By Sherrie Norris
Just as the October issue of High Country Magazine hits the stands this week, featuring the Ray Christian family and all they have accomplished, we’ve learned that Christian himself has reached another impressive milestone in a quickly growing and much-deserved lineup of awards and recognitions.
The Atlanta based South Arts — a nonprofit regional arts organization empowering artists, organizations, and communities — has awarded Christian the prestigious 2022 National Association of Black Storytellers Fellowship.
South Arts supports artists and organizations through a rich and responsive portfolio of grants, fellowships and programs and works in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the State Arts Agencies of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee . The organization receives additional funding from other public and private donors, such as the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Ford Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
It’s quite an honor for Christian, a retired, decorated army paratrooper and combat veteran who moved with his family to Boone in 2004, to add another award to his portfolio; with a Doctorate of Education, Christian is also a Fulbright Specialist Expert in Education and Storytelling Narrative, and former adjunct professor teaching African American History and Storytelling at Appalachian State University. He was selected as the 2017 Serenbe France Focus Storytelling Fellow (Atlanta) and has performed on the National Storytelling festivals New Voices stage, and numerous storytelling festivals around the US and Canada. His stories have appeared in Reader’s Digest’s2016 “Best Stories in America,” the 2017 American Hero’s edition, and The New York Times bestselling book, “How to Tell a Story,” written by the Moth’s Directorial team.
As a competitive storyteller, Ray is a 12-time Moth Story Slam Champion, and winner of the 2016 National Storytelling Festival Story Slam. His stories have been featured multiple times on the “Moth Radio Hour”, “Snap Judgment”, “Back Story Radio” and the “Spooked”, “Story Collider”, “AdultISH”, “The Confessional,” and “Risk” podcasts, among many others.
Ray hosts the monthly Moth Story Slam in Asheville and is preparing to resume his podcast “What’s Ray Saying,” a show that uses history and story to explore the Black American experience from a unique perspective.
And this past weekend, he was also a featured performer at the 2022 International Storytelling Festival In Jonesborough, Tenn., receiving standing ovations and thunderous applause as his stories touched deeply the hearts of his audience.
Ray Christian on his roots in Black Appalachian storytelling
According to South Arts, Christian credits Studs Terkel who “drew him in” by the way he was able to recreate the smells and textures of poverty with his words. “And because I knew some of that world, his authenticity was something to be admired.”
“I also came to admire Frederick Douglass’ way of retelling a painful and dark past in a way that was moving and somehow motivating,” Christian continued. “And finally, my ultimate inspiration was found in the work of Alex Haley. His work taught me that one only needs to look into the complexities of his own life to find countless stories to share, those meant to preserve the past, those attempting to influence the present, and those aimed at sharing the future.”
As he began to refine his skills and sharing stories in a planned, public performance style, Christian added, “I looked far and wide for those who were actively doing what I wanted to perfect. I joined the National Storytelling Network, the National Association of Black Storytellers and the NC Association of Black Storytellers.”
What is South Arts All About?
According to its website, The mission of South Arts is simple: Advancing Southern vitality through the arts. Why? Because South Arts believes that the arts elevate the region, increasing connectedness and inspiring meaningful change in the process.
In addition to providing grants and fellowships for artists, communities, and organizations, South Arts believes in the power of the arts crossing borders.
“Our region birthed jazz, cultivated the traditional arts of Appalachia, and is home to some of today’s most innovative, boundary-pushing artists. Past, present, and future, the arts of our region drive the country forward.
“From the most rural and isolated towns to our largest urban cities, communities thrive with access to art. We support organizations that present and engage touring Southern artists for performances, readings, exhibits, and residencies. South Arts values partnerships between artists and organizations that cross sectors, impacting areas of life including healthcare, aging, and education.
“We offer resources directly to artists so they can take advantage of career-defining opportunities. South Arts also provides fellowships to artists so that they can continue their lifelong learning, develop new work, and thrive while calling our region ‘home.’ And, in a national initiative celebrating jazz, musicians from around the country can receive funding to support touring their work.”
South Arts believes that creativity and growth occur through connections, convenings and cohorts.
“From annual summits that explore topics such as creative place-making to comprehensive multi-year initiatives that develop the field of modern dance, our portfolio of programs reflects the needs and opportunities of the region. We provide professional development for community leaders, arts administrators, and artists so they can have the tools to succeed.
“Additionally, South Arts offers programs that increase access to the arts. In partnership with screening partner venues across the region, we tour independent filmmakers to screen their work and lead conversations. South Arts also preserves and perpetuates the folk and traditional arts of Central Appalachia through documentation, support for master artists, and expansion of K-12 traditional arts education.”
As an organization, South Arts believes that art “elevates the region in which we live, that it increases connectedness between community members, and that it can serve as a catalyst for meaningful change.”
And, “Art elevates the South, increases connectedness, and inspires meaningful change. Put in another, more succinct, way: we believe that creativity is well worth investing in. That’s why we’ve developed a detailed vision for the future of the arts in our region, so that our investments (and yours) continue to pay dividends to our communities for decades and decades to come.”
South Arts envisions a future “in which everyone has equitable access to the arts regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, ability, geography, religion, and thinking/communication styles. South Arts commits to centering those who have been systemically excluded from participating equally in the arts as well as acting deliberately to challenge oppressive and exploitative systems in the South and the arts field. Only by creating a more equitable arts landscape can we meet South Arts’ mission of advancing Southern vitality through the arts.”
And so it is that Watauga County’s own Ray Christian who captivates his audiences near and far with his unique story-telling talent — bringing real life to the stage like few have ever experienced — has joined the ranks of the chosen few for these incredible awards.
We congratulate you, Ray, and thank you for helping us stop long enough to really listen for the message you have to share.