Learning to Listen for How History Actually Gets Told
A talk for the annual meeting of the Louisiana Aging Network Association, 16 August 2023 at L’Auberge in Baton Rouge, LA.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, arguably one of the greatest works of Louisiana literature, is presented both in the original novel and in its later film adaptation as a frame tale. The story begins not with Miss Pittman but with a local teacher who has has long been trying to get her to tell her story. She relents in the summer of 1962, and the story, as most of us remember it, begins. Whether you have read the book or watched the movie, you cannot be helped but be moved by Miss Pittman’s story, and, yet, it’s a lie. I have interviewed a lot of people in my time, some of whom have been considered their community’s historians, and there is one thing I can tell you: none of them told their story in the seamless, ever-building story arc the way Miss Jane Pittman does.
That’s okay. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a novel. Much of the story it tells feels true because, first, Ernest Gaines was a brilliant novelist, and, second, because he was committed to telling stories based on his, and others’, experience of life in Louisiana from a point of view that had largely been left out of the history books sitting no doubt on the shelves of the novel’s schoolhouse.
But no one talks that way. I have interviewed dozens of individuals in my time, most of them older folks, and many of them very fine storytellers — — one man held me spellbound for half an hour recounting the time he took his outboard motor to get repaired — — but none of them ever told me their life story from beginning to end in a way that built a clear and cogent narrative.1 Which makes perfect sense because none of them, none of us, are characters in novels.
Their lives, our lives, are richer, more complicated, more nuanced, more contradictory, and generally less obviously meaningful than fictional characters. But we also get to determine our own fates in a way that fictional characters do not, and, despite the fact that I am not as free to choose my fate — — history is sticky after all, I am generally happier living my life, as my teenaged daughter might describe it, in an open world game as opposed to a rail shooter. (For those with furrowed brows, a rail shooter game is a lot like a novel: characters do not have a choice in what comes next. You as a player only get to decide which way to look and/or point your gun. Exciting, perhaps, but very limited.)
So The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman does not represent life as it actually happens, nor people as they actually tell stories. It’s a novel. The problem isn’t the genre, but rather our expectations on what happens in the real world based on what, and how, we encounter things in fictional worlds. The stories in novels and films are amazing: one event leads to another, and then to another, until we reach an evident, or unexpected, conclusion (again, depending on the genre).
Not only do our lives not happen like that, but the stories we tell do not work like that, and we do not necessarily string them together into meaningful chronological sequences that build to a seamless view of our lives. (We might try, but there’s always some slippage!) Having been raised on super-cogent fictions, however, we are disappointed in ourselves and in others when we cannot tell stories the way they happen in books and movies. Not only do our lives pale in comparison, but even our ways of telling, our ways of making meaning, seemingly pale as well.
In some ways, this disparity between what we think we should do and how we should report it to others makes our lives easier: we don’t need to try; we don’t need to tell; and we don’t need to listen. My reason for joining you today is to change your expectations, to open your eyes (and ears) to how we actually talk, to the stories (and other kinds of things) we actually tell, and to make it possible for you, your staff, and the families you serve to allow the older people in their lives just to talk.
If I have learned anything in 30 years of being a folklorist, listening is itself a gift. Listening, actually listening, doing nothing but listening, honest to goodness listening for more than twenty minutes changes relationships. I have watched countless individuals, from students coming to talk with me in my office to ordinary people who have honored me with a cup of coffee in their kitchen suddenly relax, open, and bloom when they realized that someone was actually listening to them, not simply waiting for their turn to talk.
To sum up our brief journey so far and map out the territory ahead, let me note a few things. First, no one tells a life story from beginning to end. That kind of thing doesn’t even happen in novels. If you look more carefully at most large narratives, they are build up of a series of smaller narratives. Moreover, not all stories are the same: they come in a variety of shapes and sizes—and given the limitations on our time, they come at various moments.
