It was clear from an early age that Roy Harris had a gift for performance. “I remember after Sunday dinners, my grandmother Eleanor [Barrow] would take me out on the front porch and would teach me a song and a little speech to go along with it,” he says. It was during those sessions that Harris’ innate talent for sharing a tale was recognized.
Harris has been telling stories in some form ever since. On Thursday, Dec. 13, he will appear with Kathy Gordon for the WORD! spoken-word series at Pack Memorial Library. Produced by acclaimed, Asheville-based storyteller David Joe Miller, this month’s performance will center on holiday-themed tales.
The WORD! event on Dec. 13 offers a testament to storytelling’s intrinsic universality. Harris and Gordon go way back — they’ve been acquainted for 30 years. More recently, they’ve come to know each other as fellow storytellers in Asheville. While the two have experienced very different backgrounds, they still seem to share a common thread. “My stories are more Afrocentric, while Kathy’s stories focus on her hometown environment in Franklin,” Harris says. “But we both tell stories about our families and friends in the small towns where we grew up.”
Today, Harris belongs to three storytelling organizations: the Asheville Storytelling Circle (of which he is a former president), the North Carolina Association of Black Storytellers, and, more recently, the National Association of Black Storytellers. Harris says he told stories at the national level with NCABS at the National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem.
But he traces his history with storytelling all the way back to grandmother Barrow’s front porch. “She had one of those porches that was big enough to hold a lot of people but not so big that you couldn’t hear someone talking at one end of the porch to the other end,” he says. “There was always a big gathering over there.”
Barrow was one of the only people in her predominantly African-American community who received the local newspaper, and her porch served as a sort of community gathering place. “She was always up on the latest, and so the neighborhood would gather there and talk and tell stories,” Harris says.
It was Barrow who gave Harris his first taste of performing. She hand-picked Harris — the only one out of her 30 grandchildren — to represent the family at church and recite the routine she taught him at the Hyde County Missionary Baptist Convention. “She had found that one grandchild that she knew would go out and would be speaking to the world,” he says. “I don’t know how grandmothers figure this out, but they do.”
Because of this knack for telling stories, Harris would often be asked to speak at family reunions. Since much of his family has left Sladesville, these large family gatherings take place in different locations up and down the East Coast. “A lot of us that grew up in that small town have scattered all over the world,” Harris says. “And so they’d ask me to tell a story and say, ‘We want to hear something from back home — tell us a story from our hometown.’”
For Harris, this is why storytelling is so important. “It connects us back to a time and place. It reminds us of who we are,” he says.
Indeed, the art form is a multifaceted one. “No. 1, it’s entertaining and it can move you from laughter to tears,” Harris says. But, more importantly, it’s a way of passing on legacies: “When we go to research our family history, one of the first places we start is some story we’ve heard about an ancestor. Whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t matter, we want to find out about that story.”
Stories help frame identities, tie listeners and tellers to a particular place and help people understand who they are in the world. Storytelling is both inherently personal and undeniably universal. It’s this universality that inspires Harris. Often, he’ll preface his performances by telling the audience, “My story is your story, your story is their story, and their story is our story.”
The best storytellers, Harris says, “make you feel like they’re telling your story.”
WHAT: WORD! with Roy Harris and Kathy Gordon
WHERE: Lord Auditorium, Pack Memorial Library, 67 Haywood St.
WHEN: Thursday, Dec. 13. Doors at 6:30 p.m., show at 7 p.m. Free