Over the past year, the Standing on Their Shoulders project has attempted to encourage young griots in our communities.

Deriving from West African traditions, the griot, or “jeli” profession involves several responsibilities. Griots serve the role of public historians and storytellers, yet there is no word in a Western vocabulary that could properly speak to their realm of tasks:

“A traditional griot could do everything from recounting history to composing music, to teaching students, to acting as diplomats. They are genealogists, historians, spokespeople, ambassadors, musicians, teachers, warriors, interpreters, praise-singers, masters of ceremonies, advisors, and more. Not every griot does all of these things, but these are all examples of functions the griot profession embodies.”[i]

Though the traditional role of the griot in some uses of the word may be strictly defined, and unique to certain regions, part of the approach of Standing on Their Shoulders is recognizing that certain principles which undergird griot-ship, such as orality, storytelling, community empowerment through self-knowledge, are rather widespread, and have evolved in the diaspora in particular ways. It is these underlying connections that we attempted to draw on for Standing on Their Shoulders.

A classic example of a story that has been passed down through griot traditions (often through song), is Sundiata, an epic of 14th century Mali.[ii] The basic structure of the story is quite similar to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, although Shakespeare’s play was conceived nearly three centuries after Sundiata. Interestingly, Hamlet is often identified as the basis for Disney’s Lion King, while “Sundiata” literally translates to “the lion king”.[iii]

Our effort to engage our communities’ griots is also inspired by the principle of “Sankofa”: the shortened version of an Akan principle symbolized by the goose reaching backwards.[iv] The rough translation of the proverb is “it is not taboo to go back and fetch that which you have left behind”. More simply: “go back and fetch it!”. This is the methodological principle used in the archival work of Dr. Dorothy Williams (see her thesis on black periodicals).[v] Though the Sankofa principle is mostly associated with back to Africa movements, the “Standing on their Shoulders” project applies the Sankofa principle to our work in a localized sense.

Article by Kai Thomas

Image by Kathleen Atkins Wilson


[i]  https://www.bucknell.edu/Documents/GriotInstitute/What%20is%20a%20Griot.pdf

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AM8hx0ooQMY

[iii] http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED386732

[iv] http://www.adinkra.org/htmls/adinkra/sank.htm

[v] http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/thesescanada/vol2/002/NR25286.PDF

Standing on Their Shoulders has been passing on the Black history of Little Burgundy through workshops, walking tours, discussion groups, and through the creation of 20 short films by Black youth. These youth used their talents and their commitment to Black heritage to create 20 outstanding creative works, which we are proud to share with everyone at a very special exhibit this March.

The BCRC team are pleased to announce the Standing on Their Shoulders video series will be exhibited at CEREV. CEREV (Centre for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence), operating out of Concordia University, is a trusted partner of the BCRC. It is a centre for curation and expression, where people can use multimedia tools and knowledge to address and articulate social suffering.

We are thankful to CEREV for featuring the videos in their wonderful space from March 7th to March 16th. The daytime exhibit is free and everyone is welcome.

Standing on Their Shoulders at CEREV
March 7 – March 16
Weekdays 10:30A.M. to 4:30 P.M.
Concordia University Downtown Campus
J.W. McConnell Building
1455 Maisonneuve O., Room LB-671 (6th Floor)