In fact, how stories come to be told is an interesting feature that few —outside of folklorists, anthropologists, and linguists — think about. Few of us sit down just to tell stories from our lives. Even when we sit down with a beloved elder, we often ask them about a particular topic or event: “Tell me about the time you were stranded in the house” or “What did you do during…?” In other words, there are almost always prompts. Even when they are not explicit, prompts are present: a grandmother wishes to convey to a grandson how to be patient when trying to learn something. A father tells his daughter what it was like when he first moved away from home. If we think of stories as one way to communicate knowledge, then life stories make even less sense: knowledge about a particular person isn’t really knowledge, but the knowledge to be drawn from what they experienced is.
So stories come in all kinds of shapes and sizes: from small recollections about what the courthouse square used to look like; to personal anecdotes about growing up along the bayou; to brief accounts of a local organization; to legends about a town. These are all things we tell, and, in the case of the courthouse square, they need not even be narratives: they are probably more descriptive than anything else, acting like establishing shots in movies. Sometimes that is all a person has to offer us: a cinematic tour of the past that gives us some sense of what it was like to be there. It is often so tangible that it feels like a story.
This last point is an important one: we do not simply tell each other stories. We also describe things to each other. We inform each other about important ideas or topics. We report events to each other. And, as anyone at an any social gathering can attest, we argue with each other. Each of these things organizes sequences of words and ideas differently. If, for example, a story communicates through a unique sequence of events, then an argument communicates through a logical sequence of ideas.
Our everyday discourse is a mix of all these kinds of sequences. Life is far too interesting to be contained within only way of stringing words together, let alone within words themselves. (If we could put everything into words, we would have no reason to gesture, to move, to draw, to build. Words are not enough.)
This is the way we talk. We have always talked this way. If we accept this, then we can begin to listen not for what we think we should hear but for what people actually have to say.
The Past Is Always Told in the Present
Let’s listen then to Elizabeth Bridgwaters. I was first introduced to Mrs. Bridgwaters when someone walked me to where she sat on her porch, with her portable telephone and the daily paper spread out before her, as was her custom, surrounded by geraniums. Mrs. Bridgwaters had been a school dietitian and a preacher in the AME church. The mother of nine, she was also the first black person elected to office in Bloomington, Indiana. I got to spend time with her while I was doing work on folk history because every member of the black community I met had the same suggestion: “Maybe you should talk to Mrs. Bridgwaters?”
One of my first conversations with her was shortly after she and others from the West Side neighborhood had met with the mayor of Bloomington over a proposal to house an after-school program for troubled teens in the neighborhood’s community center, something which hinted of dumping to area residents. Mrs. Bridgwaters saw the proposal as yet another instance of city officials not understanding and appreciating the history of the neighborhood. Her frustration with city officials and desire to set the record straight affected our conversation in several ways. A number of witnesses to the meeting that city officials called to explain themselves and the proposal told me that Mrs. Bridgwaters had, as she later told me in her own words, told the mayor and his lieutenants, that “they didn’t know a damn thing about the Westside and they never will.”
What they did not know, or at least were not sensitive to, she told me, was the black community’s sense of always being at the mercy of a city that moved it around or forced things upon it that it did not need or want. In the particular case of the Banneker Center, area residents had worked hard to make it an effective community center only to see the center get saddled with a conventional city bureaucracy. It would, Mrs. Bridgwaters asserted, do the city well to remember the history of the West Side neighborhood. As she noted to me, the center had once been the school for African Americans and had after some years of decline been converted into a community center mostly through neighborhood initiative. She explained the school’s significance to me in the following fashion:
It’s interesting you know.
When I was a little girl
most black people lived on the east side of town.
But some black people lived over here.
But they didn’t want us over there.
So they built a school over here.
Bridgwaters’ statement has been broken into lines by clause, allowing us to pay better attention not only to the language she uses but also how she uses it. Composed almost like a poem, the 41 words here do two things which, in effect, re-create the dislocation of the black community from one place to another. In the first instance, she begins with a reference schema we are all used to in conversation: I, you, and everybody else (them). The first four lines establish that there is Mrs. Bridgwaters, the I; me, the you; and then the black community, usually them. But when they appears, it is not black people but the people who move black people around. And if we aren’t clear that this is about displacing black people, look at the ending of the last four lines: there’s the “east side of town” (which is there), then here, then there, then here. Pushed and pulled verbally, we experience the same thing Bloomington’s black community has experienced for decades.
