STUDENTS | February 27, 2019
Jones College Prep sophomore and professional storyteller, Owen Charles, says his love for the art form began at nine-years-old.
Most recently, his story “Bus Ticket to the North” was nominated by ASE: The Chicago Association of Black Storytellers, a group that promotes the art-form of African-rooted storytelling across the city. He won the Baba Jamal Koram Harambee Youth Award in November.
Watch a shortened version of his video here. Edited for length.
Charles says as early as third grade, his mother invested in his love for books and stories by regularly taking him to the King Branch Library. It was on one of his many visits that he stumbled upon the storytelling group. Members of the group were gathered at the library to celebrate Kwanzaa with stories and festivities. Charles says after seeing a group of teenagers stand in front of the crowd and tell stories, he knew he had to join the group.
“There were a lot of teenage storytellers in front of the room telling stories about my culture, and I thought it was really cool,” he says. “I knew that I wanted to be a part of that group and continue the legacy of telling stories of our history.”
By 10, Charles was already telling his first story. He found a “cool, silly” story about bees, memorized it, and read it in front of his group. He says he was extremely nervous, but the moment was exhilarating. To keep getting better, he knew what he’d have to do–practice.
“I went to as many storytelling events as I could after [my first performance],” says Charles. “I tried to stay consistent with my practicing. I’d practice for as little as thirty minutes or as long as two hours a day. I’d reread a story a bunch of times and memorize it word for word. Consistent practice encouraged me to keep doing it.”
He says the mentors he gained as a member of ASE also kept his love for storytelling alive and well.
“Mama Kucha Brownlee and Baba Tony Brown were really big influences when I first started out, and they still are today,” says Charles. “They continue to push me to be a better storyteller and to be more confident in what I say.”
After a few years of memorizing his favorite stories to tell, Charles says he decided he wanted to write his own story about his history and his culture. He says the process was fun, but took a lot of work.
“I had to talk to a lot of family members and go through photo albums to figure out how my family ended up in Chicago,” says Charles. “That’s how I discovered the story about my grandfather. Then I wrote ‘Bus Ticket to the North.'”
In ‘Bus Ticket to the North,’ Charles tells the story of his grandfather’s migration from Americus, Georgia to Madison, Wisconsin at the age of fourteen. He says he never intended to share his story competitively, but after performing it, Mama Kucha, Baba Tony and the organization nominated the story.
When he won, he says he was shocked, but most of all, happy.
“I really admire Mama Kucha and Baba Tony,” says Charles. “They are really humble people. I hope I can be like them one day.”
Charles says although no upcoming competitions have caught his attention, he still plans to enter more in the future. He also plans to continue the form of storytelling.
“Reading and writing have always been an anchor back to reality for me,” says Charles. “It brings me back when I go adrift. Storytelling is an opportunity to share who I am, where I came from, and who I’ve come to be. I’ll continue to use storytelling as a device to share my thoughts.”