Master Narratives: Calling a Storyteller by Her Name

by Gen Rollins


On Sunday, June 18th, a grounds with an assorted history awoke to new life humming through its cemetery grasses. Storyteller, Denise Valentine, and members of FICA Capoeira created a timeline of knowledge, passing through a personal history and into shared Philadelphia lineage. The event was called, “Neighborhood Histories, The Master Narrative,” where Denise and Kamau led their audience in movement through time and place. Music and story sharing at the Fair Hill Burial Grounds revealed the land as a cite of many small details, embedded with historical intricacies. Being the home of many deceased abolitionists, the soil endlessly stirs with contradiction. As Valentine brought to light, anywhere there is abolition, there is slavery, and so she accounts for those hidden lives not mentioned on the grave stones.

After expressing a history of plantation travel between the Islands and the States, Valentine paints a picture of a precious item held onto by the Norris family for generations. The Norris family stems from Thomas Norris, a plantation owner in Jamaica, and predecessor of Isaac Norris, one of the colonizing founders of Philadelphia. The significance of a silver dish passed through his lineage has held such high importance in Philadelphia history, that it remains preserved inside the glass case of the Philadelphia History Museum. This dish traveled with the Norris family from their Jamaica plantation to their Fairhill estate grounds in Philadelphia. Hidden in the seams of this story, is a little girl. This little girl has a history of her own, having survived her enslaved African father who was killed in an earthquake in Port Royal, Jamaica. Her father died in efforts to save Isaac Norris from that very earthquake, but she survived and was brought to the U.S. as a slave of the Norris family. She grew to be a woman and mother on Philadelphia soil. As a small child, this unnamed soul floated down a Jamaican river in a basket, surviving an earthquake and arriving to safety with a beautiful silver dish by her side.

Eventually, she was named free by the later generation of Norris's, but the name she walked with every day was never put into the history books. Valentine has made it her mission to continue searching, delving into the work of the ancestors, and seeking to name this person lost in the waves of oceanic turbulence.

As Valentine spins webs, connections begin to resonate in the berimbau-graced air. She tells of journeys with family members through the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, in Delaware, and how connection to place changes understanding of history.

Drawing on traditions washed over by slavery, Valentine reminds us of the value in oral tradition. The listening permitted in this space alters the landscape of how we understand Fair Hill, and the need for abolition is remembered. Denise ended her beautiful story-sharing with a note of “unforgetting and reconnecting,” the magic that comes from digging towards one's roots.

The music presented by Kamau Blakney and FICA Capoeira was in ode to Lucrétia Mott and Robert Purvis, two revered abolitionists who moved ground in Philadelphia. Playing on the berimbau, Blakney strummed in scales of an Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian synergy. Capoeira is linked to specific dance movements, that guide through self defense and speak the language of Brazillian culture. Singing in Portuguese, Blakney gave honor to the ancestors who make a place like Fair Hill so important to the context of our modern-day experience, while maintaining the preservation of another story linked to our growing freedom.

Check out Denise Valentine, storyteller and fellow member of Philadelphia Assembled.

Find FICA Capoeira here for a moving experience.

Video credit to Ethan Feinstein