Breaking Down Barriers with Charmaine Crowell-White

Midlo Commemorates Black History Month With Living History and Storytelling Performance

Photo by: BJ Beckwith
Charmaine Crowell-White illustrates an African origin myth before an audience of Midlothian students.

On February 22, 2018, Midlothian students entered the auditorium during Midlo Morning to experience a cultural storytelling performance by Ms. Charmaine Crowell-White, in celebration of Black History Month. Students of all ages and backgrounds gathered for a powerfully authentic storytelling performance.  Members of the Midlothian High School Breaking Down Barriers organization, Nia Lloyd and Max Turkaly introduced Crowell-White to the audience, sharing that she graduated from San Jose State University in San Jose, California. She formerly performed under the African American Drama Company of San Francisco and has performed and directed for many other theaters across the nation.

Crowell-White has performed significant roles in productions such as: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf, God’s Trombones, A Raisin In The Sun, Home, Death and the Maiden, and North Star. Charmaine Crowell-White holds such passion for storytelling that she describes it as the “bomb diggity”. She depicts herself as a modern day griot, traditionally, an African tribe’s historian, second only to the chief in the hierarchy, telling stories in a way that entertains, celebrates, and teaches history. Her talents even extend beyond her career as a renowned performer and historical interpreter. Crowell-White, formerly a performing arts teacher at Meadowbrook High School, was named Middle School Teacher of Year when she worked at Tomahawk Creek Middle School.

To start her performance, Crowell-White began to tell a story, originating from Ghana, which illustrated an adult man in conquest of coveting all the “wisdom and knowledge” from the village and storing it high up in the tallest tree in the forest. The man took a basket to store all of his collected knowledge and his collected wisdom and attempted to climb the tree. He strapped the basket to his belly and around his neck, thinking that it would be easy to climb the tallest tree with this position. However, he struggled to grip the tree with the basket of wisdom and knowledge on his belly and became frustrated that he could not climb the tree with the basket. Little did he know, his son had awoken, followed, and watched his father make a pathetic attempt to climb the tree. The son could not stifle his laughter, resulting in his father discovering the hiding son. His son suggested, “Why don’t you put the basket on your back, so you have your hands free?”. The older man’s blood began to boil at the sound of his own son laughing at him. The father grew so angry that he threw the basket down, “spreading wisdom all around the world.”. Crowell-White explained that this is why the people of all the nations around the world are so wise.

The audience broke into a round of applause, but Ms. Crowell-White stopped to explain to the audience that snapping is the norm when a story comes to a close.

Next, she told an origin myth, explaining the reason why trunks of trees are covered in vines. Crowell-White began by describing how two best friends, Cyra and Yinge, grew up together, becoming more and more attached as the years passed. One day, a wealthy man with a plentiful flock of goats asked for Cyra’s hand in marriage. Begrudgingly, Cyra agreed, with an exception that her best friend Yinge could come. The bridegroom hesitantly agreed, as Cyra constantly required him to provide all amenities to Yinge before the husband, such as washed clothes and meals. The husband grew angry and anxious about the situation and went to express his concerns to the village chief. The village chief embraced all of the man’s concerns and told him that he would put Yinge in his spot. All the able men in the village had been put into combat, and Yinge was the first to fall. Yinge transformed into a strong tree, and Cyra, so heart-broken, who decided she could not live without Yinge, transformed into a vine which would wrap around Yinge’s trunk. At the end of the story, students rose to dance and snap to praise the powerful story.

Crowell-White shifted to recount a tale referring back to hard times following slavery.

After the Civil War, African-Americans had terrible tasks. Being freed of slavery, former slaves were left on the streets without food, clothes, shelter, stating that they “didn’t know what to do because master wasn’t giving them nothing no more.”.  Now a free man, Jack, could no longer feed his family of five, so he resorted to travelling up north to search for a job. He stumbled upon a mill, where the owner warned him that “the last two men who worked the mill died of poison on their first nights working.”.  Jack was unphased. He needed to find a way to feed his family. So, Jack began to work the next day. While grinding the different grains, corn, wheat, and barley, a strange man approached Jack after he had already put away his tools for the day, asking for him to grind his peppercorn. Willingly, Jack ground his peppercorn, and the man paid him with a knife. Later that night, Jack settled in in the little cabin, with twelve windows to let in the moonlight, and began to fry some fatback meat.

Suddenly, the room went pitch black, for he discovered that all twelve black cats filled the frame of each window. The largest, most vicious cat jumped down and began to place its “cat paw” right on top of the meat, frying in the pan. Jack could take it no longer; he grabbed the knife out of his back pocket and sliced the cat’s paw off. All of the cats scampered away out of the windows, and Jack turned back to his frying pan and discovered a woman’s hand, with a particular ring on her left hand. The following day, Jack consulted the owner of the mill and showed him the strange thing he discovered in his pan. The old man, surprised that Jack had lived to tell the tale, took the hand and went to his home and asked his wife to show him her left hand. He discovered a stump of a hand and realized his wife was the queen of the witches, with her other eleven friends members of the village. Jack went around the neighborhood and brought all of the witches to the old man’s house. Then Jack and the old man stepped out of the house, looking into the horror that stood inside. The older man told Jack that he would “have to burn the house down” in order to truly destroy the evil inside. That is why one should never cross paths with a black cat, knowing that inside lies destruction.

Ending the assembly, Charmaine Crowell-White told the crowd that for every story heard, one must tell a story himself. Several students joined before the audience to create and share their own story about a murderous couple of bees. However, Crowell-White proclaimed that she “needed the story to have a good ending.” As a result, the student-led story concluded that a special bee saved the town. 

In token of appreciation and on behalf of Midlothian High School, Principal Shawn Abel had gifted Charmaine Crowell-White with a Jefferson Cup, hoping that she will forever remember the experience when she touched the lives of many Midlo students.

As Charmaine Crowell-White would say at the closure of a story: step on a tin, this story ends.