THE LIGHT OF OUR ANCESTORS
When Spices closed its doors suddenly in 1993, William found himself at a crossroads. Remembering the words of a sister elder, though, urged him on.
“Gwendolyn Brooks once said, ‘I can listen to that boy talk all day,’” he recalled. “It was like the Queen had knighted me.”
A newfound sense of commitment, William threw himself fully into the work of his non-profit arts organization, JustUs. Its mission? To use the art form of spoken word to teach African and African American History to children, teens and adults.
“Our history is that we are an oral people. Telling stories hearkens back to the simplest of times and the place of our genesis,” said William, who is a member of the National Association of Black Storytellers. “There is power in the word and comfort in the human voice. And I really do feel that when we receive this…When we allow our ears to hear and our minds to paint pictures, it’s safe and empowering.”
Busiest during Kwanzaa and Black History Month, William also performs for audiences large and small at many annual festivals nationally and internationally throughout the year.
“Sometimes a story will emerge right then and there. I’ll start with ‘Once upon a time…’ and it just grows,” he said. “A lot of elders say that’s the ancestors talking in your ear. It really feels like a gift.”
These days, aside from performing as The Poetic Storyteller, William is the proudest when he’s performing for his 8-year-old daughter. As her dad.
“When she was a baby, it was so natural holding her in my arms and playing the drum. It would soothe her crying,” said William, who is divorced. “As she got older, I had to create stories. How do you tell Goldie Locs to a little Black girl? She became a girl with golden skin and locs. It’s my job to create stories for her.”
Admittedly, the job of storyteller isn’t one easily quantified on tax returns, but William believes that this is what he was put on earth to do. And he plans to not only continue, but to thrive on the path he started down 21 years ago.
“It wasn’t like I made a plan at age 13: How to be a storyteller. Doors just opened up to me, because I clicked into my gift,” he said. “And that gift is a gift from all that have gone before. I really do believe that we walk in the light of our ancestors. They’ve made a path. We’re just putting our feet in their footsteps.”
And as he steps in the path laid out before him, William – a grass roots artistpreneur at heart – said he will never turn his back on the Chicago community that still needs him the most.
“Sometimes I get a little down. We’ve been doing storytelling and poetry in this community for years, yet we still have 200 kids murdered after school in the last few months…,” he paused.
“Just when I feel like I’m not making a difference, a man or a woman will come up to me and tell me that they were teenagers when they first heard me. Now, they have kids of their own and they’ll put a baby in my arms. Ain’t nothing like holding those babies.”