Storyteller brings historical figures to life
When Janice Curtis Greene was growing up in north Baltimore, she often imagined herself portraying characters in Black American history.
Fast-forward some 60 years, and Greene’s dreams have come to fruition. Now 72, she’s an award-winning Master Storyteller and author whose work focuses on the African American experience.
Greene’s lively, rhythmic portrayals have delighted adult and student audiences at national and international venues. She mesmerizes her audiences with folk tales as well as historical, motivational and healing stories or Biblical stories — sometimes set to syncopated hip-hop beats.
Greene has practiced the West African tradition of oral history in Baltimore for decades. As a result, she is known as Janice the Griot. For the uninformed, Webster defines griot (pronounced gree’-oh) as “any of a class of musician-entertainers of western Africa whose performances include tribal histories and genealogies.”
Greene is one of 16 members of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture; she was appointed in 2017 by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.
In addition, Greene is president and a life member of the National Association of Black Storytellers (NABS) and past president and life member of the Griots Circle of Maryland, Inc.
As a student, Greene attended St. Francis Academy — an all-Black Catholic school located in inner-city Baltimore and the oldest continually operating African-American Catholic educational facility in the United States.
She transferred to and graduated from Western High, an all-girls school that was predominately white at the time. Western was integrated in 1955, in part thanks to a Greene family friend and notable civil rights attorney, the late Juanita Jackson Mitchell.
Greene said Mitchell, who was married to the late, legendary NAACP lobbyist Clarence Mitchell, Jr., inspired her choices of characters to depict.
Most important portrayals
Among those figures are Harriett Tubman, the founder of the Underground Railroad; Rosa Parks, who became famous during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott; and enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley, the first Black poet to publish a book.
Of all the characters she has portrayed, Greene said she most admires Tubman, particularly for her strength.
“I believe she’s the greatest person to ever walk this earth, white, black or whomever,” Greene said. “Today she’d be considered disabled, due to her blackout spells. Through all of her disabilities she was able to accomplish so much. She freed the slaves.
“Think of people who were born with so much more — Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa. Not to take anything away from them, but Tubman single-handedly changed the world by freeing slaves. Just a small Black woman from Maryland. Amazing!”
For her work, Greene has won numerous awards, including the Harriet Tubman Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by the Baltimore African American Tourism Council, and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority’s 2015 Woman of the Year in Cultural Arts Award.
A longtime Catholic who attends mass every day, Greene has also proudly enacted the life of Mother Mary Lange, the African American Catholic religious sister who founded the first Black religious congregation. Born in 1784, Lange also became the first African-American Mother Superior.
“There are a lot of Black Catholics here [in Maryland],” said Greene, who lives in Windsor Mill with her husband of 46 years, Paris Greene. “My family came from the Eastern Shore, where slave owners and slaves were Catholic and wanted to remain Catholic,” Greene said.
“Therefore, for me, it’s not an anomaly to be Catholic because I grew up around a lot of Black Catholics. Many were immigrants from Haiti and Brazil. And we do hold tight to our culture,” she added.
Passing on the tradition
To ensure that the art of storytelling will be passed down to future generations, Greene has worked for the past 11 years as a mentor with a national program called the Growing Griots Literacy Learning Program (GGLLP).
“We help children learn how to tell stories, also to sharpen their writing skills, listening skills, and how to problem-solve,” she explained.
Youth in the program also participate in the Sankofa Intergenerational Oral History Project, which teaches young people how to take oral histories from their elders.
Named for the mythic bird of Ghana, Sankofa is translated as “Go back and get it.” Children interview people who are age 80 and older to retrieve lost stories.
“They interview them to learn what it was like to be Black in the recent past,” Greene said. “And learn what it took for them to survive the racism and all the racist obstacles they managed to overcome.”
The 25-week Growing Griots Literacy Learning Program is available to students in middle school through high school. Prior to COVID-19, they met weekly on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. During the pandemic, meetings are virtual.
For more information about Greene’s work, visit janicethegriot.com or call (443) 253-1804.