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Mattie Clark, African American storyteller who ‘followed her sacred calling’

Without exception, everyone recalls her laugh and the “sunshine” she shared with all around her.

Storytelling is a practice as old as human history — it is storytelling that has preserved and passed down much of the history of humankind. Still, it is not until more recent times that storytelling has received its deserved respect as performance art. One African American woman who elevated the art of storytelling to its current status is Mattie Clark.

Mattie Clark’s story is one that calls out to be heard during Black History Month. Because Mattie died at the age of 69 in 2010 it remains to others to celebrate her life contributions.

Born in Bourbon, Mississippi, Mattie May Anthony spent her early years living a hardscrabble life in a very large and poor Black family. At age 15 she married 19-year-old Danny Robinson Clark. The young couple moved to Minneapolis in the 60’s.

Always a storyteller in her soul Mattie began a lifelong of with others the stories about African American culture that she had learned from her grandmother. Storytelling filled much of her day as a volunteer teacher’s aide in the Minneapolis schools. In time, sharing those stories became her full time profession. She told stories to children in schools and libraries, to the elderly in nursing homes, to homeless people, corporate executives and academics.   She was frequently sponsored by the Minnesota History Center, the Science Museum and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

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Mattie was also active in the early days of the Twin Cities Black Storytellers Alliance, a collaboration that remains an active member of the National Association of Black Storytellers. NABS, founded by storytellers Mary Carter Smith of Baltimore and Linda Goss of Philadelphia, was incorporated in 1990. The founding of the organization reflects the emerging interest in storytelling as a means of sharing the experience of African Americans, a movement of which Mattie was very much a part.

In 2006 Mattie was honored as an Esteemed Elder by NABS; the prestigious Award honors the memory of Hugh “Brother Blue” Morgan, a Harvard professor and storytelling icon who shared thoughts that echo the work of Mattie Clark: “If you are not here to change the world, if you just want to get rich, you can laugh all the way to the bank — me, I’m better off here in the street with my honor, with my sacred calling.”

Those who speak or write of Mattie Clark recall the tough jobs she took on to supplement her modest income from her beloved storytelling. At other times Mattie told stories in other media. In the 1980’s she wrote a column known as “Diamond in the Rough” for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder where she shared good news from and about her Minneapolis community. Mattie’s voice was also heard on radio station KMOJ where she hosted a gospel music program and interviewed guests who told stories of their neighborhoods and programs.

Without exception, everyone recalls her laugh and the “sunshine” she shared with all around her, including her husband and four children.

The one person who best remembers Mattie Clark is her beloved husband of 53 years. Danny Robinson Clark is a professional actor who has appeared on stages from Broadway to the Guthrie, most recently in the Guthrie production of Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom in the White House. Danny Clark shared his memories of Mattie in a reflection recorded in January 2014; his loving memories of Mattie are captured in one of a series of interviews with Danny videotape by Peter Shea for the Bat of Minerva series.

Danny’s is a poignant tribute to a magnificent African American woman who “followed her sacred calling” to share the stories of Black Americans with all who would take time to listen. Take time to view and listen to Danny’s reflections on the life he shared with Mattie Clark. The interview is one of four in the series; each can be streamed, audio or podcast video. View them all or scroll to Mattie’s story recorded January 28, 2014.

This post was written by Mary Treacy and originally published on Poking Around with Mary.

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