Hearing Is Believing: Southern Racial Communities and Strategies of Story-Listening in Gloria Naylor and Lee Smith
Donlon, Jocelyn Hazelwood, Twentieth Century Literature
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). And her assertion certainly holds true for Southerners who hear stories within their own folk group. But while the activity of listening reifies the will to cultivate intimacy with other community members, the entangled web of racial relations characterizing the South tests the boundaries of community intimacy. The fabric of Southern racial relations has undoubtedly been bewilderingly intricate. The paradoxical nature of racial interaction has historically bound Southern storytelling communities together while also setting physical and psychological limits to the cultivation of interracial intimacy. Thus we find that oral events materialize in both racially shared and separate productions in order to confirm, as well as to contest, Southern notions of intimacy.
Within separate folk groups, traditional impulses to create intimacy motivate the sharing of personal narratives. Communication can be subverted, however, when storytellers leave their own folk group to reach across the color line for story-listeners, so that impulses toward intimacy are forced to compete with anxieties that accompany unfamiliarity. Communication within a common folk group establishes codes, protocol, and rhetorical strategies which lose power in their translation to other, different communities. Further, in cross-cultural oral events, tellers risk finding listeners who do not share their "critical beliefs," ones which serve to insure understanding between them and their listeners inside a "mutual belief space" (Bruce 297-308).
In cross-cultural storytelling situations, where members of separate belief spaces converge, perhaps one of the most exacting rhetorical strategies to consider is "indirection," where, as anthropologist Donald Brenneis has noted, "the audience is necessarily engaged in a search for hidden meaning" (340). Brenneis has noted, "the audience is necessarily engaged in a search for hidden meaning" (340). Brenneis, clearly informed by Mikhail Bakhtin's theories of dialogism,(5) has identified in ethnographies of speaking several types of indirection that can occur during a storytelling event: I am most interested here in his descriptions of text-centered indirection, which relies upon rhetorical features in the discourse to render the message opaque, and in audience-centered indirection, which distinguishes between a "primary" audience, for whom the message is chiefly composed, and a "secondary" audience, which receives the message indirectly (341-45). Thus members inside a common folk group cultivate intimacy by invoking what Stahl has termed "allusive frames," story references which suggest the body of shared knowledge that listeners and tellers have in common (Literary 41-43). Cross-cultural telling, by contrast, frequently relies on the indirection of masks or ticks or hidden motives to drive a point home.
Sharing personal narratives, both intra- and cross-culturally, has contributed significantly to the texture of Southern fiction on both sides of the color line. As Pat Conroy's mother once said to him, "All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister" (qtd. in Wilkins 88). While she was probably poking fun at the grotesque elements of Southern fiction, she has nonetheless manifested Southern patterns of discourse which interweave multiple personal narratives into one gripping account. She marvelously indicates the South's collective appetite for telling, hearing, and appropriating stories of personal experience -- however grotesque -- and hints at how the sharing of personal narratives influences Southern fiction on many levels.
Such telling and listening, for example, informs Southern novels so that a narrator rendering personal experience can manipulate listeners in the text to be positioned deeply within a Southern folk group, thus inviting them to play an intimate role in a distinctive cultural setting where paradoxes of race rest at the core. By contrast, conflicting critical beliefs or clashes in community protocol that emerge when …
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Publication information: Article title: Hearing Is Believing: Southern Racial Communities and Strategies of Story-Listening in Gloria Naylor and Lee Smith. Contributors: Donlon, Jocelyn Hazelwood - Author. Journal title: Twentieth Century Literature. Volume: 41. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 1995. Page number: 16+. © 1999 Hofstra University. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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