Hearing Is Believing: Southern Racial Communities and Strategies of Story-Listening in Gloria Naylor and Lee Smith

Article excerpt

In Southern communities the compelling need "to talk, to tell"(1) can inspire numerous -- if not untold -- types of oral performances. As with almost any folk community, Southern stories can range from trickster tales to personal experience narratives to exogamous accounts.(2) From among these various oral genres available for performance, Gloria Naylor in Mama Day and Lee Smith in Oral History have strategically manipulated the personal narrative -- an oral story which recounts an individual's life experiences in the voice of first person -- in order to problematize story-listening in racially separate Southern communities.(3) In her model of Cocoa Day as story-listener, Naylor evokes Southern African American traditions of storytelling, compelling us to hear and believe the personal narratives of a "dead" man. Lee Smith also invites her readers into distinctive racial and cultural territory, manipulating us -- through the effacement of Jennifer Bingham as listener -- into hearing the singular narratives of White ethnic ghosts from Appalachia. Naylor and Smith ultimately reveal their distrust of "the American reader," whose historical reluctance to hear stories of difference compels the authors' use of narrative ploys.

Storytellers, faced with the threat of having their personal narratives either dismissed or appropriated, recount their experiences in order to secure ownership of events that belong to them. Indeed, as folklorist Sandra Dolby Stahl has said, personal narratives "`belong' to the tellers because they are the ones responsible for recognizing in their own experiences something that is `story worthy'" ("Personal" 268-69). But while personal-experience narratives "belong" to individual tellers and substantiate what is "story worthy" in their lives, tellers are not lone agents in the storytelling enterprise: Oral performances of personal narratives command real, warm-blooded listeners to enthusiastically receive, value, and confirm the experiences of the teller. In this recurring cycle of telling and listening, the speaking subject tends to be venerated as one who asserts an identity. The position, however, of this "somebody else" -- this listener in Southern culture -- invites our closer attention.

One African (San) storyteller has said of his story-listening habits, "I simply listen, watching for a story that I want to hear" (qtd. in Scheub 2). Clearly, listeners will vary in enthusiasm, occasionally choosing to "watch for" a more satisfying story than the one being told. Moreover, degrees of competence can differ among listeners, perhaps forcing a desperate storyteller to survive a telling event with a wooden, unreceptive listener. For a felicitous moment in storytelling, however, the listener must deliberately collaborate with the teller, jointly shaping the production of the story.4 In fact, the proficiency for telling personal narratives emerges from having habitually and actively listened to the experiences of others.

The American South endures as a culture that empowers such practices of listening and telling. While the celebration of personal narratives is, of course, not the exclusive province of Southerners, storytelling and listening events nonetheless thrive in the South because of the self-conscious privileging of orality, community, and intimacy in the region: through storytelling, members of a Southern community vigorously reaffirm their connection to each other. This desire to connect has motivated Alice Walker to write that "what the Black Southern writer inherits as a natural right is a sense of community" (1). Indeed, a Southern identity -- Black or White -- very much depends on gaining the competence to hear the personal-experience narratives of others in order to willfully cultivate intimacy in a community, as is clear in the works of Naylor and Smith.

Stahl recognizes that "the knowledge one gains as a listener when personal narratives are told brings with it the sensation of intimacy" (Literary x). …