Those 41 words have to be some of the best expository or argumentative prose ever spoken. But one thing they are not, is narrative. There’s no story there. In fact, Mrs. Bridgwaters is very careful to remove the little girl who might humanize the chronology and make it into a story, that might entail a moment like “I remember the day…” No, Mrs. Bridgwaters is not interested in the story: she is interested in the argument, and she makes it effectively and forcefully in 41 words.
Why does this matter? What can we learn from moments like this? The first is that all talk occurs in moments: people talk about the past do so from the vantage point of the present, and not any present but the particular present of the conversation being had. Our brains are immense store houses of memories, but our recall mechanisms vary widely not only from person to person but also from moment to moment for each person. A word or phrase. A sound. A smell. A sight. All of these things prompt memories to be available for recall — — and just because we are talking about a particular historical moment doesn’t mean that all memories associated with it will be recalled. Almost assuredly, some recalled memories will obscure others, as if in spotlighting one thing in our minds other things are cast into darkness.
Context matters, and sometimes in surprising ways. I have had students sit down to interview parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and others about a variety of topics. Sometimes they are successful; sometimes they are not. I have also had students go collect recipes from those same people and instructed them to turn the recorder on as a way to make collecting the recipe easier. It never fails but the conversation expands to more than the dish being cooked. Fathers and mothers recall being taught by their fathers and mothers, and they recall that time grandma left the pot of oil on the stove too long or the time grandpa decided to make the fire start faster using gasoline. Whew. So many mistakes, but also great stories.
Don’t set out to talk with someone. Do something with them and let the stories come out of the situation. As occupants of the present, we should never lose sight of the fact that all of us create the future out of the past. Each and everyone one of us has a future, until that moment we don’t, and we recall the past we need to recall in order to occupy the present and prepare ourselves for the future.
The Past Isn’t Always a Sequence of Events
A second point is not all talk about the past is a story. Sometimes there are, as we will see in a moment, just descriptions or reports or, as was the case with Mrs. Bridgwaters, arguments. A graduate student of mine, Cheramie Richard, used to sit and listen to her father and his friends argue about the boundaries of a community in which they had grown up outside of Iota, Louisiana, a community which no longer existed, except in their arguments over who lived, or did not live, in Shortbread proper. Cheramie set out to locate the town, but as she dug deeper and deeper she realized that the town’s actual existence paled in comparison to the community of talkers it drew together to argue about it. She ended up writing an entire master’s thesis about how the talkers created a community in the present by talking about a community in the past.
I have encountered similar kinds of talk repeatedly over the years of interviewing people sometimes about the past in general but usually about a particular moment in the past. In the case of a murder that had taken place in a small midwestern town, I found myself sitting in Jack Morrison’s kitchen one day, asking him to tell me about that moment in time. Jack had been a teenager when events had unfolded and had, as was his nature, a kind of good-natured version of events. But a lot of his recall were scenes like the following which reported on what the courthouse square looked like on Saturdays:
And you didn’t hardly ever go downtown, except on Saturday or maybe Friday night. And that was basically to do some dry goods shopping, but primarily it was for visitation purposes. People would gather round the old square and sit on the fenders of the old cars and they’d chit-chat for an hour.
Many of us can picture the scene in our mind’s eye: older folks sitting on or standing around cars, younger people circulating around, children playing within eye’s reach of their parents. Everyone out seeing who else is out and being seen themselves. (It reminds me of the miracle mile that runs from the MacDonald’s to the Sonic in Franklin, Louisiana — -still running so far as I know.)
As vivid as the scene is, and the longer version of this quote brings out even more detail, what it is not is a narrative. Nothing happens. We are told what people typically did. We see them arrayed around the square. It’s like we are watching a movie in which the camera roves around and shows us a variety of things, what filmmakers sometimes refer to as “an establishing shot.” What it is establishing, for them, is the situation within which events will arise and unfold, a moment in which a narrative will be told. There isn’t any story yet, but we are being prepared for it. What Jack Morris is doing is describing.
