Explorer and Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow Alyea Pierce focuses on stories that are not being told, especially for black people. For her current project, she examines the revitalization of oral storytelling and folktale traditions in Trinidad and Tobago through present-day spoken word and rhythm poetry. While she studies contemporary Afro-Trinidadian literature, she documents the history and experiences of people, and explores the intricacies of Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival. She integrates photography, videography, and spoken word performance to create a manuscript of poetry and fictional short stories focusing on memory and migration.
In honor of Black History Month, we talked to Alyea about her work examining history and tradition in black communities, her thoughts on how storytellers can be more inclusive, and what Black History Month means to her.
What can the storytelling community do to be more inclusive? What resources would you recommend to aspiring black poets, writers, and educators?
To be more inclusive, the storytelling community needs to hold themselves accountable in capturing authentic stories. Storytelling is truth-telling. I believe the language we choose to use when storytelling needs to be intentional, reviewed, and challenged (especially from those in said community). As storytellers, we have a chance to share the journey of the unheard, unseen, and misunderstood, how are we choosing to do that authentically, critically, and respectfully?
For black poets, writers, and educators, I found it helpful to write as I am, when I understood the beauty and complexities of my own history more. I would recommend looking into museums, archives, and festivals like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Schomburg Center, and the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival. I think it is a beautiful thing to simply be surrounded by brilliant artistic and literary-minded people like yourself, who also look like yourself. Also, if you are interested in improving your speaking or poetry skills, the New Jersey Orators Program, NAACP ACT-SO Program, and Urban Word NYC, are a few amazing opportunities as well (mentorship opportunities are also available). There are definitely tons of fellowships and residencies to assist in your writing, so even taking a week or a weekend to improve can be helpful.
Why have you dedicated your work to examining cultural history and traditions? Is there anything you’ve learned about your own background while in the field?
I have dedicated my work to examining cultural history and traditions because the human journey is tradition, especially for black people. I am a Caribbean-American woman living in the States, and there are so many small phrases, movements, customs, foods, music, etc. that are important to my family. Why? I believe “why” is the most overlooked question. “Why” requires us to “deal” with our complex history. I am open to digging up the past, reflecting on the resourcefulness of communities from the African diaspora, and the fight to maintain some semblance of humanity in the face of pure terror.
I have learned plenty about my own background while in the field. I think the most important thing I have learned is the evolution of tradition. I have enjoyed exploring concepts around: How does one keep tradition while exploring contemporary issues and/or connecting with a modern-day audience? In a lot of the work I am researching, I am learning how traditional characters were created in the first place, and how they are keeping themselves alive in the 21st century.
You also coach black students about creativity and leadership. Why is this important to you?
Black students are both: creative and leaders. The “and” is essential in this conversation because black students have been deprived of hearing that the two can exist. Whether a student is a leader in mathematics, science, literature, dance, or a sport, skills like creativity, organization, attention to detail, critique, practice, and teamwork are all used and learned. I desire to educate black students on how to use their creativity to assist in their personal, professional, and leadership development.
In your opinion, what stories aren’t being told? Who would you love to see National Geographic Society feature this Black History Month?
In my opinion, I would love to see more black-identifying explorers showcased throughout Black History Month. I would love to see the breadth of their research, hear why they love to do what they do, their trials and tribulations, and how they honor blackness in their field. Those are the stories I find myself waiting for during this month. I want to see myself in different colors, strokes, and patterns!
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Black History Month is 28 days where black-identifying folx can unapologetically celebrate their past, present, and future without any scrutiny. It is 28 days where black history becomes American history. It is 28 days where black bodies are not forgotten. It is 28 days of nuanced black stories that do not look alike. It is 28 days of joy, pain, beauty, talent, hard work, generational trauma, success stories, stolen stories, redefined stories, and every story. It is 28 days of black folx being seen, and I hope one day, we will not be limited to only 28 days to be a part of history.
Learn more about the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship and our 2019-2020 class.