The New World Griots
Legendary local poetry group paved the way for today’s spoken word scene
Just like the myriad of health issues and challenges that abound in our community, the MCJ has a diverse group of health and education/business professionals it is honoring this year at its 37th annual anniversary brunch, to be held Sunday August 2 at the Italian Conference Center.
Just as diverse as the honorees are the students who are receiving continued support from the Dr. Terence N. Thomas Scholarship Fund (TNTSF) to pursue higher education, including post-graduate work.
The brunch’s proceeds support the scholarship fund, which in turns supports students from our community from start to finish, as well as post graduate work and professional schools.
And there are multiple success stories as a result of the TNTSF.
Dr. Christopher Webb has completed a fellowship in anesthesiology; Atty. Trudy Brooks graduated from UW Madison last year; Rev. Justin R. Lester is now a Theological Master aspiration at Vanderbilt School of Theology; Courtney Jones completed her Masters in Social Work.
This year, four graduates, with one continuing in a Master’s program and one beginning the Medical College of Wisconsin, will receive scholarship dollars.
TNT Scholarship students graduate and most continue in post graduate studies, including Caroline Walker now a third year Pharmaceutical aspirant at UW Madison.
This week we start a series of profiles on this year’s honorees. The first profile is of Milwaukee’s The New World Griots, whose years of service in promoting the arts, literature, culture as a way of ensuring mental and artistic health.
The Griots will be at the brunch to sign copies of their new book, “The Legacy: A Soulful Collection of Poetry and Prose.”
Individuals interested in attending the event can call the MCJ offices, 414-265-5300, for ticket information.
Tickets are $90 each, with the proceeds going to the TNTSF. $32,000 in scholarships will be awarded to the brightest of the bright during the brunch.
In West African culture, both historically and today, a tribe member holds the title of griot— someone who is combination historian-musician-storyteller.
Griots were trusted advisors to the West Africa kings. This tradition can be traced to the 7th century. The first was Sowahata or Swahata, a poet and confidant of the Prophet Mohammed. Every king had a Griot to recite the history of the kingdom, which was passed down from father to son. History was not written down – everything was memorized and recited or sung.
When griots spoke, they were often accompanied by the kora (a harp-like stringed instrument), drumming and/or the handclapping of the villagers. Sometimes a smaller, stringed instrument was also used and is thought to be the precursor of the banjo.
The griot might speak for hours, recanting some of the memorized history, passed from griot to griot for generations. There is a West African saying that “when a griot dies, a library has burned to the ground.”
Milwaukee is fortunate to have its own griots—the New World Griots—who not only continue to perform throughout the community, but have left a remarkable legacy in the hearts of Milwaukeeans, as well as a tangible collection of creative works called, “The Legacy: A Soulful Collection of Poetry and Prose.”
Of significance is that the book is dedicated to Folami Abiade, a member of the New World Griots (Griots) who not only contributed to the book, but also lost her long battle with cancer one week short of seeing the collection published.
The summer prior to the book’s publication, the Griots— who no longer performed as a group—got together to support and fellowship with Folami who had moved to Atlanta some years before and returned for extended visits with her mother and family while she battled cancer.
During that summer, Reggie Finlayson, Faye Jackson and Charles McClain, visited Folami regularly and they worked tirelessly to complete “The Legacy.”
In their heyday—the early 80s and 90s—the Griots performed at many popular venues throughout the city, from the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee to the Performing Arts Center, to Milwaukee Area Technical College and every night and hot spot in between.
The Griots were creative, sensitive intellectuals who sought to capture and share their thoughts, feelings, brokenness and insight with the world. They came together with an uncommon kinship that transcended egos, to meld their time, talent and treasures into captivating, unique and thought-provoking performances.
“In 1980-1981 after Sheila Payton and I had a conversation about the need for a writers’ critique group, the notion of the New World Griots was born,” said Reggie Finlayson. “Venora McKinney who headed up the Martin Luther King Library at the time, provided us with meeting space at the library. We met regularly, critiquing each other’s works and ultimately moved into performances of dramatic readings.
James Cameron (Black Holocaust Museum), Willie Abney, and others started reading and performing all over the city, with the goal of supporting one another and communicating a positive Black message. Originally, there were about 15 of us,” said Finlayson.
The New World Griots continued to be in high demand for their creative, vibrant and historical performances until about the late 90s when many of them went off into different directions and careers, though they all stayed in contact with each other and, to this day, continue to work on projects together.
Reggie said that some members of the group were not writers, but actors, and they welcomed everyone. There was an uncanny spirit of camaraderie among them that is absent in today’s world.
Moreover, because they sometimes met at each other’s homes, one of the residuals of the Griots is that their children got to know each other and they became friends—creating a sort of extended family for themselves and their children.
Born Sharon Lee Bryant, Folami means “honor and respect me,” two things Folami didn’t necessarily demand, but received because she earned it. A graduate of West Division High School, Mrs. Jeanette Bryant, Folami’s mother, said that her daughter had always written poetry and she began submitting it to publications when she was a teenager.
“Everyone in the family is an avid reader and writing was a natural extension of that,” said Mrs. Bryant.