Description of the past happens more often than most historians care to admit. In fact, even historians who work with archival material have to admit that much of what they deal with describes situations, counts heads of cattle on a farmstead or people in a household. From that, the historian crafts a narrative. But the counts matter to the people who do them and often the information we exchange in the present or about the past is descriptive. Here’s another account from Jack Morris:
And, uh, there was another little guy down the street that had his own family pastry shop. And it was, uh, BJ’s bakery or EJ’s bakery, never will forget it. Just a little bitty place, bout half the size of this right here (indicates the kitchen where we are sitting). And he had a couple of deep fryers back there. He never impressed me as being real clean, but he had goo-od donuts.
(Please note that I am leaving everything in for the purpose of transcriptions: part of my goal is to create realistic expectations about how people talk. We start. We stop. We hem and haw. We have false starts. We back up and go around. This is how we talk!)
Again, the vividness is apparent, but it’s a description and not a narrative. If you want to try this out for yourself, ask an older person how to get some place. You know where the sugar mill used to be? Well, you make a left there. You go past where Guidrozes used to have a house…
The Past Is Bigger than We Think
Finally, sometimes the past just isn’t. I don’t mean the past isn’t what it used to be, but rather the past never took place, at least not the way you think the past should have taken place. By now, you are getting the impression that a lot of what I am arguing against is our own expectations about the past and how people talk about it. And I base that on spending a lot of time, out in the world, talking to people about the past. Over a quarter century of asking people to talk about the past, and dozens of hours of recordings and hundreds of hours, perhaps thousands of hours, of time spent in kitchens, living rooms, dens, churches, community centers, shops, mills, stores … you name the place and I have spent time there, listening. In the case of Oscar Babineaux, I was entertained by a bit of shit-talking, then some jokes, and then legends with family anecdotes. Where does one reality end and another begin? It’s hard to say.
Let me begin with a simple story, told from the point of view of a young Babineaux, whose father had been in pain for some time.
One day me and my daddy. My daddy was sick. His stomach kept hurting him, hurting him. Every night he would lay in the bed cramped up so bad. Said there was a big old knot in his stomach. He said he just couldn’t take it. We had to sit on his legs to stretch him out, stretch his arms out so that cramp would leave his stomach. So mama said one day … We had an old seventy-one Ford pickup truck. With a purple hood. So one day mama said— my daddy’s name was Taise —she said Taise we going to bring you to the treater. I was kind of small, so they brought me with them. And the only thing I can remember, man, is my daddy going in the house with this old lady. And I was still in the truck, because they wouldn’t let me go in the house. So when he come outside, he throwed up snakes. Out of his stomach. Out of his mouth. I mean six seven eight nine ten. Throwed them up. And when we left from there, Daddy was fine. Never caught a cramp again.
Babineaux told me several stories like this, of treaters trying to help and people also using their powers to hurt. It may or may not be a part of his day-to-day experience, but it is certainly a part of his discursive expression, this openness to a variety of realities. Babineaux is, after all, the devout Catholic who once beckoned two Mormon missionaries into his living room to talk. He didn’t think anyone was going to change their minds, but he imagined they all might learn something.
This openness to the world, or at least as he reports it to others (including me), resulted in him telling me a couple of stories that involved his family looking for treasure. He prefaced both stories with “my family was weird” because they liked to dig for money in the belief that their grandfather had left them money. The first tale he told me involved a spirit bull scaring everyone off just as they came across what might be treasure. The spirit bull is a common motif in Louisiana treasure tales, and so it’s appearance did not surprise me. I was not prepared however for the next story, which began calmly enough but then took an unexpected twist:
One day we went, and I was at work, so I can see, we at a country spot, like our property. So I can see a lot of people dressed in white. So I’m curious me. I said, well shit what the hell is everybody doing out there dressed in white? I wanna see. So I goes out there. They tell me you’re working right now, just go home come back. You know, come back after work. So I goes back, man, after work. They all in the house. We all praying man, everyone’s on their knees praying. They got an excavator in the back yard, digging. Find this money, I guess.
We’re on our knees, man, we’re praying. It’s like in the pit of the summer like here. No wind nothing. They had a wind come through the house. That wind was so strong my aunt was holding onto the door like that and both her legs was in the air. That’s how strong the wind was. In the house. So they said… they picked me, my nephew — — the one I was telling you that talk all that shit, and my little niece to go bring some water to the workers in back, the one that was doing the work. So we got to walking. We passed on the side of the house to bring them.
