I lived in the Caribbean (St Thomas) for two years, with Arnold Arnold. But our fortunes changed, and we had to go back to New York. I was pregnant with my first child – a daughter whom I named Marguerite.
When she was about six months old, I woke up in our seven-room apartment on the West Side and felt the presence of someone else in our apartment. I went from room to room and found no one. But just before I turned on the light in the studio, I realized that the “someone” was Ananse the Spider Man.
While in the Caribbean, I had heard the native women along the waterfront talking about “Ananse”. When they said the name they would look around them furtively, as if he might hear their secrets.
I collected all the Ananse stories I could find, thinking I would at some point do a book about these folktales.
When a character follows you home, it’s usually a sign that you need to do something about him or her.
The next day, I bundled Marguerite into a backpack, and we went to The Metropolitan Museum.
As it turned out, we ended up in the Egyptian exhibits, where a black teacher was telling her students, “These were your ancestors”. It made me angry. “ The Egyptians were everyone’s ancestors “, I wanted to say. “Tell them about Benin, The Queen of Sheba, the great kings and Queens of Africa”
That was the day I decided to fulfill a promise to myself – a promise I had made long before.
I grew up in Charlotte In the fifties. I would go by bus to take music and dance lessons, I saw segregation. And I knew it was shameful. Black people sat in the backs of buses. Most of them did not look you in the eye – but walked with heads bent toward the sidewalk. They were poor and badly dressed.Old men walked with the “syphilis shuffle”, They had separate water fountains and separate bathrooms. They couldn’t order a tulip sundae at the soda fountain at Woolworths.
And worst of all, the children were not allowed to go into the Public Library.
The Library was my Mecca.
And I made up my mind then, standing at a bus stop on “The Square” on a hot summer day.
I would do something to change the way black people looked at themselves.
I escaped Charlotte, I escaped the South and vowed never to come back to live here.
I knew that my career needed to go in a different direction than it had. I knew that I had to do hard covered books which could get reviewed. I decided to do A Story A Story.
In the Caribbean stories about Ananse, I found that many of the stories had kings and queens, tigers and elephants. And so they had not originated in the Caribbean.
I followed the stories back to the west Coast of Africa- Ghana and Nigeria. Those were the countries where The Spider Man was the trickster.
The best story of all was how Ananse had climbed up to heaven to buy the sky God’s stories. I was much informed by the research of R.S. Rattray who published the stories of Ghana and gave direct translations of them. There were also drawings of how the people of Ghana saw Ananse – most often as a man.
I took African Dance lessons. I found African music recorded on wax cylinders by Laura Bolton. Eventually, I had a woman from Sierra Leone come to live with me. She taught me African dances, and how to make African food that was almost too hot to eat.
While I toiled over the woodblocks for A Story A Story, my daughter and I immersed ourselves into the feeling of African Life. And we showed Nancy Elliot (our woman from the Bush) our New York. She saw her first elephant in Central Park zoo.
I finished A Story A Story only two weeks before my son Geoffrey, was born. Leaning into a printing press when you are nine months pregnant is very hard.
Today my son is 47 years old, A Story A Story is still on the market and still being translated into other languages .
My book was one of the first with naturalistic black African faces and the first with a big flamboyant Black God. I was attacked by the John Birch Society and many Southern religious groups for saying that God could be black.
But I know that my book helped change a lot of young lives. I have had many people come back to me over the years and say how much the book meant to them.
If you look the book up on Google, you can see the animation of it. The animation was created by Praha Studios in Prague. The voice-over was recorded by John Akar, ambassador to the United States from Sierra Leone.