Sunday, September 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Chillin' Wit' Charlotte Blake Alston, storyteller

 Charlotte Blake Alston in her Lansdowne home with a kora, a traditional West African instrument used in storytelling.
Charlotte Blake Alston in her Lansdowne home with a kora, a traditional West African instrument used in storytelling. PATRICIA MADEJ / DAILY NEWS STAFF

ON FATHER'S DAY, Charlotte Blake Alston is thinking about her dad. He was a Philadelphia mail carrier, but much more than that, she says.

He befriended the folks on his route, striking up conversations with anyone and everyone for 33 years. He worked hard to support his five children, but when he had free time, he'd hide upstairs in a small room where he'd read and write, she says.

"I used to go in there just to be around him," Alston, 65, says in her Lansdowne living room, sipping on her morning cup of tea while a CD of Toumani Diabate and Ballake Sissoko's "New Ancient Strings," traditional African music, hums through her house.

Her late father gave her a book of poems by the African-American poet and playwright Paul Laurence Dunbar and wrote monologues for her to read aloud. She credits those intimate father-daughter moments as her inspiration for her professional career.

She's a storyteller and narrator whose voice can be heard alongside the Philadelphia Orchestra, in the halls of Carnegie Hall, on PBS broadcasts and in high-school auditoriums.

Her rustic, two-story wood-frame home is lined with remnants of her livelihood, a vocation she's been practicing for more than 20 years. African masks, paintings and instruments decorate her wall and floor. Alston says she's proud of her African heritage and tells traditional African stories to "focus on my own identity."

"When we were brought here, we were defined by someone else, whereas Europeans spoke highly of their ancestry," she says.

Aside from keeping in touch with her cultural history, Alston finds it important to keep her genetic ancestry alive.

This summer, she says, she's devoting a lot of time to digging through old photographs and documents - boxes she's only begun to sort through, finding pictures of her family dating to 1915.

"Storytelling isn't a job I do," she says. "It's a large part of who I am."

- Patricia Madej

 


Chillin' Wit' is a regular Monday feature of the Daily News that spotlights a name in the news away from the job.

Also on Philly.com
Stay Connected