Unsure of her career path, after high school Folami went to school and became a licensed practical nurse.
After moving to Maryland for a while, Folami returned to Milwaukee, completed her bachelor’s degree in communications and continued on to earn her master’s degree. After graduation she worked in the field of human resources for a number of years.
Eventually she moved to Atlanta, where she lived for more than 10 years teaching at a number of colleges including Georgia State University, preparing students for life skills and career placement. At one point, she even taught English at the University of South China for eight months.
According to her mother, Folami was happiest and most proud when she was teaching.
“She always saw herself as an older professor teaching younger students and she absolutely loved it. She extended her teaching beyond the classroom and taught in shelters, coaxing people to journal their experiences and encouraging them to move forward in their lives. She encouraged them to write their goals and destiny down so that when they reached them, they would have documented their journey,” said Mrs. Bryant.
Folami was also an avid photographer and she would capture her experiences in pictures to share with others, allowing others to see the world through her sensitive and creative eyes.
Mrs. Bryant recounted that after a niece visited Folami in Atlanta she voiced her concern about her aunt’s pain, prompting other relatives to check on her and convince her to go to the doctor. She had had her spine reconstructed earlier, but it wasn’t until 2009 when doctors finally diagnosed her condition as multiple myeloma. Multiple myeloma is a hematologic cancer, or cancer of the blood.
In 2012, Folami traveled to Milwaukee where she received a seven-week treatment at Froedtert Hospital.
During this time, she continued to pack as much into her life as she was able—attending a group called First World Writers, going to Toastmaster’s and collaborating with the New World Griots to get their work published.
She self-published two books of poetry and one of her poems, “In Daddy’s Arms” was published by intergenerational poetry. Her poem is also used as the title of that book.
“She enjoyed her life. We tried to handle her with kid gloves, but she insisted on handling what she could handle, as long as she could handle it. She was an encourager—even in her illness, she encouraged us and others,” said Mrs. Bryant.
Just one week shy of the publication of “The Legacy,” Folami succumbed to cancer. A draft copy of her portion of the book arrived 15 hours after she passed away on December 15, 2012.
Folami was a change agent. She was a connector who was outspoken about life and passionate about the written and spoken word.
She made her mark in Milwaukee and in the hearts and lives of those she touched—from speaking life into her sister Leslie’s second grade students via the telephone, to encouraging her daughter, Tanganyika Weathers and grandson, Jelani Weathers, to pick up and carry on the griot legacy as they follow her footsteps with a love for writing poetry.
For the past 20 years Reggie Finlayson, one of the original founders of the New World Griots, has taught at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). Today, he continues to perform, sometimes with the Ko-Thi Dance Company and sometimes solo, but always—ALWAYS—performing with the same energy, enthusiasm, commitment and passion that he did when he first began in the early 1980s.
Reggie sees his role as a griot and that of an educator as naturally intertwined. While he admits that he is not an African American historian, he is intrigued with African American history and intersperses it with the literature and English classes he teaches at MATC, making for an interesting and vibrant class for his students. Reggie has also published several books for young readers, including one on the Civil Rights Movement.
The father of two daughters—30 and 24—Reggie is curious, adventurous and daring in his approach to life. Thanks, in part, to a daughter who works with one of the airlines, he travels often, leaving him with very few items on his bucket list left to do. Whether he is climbing Mt. Fuji with his daughter or kayaking on the Florida coast, Reggie lives life to the fullest.
He credits Tejumola “Teju” Ologboni and Gil Scott-Heron for influencing him and his work.
“I watched Teju over the years and was strongly influenced by him and his storytelling. I loved how both were able to mix poetry, music and storytelling. I definitely have to give props to Teju for helping me refine my performances and delivery,” said Reggie.
Reggie believes that the work of the New World Griots planted the seeds for Milwaukee’s active poetry scene today.
“I think the work of the Griots definitely helped establish that foundation. Different people have acknowledged the work of the Griots.
“We stood on the shoulders of James Baldwin, Zora Neal Hurston and others Black writers of the 40s and 50s. And today, those individuals in Milwaukee who are active in the poetry scene are standing on our shoulders,” he said.
“I am aware of W. E. DuBois’ notion of double consciousness (cognitive dissonance), which, simply put, is while I am black, I am other things as well. We don’t have to buy into the stereotypes about Black people.
“We are scholarly, in tune and precise about our work and it helps to project an image that counters the stereotypes that the only authentic Black person is a thug.
Part of the message of the Griots was about relationships and struggles that people were/are dealing with— discrimination, challenges facing women—psychological, physical abuse, and general relationships and other lifestyle issues. In that regard, our message had an impact on the health of the community as well,” said Reggie.
Reggie said that during the 80s and 90s the arts—the Griots’ performances— helped connect them and those who attended their performances with a broader world and a different way of viewing the world.
Because the Griots were primarily comprised of women, they addressed such topics as inequality, abusive relationships, and respect, providing them with a vehicle to vent injustices and discrimination, while imparting a sense of pride, history and encouragement to audiences.
