In her signature tale, Nothando Zulu recounts the journey of a young eagle who is raised in captivity, condemned to live on the ground among chickens.
The eagle knows he is different from the other birds and yearns to explore the skies. But only when he stops pretending can he discover his true identity, learn to fly and be free.
For hundreds of schoolchildren, that folktale served as an important reminder to always be your authentic self, rather than simply trying to blend in — a metaphor based on her own life experience.
"Each of us has our own beauty that we bring to the world. … It was something that she knew that particularly Black children needed to hear," said Vusumuzi Zulu, her husband of 55 years. "She did these types of stories because it was a means for her to teach without preaching or lecturing."
Nothando Zulu, a renowned Minneapolis storyteller who captivated audiences with African American folktales and dedicated her life to uplifting the arts, died of septic shock Sept. 11 following complications from a colonoscopy. She was 78.
As president and co-founder of the Black Storytellers Alliance, Zulu used her distinctive voice to educate youth about key historical figures, celebrate Black culture and pass down the ancient tradition of oral storytelling.
"She just wanted to make sure that history stayed alive," said Tina Burnside, co-founder of the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery, who called Zulu "a treasure to the community."
As a performer, Zulu was dynamic — often weaving interactive elements into stories peppered with humorous dialogue and song. She could mimic the innocence of a child's voice and the mighty roar of a tiger. Zulu's vast repertoire of characters, such as Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Moms Mabley, kept even the most easily distracted audience engaged, admirers said, and helped instill pride in the global accomplishments of Black people.
"She was bigger than life," said longtime friend Titilayo Bediako, executive director of the nonprofit We Win Institute. "She could easily take up all the space in the room with all that energy."
Lucky volunteers would climb onstage to help act out the drama in her shows, which always ended with a moral. Children couldn't wait to play their part.
Zulu's own story began in rural Southampton County, Va., the sixth child born to sharecropper parents. At just 16 years old, she followed her older brother to Minnesota in pursuit of higher education.
Zulu studied at St. Cloud State and later the University of Minnesota, where she fell in love with theater. In 1976, Zulu and a group of like-minded classmates, including her husband and Penumbra Theatre founder Lou Bellamy, launched the Black Theatre Alliance as a means of bolstering Black performance art in the community. That grassroots effort eventually morphed into the Black Storytellers Alliance, one of 15 national affiliates dedicated to raising the voices of Black orators.
Nothando — which means "mother of love" in the Zulu language — was proud of her roots and often borrowed from experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South when crafting stories. For decades, she performed alongside her husband at schools, libraries and community centers, where she always greeted folks with a hug and gigantic smile. Together, they produced the annual Signifyin' & Testifyin' Black Master Storytellers Festival.
"She lifted me, she carried me and she led me," Vusumuzi said of his wife, who received numerous accolades, including the National Association of Black Storytellers' Zora Neale Hurston Award.
In her free time, Zulu served as the caretaker and founder of the Karamu Community Garden on Plymouth Avenue, in the North Side neighborhood where she lived for nearly 50 years, to grow free produce for nearby residents. She was also known to volunteer at senior homes, where she regaled those in memory care with old stories and songs they liked.
Shortly after her death, their youngest grandchild asked why Zulu "had to go to heaven." Vusumuzi gently responded that Grandma would be joining the likes of Beverly Cottman and other community leaders who told God about "a wonderful storyteller, and God wanted her to come tell stories to him, too."
"I guess she's God's storyteller now," her husband said.
In addition to her husband, she is survived by children Makeda, Keke, Terrence, David and Stephanie; 17 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
Services have been held.