Visiting Prof. Brings Art Of Storytelling To Classroom

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Her forte is the study of African folk tales, but the story of Visiting Assoc. Prof. Harriet Masembe (English) is a tale in and of itself.

Masembe, a world-traveling Ugandan bard, is a playwright trained in Shakespeare and classical Greek drama. She is a devotee of both Jane Austen and aboriginal creation myths who dresses in African tribal attire as a free-lance storyteller when not teaching college classes in theater.

During her appointment at Boston College, which ends in May, Masembe has taught a class which examines the black experience as reflected in the drama of Africans, African-Americans and Australian aborigines, and their use of plays, music and dance to protest political or social oppression.

But her style is defined by storytelling, an art she said is integral to her native culture.

"You grow up listening to stories," said Masembe, an English faculty member at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania. "My mother was a very good storyteller. In Uganda, storytelling is part of the curriculum: Children are called to the head of the class to tell a story.

Visiting Assoc. Prof. Harriet Masembe (English) leading a recent class in black theater. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

"My favorites are the stories that describe how things came to be the way they are," she said, "such as why the zebra has its stripes, or why the sun rises in the morning. I'm trying to revive the storytelling tradition, which has died with television."

Masembe says folklore, as well as theater, provide rich insights into the experience of black peoples across the world. For example, the African-American "John and the Master" narratives reflect the black-white dichotomy during slavery, she said, while the "Bre'r Rabbit" stories of the old American South trace their roots to West Africa. Often, American blacks would "get an African folk tale, mix it with their experience, and superimpose a Bible story on that," she said.

The Australian aborigines are not related racially to Africans, Masembe noted, but as black-skinned indigenous peoples who were colonized in their native land, they provide fruitful comparison with Africans in a study of the use of folklore and drama to voice protest.

Masembe, who has published a collection of folk tales from the African Baganda tribe in her native tongue of Luganda, is writing a book comparing African and African-American folk tales, and another on works by African, African-American and Australian aboriginal playwrights.

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