2015 STS – March – History of Our Profession Series
A few years back on my way from Canada to an engagement in the US, I had all the appropriate paperwork completed and in order. However, when the immigration officer attempted to look up ‘professional speaking’ in his employment guide, our category did not exist. Many speakers who have attempted to cross the border between US and Canada have also discovered this fact.
Although US immigration might not believe speaking is a profession, the industry of professional speaking has been around for more than a millennium with roots coming from a variety of sources. Even before the Bible was written, information about events, history and people of the time were passed down through verbal stories.
Often these (professional) story tellers, or orators, were revered in their villages for their vast knowledge and ability to teach through the use of analogies and metaphors. (Religious teachers such as the Disciples of Jesus could perhaps be considered the professional speakers of their time.)
Although African history was written in European languages during the colonial era beginning in the late 1800s and has been written in Arabic for centuries, societies in the Sahel and Savanna regions of West Africa have long kept their own history, in their own languages, orally, in the form of epics. This job was carried out by the ‘Griot’, sometimes referred to as a headsman. Can you imagine today relying on someone's memory to hold your people's, or even family’s, history?
In many parts of West Africa, Griots — masters of words and music - have been around forever. But over time, their function adapted as their society evolved and their people’s needs changed.
A Griot memorizes the history of his clan or tribe so that traditions can be remembered and repeated from generation to generation. At one time, Griots were historians, genealogists, advisers to nobility, entertainers, messengers, praise singers — the list goes on. Though a Griot has to know many traditional songs without error, he must also have the ability to extemporize on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene.
A Griot’s wit can be devastating and his knowledge of local history formidable. Although they were popularly known as 'praise singers', Griots may also have used their vocal expertise for gossip, satire, or political comment. (This tradition continues even today in some parts of the US. Perhaps Rick Mercer is a Canadian equivalent?)
In the past, the Griot profession has been inherited; passed on from generation to generation. Griots were very different from the rest of society. In West Africa, they were both feared and respected for their wisdom and talent with words.
While a greater honour has been bestowed upon the written word over the spoken word, we must remember that words only maintain and reflect the integrity of the person who has written or spoken them. The Griots often inspired the people of the village and gave them hope during times of food and water shortages, or when in danger of an upcoming battle.
Griots and members of CAPS have many things in common – we inspire others, honour our words and maintain the integrity of our message. The Griots were often paid in village blankets and some of our members have been paid in cuff links and coffee mugs, but the job is the same – to share a message of hope.
(This article is the first in a three-part series and is adapted by Jeanne Martinson from a series on our profession originally written by Joseph Sherren, CSP, HoF, CSPGlobal)