Thelma Shelton Robinson


Thelma Shelton Robinson


Thelma Shelton Robinson describes herself as a "poetic" storyteller. She primarily focuses her tales on her own life experiences, and on stories that she heard, coming up in Philadelphia in the 1940s - 1950s. Ms. Robinson grew up in a richly oral tradition. Her father was a vivid storyteller and her mother raised her on stories about her childhood in Virginia. She recalls a weekend roomer, Mrs. Walton, "whose stories were so scary you were afraid to go to bed" as well as the numerous neighbors who came into her father's corner store, Veteran's Rest. The store was a hangout for Ms. Robinson as a child; she'd go in and out, listening to neighbors tell their tales. She valued what she heard, appreciating the different narrative styles and perspectives. She reflects, "When an elder passes, it's like a library burns down because there is so much information that is lost. And without other people who know that information - it just goes." Growing up near 12th and South Streets in Philadelphia, around the corner from the Standard Theater, Ms. Robinson watched street corner singing, dancing, and preaching, all of which left a lasting impression. She also loved the rhyming poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, and she loved music - from the Wings Over Jordan Choir to Louis Jordan and his Tympany 5.

But it wasn't until she retired from decades of secretarial work that she began to truly pursue her love of poetry and storytelling. Over the last decades, she has made her presence felt, performing in storytelling celebrations organized by the National Association of Black Storytellers, Keepers of the Culture, and Patchwork, and at International House, the Community Education Center many schools, and other social, civil and educational gatherings. She has been on the Arts Education roster of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA), and has received a PCA fellowship in Folk and Traditional Arts. She received the Oshun award in 2003, from ODUNDE, Inc., naming her the "poet laureate of South Philadelphia." She has authored three books of poetry and produced an audio cassette. Ms. Robinson notes, "I find that truth is stranger than fiction. If you tell some of these true stories, people don't believe it. I tell about things that I remembered as a child, and about things that were important, not just to me, but to everybody - like the Joe Lewis fight. . . . Experience doesn't matter if you haven't got stories."

Ms. Robinson is part of PFP's Local Knowledge project this year.