cultural studies. Third, traditional folktales tend to provide a more truthful, straightforward, and unbiased representation of people than certain disciplines of the academy such as sociology, history, or literature. The tradition of storytelling tends to reflect the collective realities, experiences, and reactions to those experiences in a way that is unique to those who live it. Finally, Dance offered the following statement that further encourages storytelling as a conduit for teaching cultural competency through an investigation of the lived experiences of those who, on first glance, seem so different from ourselves.

At the same time that you appreciate its uniqueness, it is also important to note that remarkably similar items of folklore circulate in other countries and a variety of racial and ethnic groups…. Certainly nothing reinforces the kinship of humanity across oceans and time more than folklore, (p. xliii)


Abrahams, R. D. (Ed.). (1985). African American folktales: Stories from black traditions in the new world. New York: Pantheon Books.

Alien, W. R. (1995). African American family life in societal context: Crisis and hope. Sociological Forum, W, 569-592.

Anderson, S. A., & Sabatelli, R. M. (1999). Family interaction: A multigenerational developmental perspective (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Bascom, B. M. (1992). African folktales in the new world. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Basso, K. H. (1996). Wisdom sits in places: Landscape and language among the western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Bauman, R. (1992). Story, performance, and event: Contextual studies of oral narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Becker, H. S. (1996). The epistemology of qualitative research. In R. Jessor, A. Colby, & R. A. Shweder (Eds.), Ethnography and human development (pp. 53-71). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Billingsley, A. (1992). Climbing Jacob’s ladder: The enduring legacy of African-American families. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Bruner, E. M. (1986). Experience and its expressions. In V. M. Turner & E. M. Bruner (Eds.), The anthropology of experience (pp. 3- 30). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Chau, K. L. (1990). A Model for teaching crosscultural practice in social work. Journal of Social Work Education, 26,124-133.

Council on Social Work Education. (2001). Educational policy and accreditation standards. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Dance, D. C. (Ed.). (2002). From my people: 400 years of African American folklore. New York: Norton.

Denzin, N. K. (1997). Interpretive ethnography: Ethnographic practices for the 21st century. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1898). The study of the negro problem. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 11, 1-23.

Fenster, J., & Rose, L. (2003). Testing a curriculum to teach cultural competence to nonmainstream college students interning in mainstream agencies. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 23,127- 142.

Frankl, V. E. (1962). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Gates, H. L. (1989). Ethnographic methods: Applications from developmental cultural psychology. In L. Goss & M. E. Barnes (Eds.), Talk that talk: An anthology of African-American storytelling (pp. 15-19). New York: Simon & Schuster.

Goss, L., & Barnes, M. E. (Eds.). (1989). Talk that talk: An anthology of African-American storytelling. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Haight, W. L. (2002). African-American children at church: A sociocultural perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hallowell, A. I. (1947). Myth, culture, and personality. American Anthropologist, 49, 544-556.

Hamilton Adoff, V. (2003). Bruh rabbit and the tar baby girl. New York: Blue Sky Press.

Hendricks, C. O. (2003). Learning and teaching cultural competence in the practice of social work. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 23, 73-86.

Hepworth, D. H., & Larsen, J. A. (1986). Direct social work practice: Theory and skills (2nd ed.). Chicago, Illinois: The Dorsey Press.

Hepworth, D. H., Rooney, R. H., & Larsen, J. (2002). Direct social work practice: Theory and skills (6th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Hill Collins, P. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Hill, S. A., & Sprague, J. (1999). Parenting in black and white families: The interaction of gender with race and class. Gender & Society, 13, 480-502.

hooks, b. (2003). Rock my soul: Black people and self-esteem. New York: Washington Square Press.

Hudley, E. V. P., Haight, W., & Miller, P. J. (2003). Raise up a child: Human development in an African-American family. Chicago: Lyceum Books.

Kuzwayo, E. (1990). Sit down and listen. Claremont, South Africa: David Philip Africasouth New Writing.

Lum, D. (1999). Culturally competent practice: A framework for growth and action. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Miller, P. J., Hengst, J. A., & Wang, S.-H. (2003). Ethnographic methods: Applicati\ons from developmental cultural psychology. In P. M. Camic, J. E. Rhodes, & L. Yardley (Eds.), Qualitative research in psychology: Expanding perspectives in methodology and design (pp. 219-242). Washington, IX: American Psychological Association.

Miller, P. J., Wiley, A. R., Fung, H., & Liang, C. H. (1997). Personal storytelling as a medium of socialization in Chinese and American families. Child Development, 68, 557-568.

Morpurgo, M. (2004). The McElderry book of Aesop’s fables. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Mudimbe, V. Y. (1991). Parables and fables: Exegesis, textuality, and politics in central Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Nakanishi, M., & Rittner, B. (1992). The inclusionary cultural model. Journal of Social Work Education, 28,27-35.

National Association of Social Workers. (1996). Code of ethics. Washington, DC: Author.

Okafor, C. A. (1983). The banished child: A study in tonga oral literature. London: Folklore Society, c/o University College London.

Sanders, M. G. (1997). Overcoming obstacles: Academic achievement as a response to racism and discrimination. Journal of Negro Education, 66, 83-93.

Scheub, H. (1996). The tongue is fire: South African storytellers and apartheid. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Schieffelin, B. B. (1990). The give and take of everyday life: Language socialization ofKaluli children. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Schoffeleers, J. M., & Roscoe, A. A. (1987). Land of fire: Oral literature from Malawi. Limbe, Malawi: Popular Publications.

seeley, K. M. (2004). Short-term intercultural psychotherapy: Ethnographic inquiry. Social Work, 49,121-130.

Strong, B., DeVault, C., & Sayad, B. W. (1998). The marriage and family experience: Intimate relationships in a changing society. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Zastrow, C. H., & Kirst-Ashman, K. K. (2004). Understanding human behavior and the social environment (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/ Cole.

Jan Carter-Black

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Accepted: 03/05

Jan Carter-Black is assistant professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

I wish to acknowledge and thank the many wonderful storytellers I have encountered in my life. Their contributions were both informative and inspiring.

Address correspondence to Jan Carter-Black, School of Social Work, 1207 West Oregon Street, University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, Urbana, IL 61801; e-mail: carterbl@uiuc.edu.

Copyright Council on Social Work Education, Inc. Winter 2007

(c) 2007 Journal of Social Work Education. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.

comments powered by Disqus