Reggie said that he hopes he and the Griots are remembered as individuals who contributed to the community in a meaningful way and helped to push the community further along the path of freedom and full citizenship in America and the world.
Charles McClain considers himself a latecomer to the Griots. He joined the Griots in 1984 after Folami interviewed him about his work. Writing poetry since the age of 15, Charles is currently writing his second book of poetry. Charles refers to himself as an author and blue-collar worker, and though he may not have attended college, he has honed his gift in the school of life. He readily admits to being a recovering alcoholic and today fights his demons and quiets his struggles with pen and paper, or other positive outlets such as performing in theater, doing understudy work at the Milwaukee Repertory or conducting writers’ workshops.
Some years ago, Charles said that he and Folami had a conversation about her academic successes and degrees and he confided to her that he felt she had so much more to offer the world because of her education. She shushed him and told him that she learned so much from him because he had so much common sense, which led him to write this:
“The educated man or woman, who lacks common sense, is one of the most frightening human beings you will ever have to deal with.”
While he may not have a PhD from an institution of higher learning, Charles has earned an honorary degree from a lifetime of experiences— good and bad.
Not only has he had quadruple bypass surgery, but he is also a cancer survivor. Now cancer-free for 13 years, he had a lymphoid tumor—the result of having smoked for so many years—a habit he kicked in 1996.
Today, Charles is determined to make his life matter and touch the lives of others to make sure they know that they matter.
Since going through his cancer treatment in 2000 at St. Mary’s Hospital, he regularly visits the hospital and other clinics, sharing his “There’s no reason to write poetry or do any art form unless it’s to make a difference. That’s what I try to do— help people see how precious life is and the beauty of this time God has given us, and how we need to use it wisely.
The things that I went through in life got me to this point—to more clearly see and experience the possibilities and how important it is to enjoy every single moment. There is nothing greater than today,” he said.
Charles knows who he is, understands his gift and respects his roots.
“When I perform, people are often surprised to hear me say that I was a janitorial supervisor (he’s now retired). I can tell by the expressions on their faces. I get a kick out of watching them.
Ultimately, I want them to understand that janitorial work is what I do for a living. Who you are is different from what you do. We all have different gifts that God has given us; and God is using me—regardless of what I do for a living. We tend to try to put people in a box.
My parents were sharecroppers— I’m not ashamed of that. That is what they did and that’s how they made a living. I’m not ashamed of them. I take pride in having parents that gave a damn!
And, Charles, Milwaukee takes pride in your many artistic accomplishments and how you have sowed into the creative fabric of this community.
Faye (Fayemi) Jackson Faye Jackson has been writing since she was about 13 years old and it must be in her genes because she discovered that her mother was a ‘closet writer.’
“I became entrenched with the Griots when, during a trip to the library, I saw a flyer about a writer’s group meeting. So I joined the group of about 35-40 people who would come together to read and critique each other’s work. Eventually, there was interest in forming a group to perform and I kept coming to the meetings and agreeing to go along with them to perform. There were about 15 of us who would go to perform at the Jazz Gallery, the Pabst, the PAC and we went to schools and colleges. It was a wonderful experience. We were very in tune with each other.” said Faye.
When she is not writing Faye designs accessories and clothes for Golden Thread, a custom apparel shop.
“Creativity runs through my veins I guess. My mother and sister both sew,” she said.
Faye said that being involved with the New World Griots helped her understand the importance of culture and religion and how, sometimes they are the same.
“As Griots, I believe our work over the years has reflected on the many feelings and reactions of our people to this environment,” said Faye.
“I learned how important culture and religion are to the human spirit and I always have to have a song (in my spirit)—a shower song, a cleanup song. I pay attention to life because things that happen in the blink of an eye cause me to create something. So much of that spirit was occurring in the 80s and 90s, and even now.
“For example, the racial discrimination and inequality that happens, breaks people’s heart and spirits and causes them to be speechless or feel hopeless. Words, poems, and songs give life and meaning to those things that we can’t always verbalize; they provide an outlet or vehicle for response,” she said.
While Faye still performs solo and sometimes with a group, she acknowledges that the New World Griots definitely had collective chemistry.
“We enjoyed each other so much and appreciated each other’s art. Through our art, we voiced some of the anger, feelings, and emotions of the time. We were able to capture and express that in our art. We were in the moment; each poem that we wrote, told the story of that time,” said Faye.
Faye recalls the summer of July 2012 when the New World Griots got together for what would be the last time with Folami in their midst.
“We were such prolific writers it was easy to put a book together. Charles and Folami had such an overwhelming feeling of death because they were both facing health challenges, so there was a real urgency to get ‘The Legacy’ completed. Even though Folami did not live to see the final product, she knew that the book—her poems and legacy—would be completed.
“We were rehearsing at her mom’s house all the time; that inspired her and kept her mind off the pain. She enjoyed reading the book; it brought her a lot of pleasure,” said Faye.
And thanks to the creative, art, sensitivity and vision of the New World Griots, Milwaukee will be able to find pleasure in reading the profound words of Folami, Reggie, Charles and Faye for generations to come. They look forward to encouraging and inspiring the next generation of Griots. The universe demands it.