Creating the 2023 Black Appalachian Storytellers Fellowship Awards 

By Ellie Dassler 

Each year, the National Association of Black Storytellers (NABS) awards the Black Appalachian Storytellers Fellowships (BASF) at their “In The Tradition…” Black Storytelling Festival and Conference. The Fellowships—funded by Mid Atlantic Arts’ Central Appalachia Living Traditions program and South Arts’ In These Mountains initiative—honor and promote practitioners of Black Appalachian storytelling traditions. NABS also presents each Fellow with a physical award by an African American artist. NABS commissioned Dr. Dena Jennings of Nasons, VA, to create the awards for the 2023 Fellows.  

Dr. Dena Jennings headshot. She holds a traditional African stringed instrument.

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Image: Dr. Dena Jennings. Credit: Laura Thompson

Jennings is a retired physician, activist, and artist who can trace her ancestry back seven generations in Appalachian Kentucky. She showed an early aptitude for creating—always disassembling and reassembling things in her parents’ home so she could figure out how they fit together—and has since become an accomplished maker of gourd banjos. “Gourd instruments are found in cultures around the world,” Jennings explains, including in the Appalachian Mountains. In fact, modern banjos are descended from instruments that enslaved Africans built out of gourds, cut in half and covered with stretched animal skins.  

In the early 2010s, Jennings began a four-year apprenticeship with celebrated gourd banjo builder and sculptor Jeff Menzies. Among the wisdom Jennings learned from Menzies was the importance of using local materials:  

“One of the things that was stressed in my apprenticeship was looking at how people around the world use the materials in their region and making use of those materials, rather than importing things that don’t naturally grow where you’re sculpting. It’s important to use the land and the materials that you have.” 

Each BASF award takes the form of a pear-shaped gourd, painted with the NABS logo. The gourd sits on top of a wormy maple pedestal and features a slot to hold a removable cow tail switch with a black bamboo handle. The cow tail switch is a traditional West African symbol of authority, which features in stories from the region. NABS Co-Founder Mother Mary Carter Smith shared the tradition with the organization, which now presents a cow tail switch to each new NABS President at the “Passing of the Cow Tail Switch Ceremony.” A hand holding a switch sits in the center of the NABS logo. 

Finished gourd awards and cow tail switches on a work bench.

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Image: The 2023 Black Appalachian Storytellers Fellowship awards in process in Jennings’ workshop. Credit: Dena Jennings.

Partially painted gourds at a table in front of a window.

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Image: Jennings painted each award with the NABS logo. Credit: Dena Jennings

Jennings wanted to incorporate the tradition of the cow tail switch in her BASF awards. “These people who are being given this award are storytellers,” she said, “and they’re in a teaching position. What better thing for a teacher to have than something that says, ‘I’m the speaker in this room’?” She also wanted the awards to be interactive:  

“The award should look great as it sits on a shelf, because that symbolizes the appreciation of the people giving you the award and the hard work that you did to earn it. But boy, wouldn’t it be neat if you could take a piece of that award with you when you’re out and about telling your stories?” 

Jennings incorporated all of this symbolism and her love of local materials into the awards. The gourds, black bamboo handles, maple pedestals, and even the natural pigments used to decorate them were all grown on Jennings’ property in Virginia. She carefully considered each material. For example, she chose a wormy maple for the bases because its whorled pattern “tells a story” of the insects that lived in the tree before Jennings and her husband milled and processed it.  

A bulbous dried gourd sits on a table. It has been scraped clean and hollowed out with a hole in the middle.

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Image: Carved gourds make up the center of each award. Credit: Dena Jennings

Six cow tail switches.

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Image: Switches made of cow tail hair and black bamboo are a traditional West African symbol of authority often carried by storytellers. Credit: by Dena Jennings.

Slabs of wood dry while a can of linseed oil is visible behind them.

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Image: Jennings prepares the base of each award out of wormy maple, which shows the paths carved by insects that lived in the wood. Credit: Dena Jennings.

Jennings expressed how honored she was to be chosen to create the 2023 BASF awards, and that she loved the process of designing and assembling each one, figuring out how the pieces fit together. “It was a real joy to think through and work through it,” she said. “My scientific mind was just having a field day!”  

A group of people hold gourd awards and cow tail switches while smiling for the camera.

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Image: The 2023 Black Appalachian Storytellers Fellows receive their awards. Credit: Taylor Dooley Burden.

The Black Appalachian Storytellers Fellows shared in that joy when they received the awards at the NABS Festival and Conference in November 2023. “I hope Dena Jennings knows she has sown such bounty in the making of this deeply meaningful award,” said L. Renée, the 2023 Fellow representing Virginia.  

L. Renée shared that she keeps her award on a bookshelf filled with poetry by Black writers:  “The gourd itself has so much spiritual and Black and African diasporic historical significance. It is both a vessel for sustenance and for music, since it can carry water or be used as an instrument. It also pays homage to Black folklore, which told the story of enslaved people following the drinking gourd (aka the Big Dipper) North to escape enslavement. It means our stories are our paths to freedom.”  

Lynette Ford, the 2023 Ohio Fellow, expressed similar feelings: “An award designed like no other, it connects the present efforts of Black Appalachian storytellers to the stories and knowledge of our ancestors. I am grateful and humbled to now have such a treasure of acknowledgement. It keeps me grounded as I continue a legacy of storytelling.”