So my nephew said, say man you see that guy in the tree? I said man fuck I don’t see nobody in no tree. He said yeah man he be right there sitting on that limb. I said I don’t see nobody man. I’m getting scared now. Man I don’t see nobody. But he’s seeing this, you know. So he said — — I said how he look?
It’s a guy, he said, it’s a guy dressed in a pirate suit, man. He said he got a pirate hat on. He got a pirate jacket — — and he started talking to him. The guy in the tree started talking to him while he’s telling me this. But the guy in the tree is tell him shut up don’t tell me that. So he telling me man look he right there. You can’t see him? Look he right there on that branch. He say he want something more to drink. You know, because what they had did: they’d put a bowl in the back yard, under this tree, with some alcohol in it. You understand? And I don’t know if it was the sun that would dissolve it, but it would be gone. Okay, so he say he say man he want another drink.
So I said fuck man don’t tell me that I wanna get back in the house. I said I don’t see nobody up there. So we kept on walking. We went out there. We brung them some water. So on our way back. Look at him. He say, see you, you son of a bitch. He say you don’t wanna give me another drink, huh? He say you gonna be just like me. He say you see this here peg leg? He say you going to be just like me. He say for this out here y’all are going to have to lose something. So, man, it got kind of scared. We started walking fast. By the time we got to the house, I broke out a run. A shovel, man, come from the back of the house. I mean full force. That shovel stuck in that tree so deep we had to dig it out with an axe. It stuck… you know with a shovel, it’s hard to stick a shovel into anything. That shovel went inside the tree halfway.
We could spend a lot of time marveling over the beauty of this story: it’s use of dialogue to draw us in, the quotidian details like the evaporating alcohol or how shovels are never as sharp as we might like, or the careful pacing that sets up two scenes with the repeating motif of things flying through the air.
But most listeners of this story wonder if it’s true, and my initial answer is always I don’t know. More importantly, what do you mean by what’s true? Are you just wondering if the facts of the story itself are true? To be honest, the story beggars my belief. But such a narrow band of truth might prove fragile if we begin to wonder why this story features not only a pirate but a pirate threatening African Americans with dismemberment. We could extend this a bit, but I will jump to the deeper history:
By 1817 the privateers of Jean Lafitte and his predecessor, Luis de Aury, were capturing numerous Spanish slavers off the coast of Cuba. The pirate’s barracoons, or slave pens, on Galveston Island were often swelled beyond capacity, containing a thousand or more African chattels. Many buyers came to the island to buy slaves at $1.00 per pound, and three brothers, John, Rezin, and James Bowie, were among the pirate’s best customers. In 1853 John Bowie recorded in “DeBow’s Magazine” that the brothers, who channeled their illicit slave trade via Black Bayou on Lake Sabine or via the Calcasieu to Lake Charles, realized a net profit of $65,000 in two years time from the sale of 1,500 Africans in Louisiana.
The deeper history is that enslaved Africans were the treasure: they were the gold that made the South rich. Seen in this light, Oscar Babineaux’s story is one way for this memory to be kept alive. While its actions might strike us as strange, one of the ways vernacularization works is to take larger events and make them personal, dramatizing history in a way that a story can be told.
My friend and colleague Henry Glassie once noted that people, living in the present, create the future out of the past. His was an existential tautology: all of us have nothing more than the past, which we accrue present by present, sometimes foolishly wasting those presents on distractions, consciously or unconsciously. We engage each other in the present, competing or cooperating for a future to which we have various levels of control — — sadly, power always matters. We sometimes imagine that older people live in the past, but that is impossible. What they do have is a larger sense, a larger presence (if you will), of the past.
What they don’t have is illusions about how the past should be represented. That largely falls on scholars and professionals like us who, being formally educated, bring those forms to our expectations to how history should look and how it should work. My goal today has been to offer a few examples of the different ways people talk about the past and to draw from those examples a few simple truths along with a few ideas about how to proceed:
 One of the more interesting accounts of life stories comes from Charlotte Linde who leaves what counts as a life story fairly wide open: it need not be told in one text, in one setting, or in any one particular manner; the separate pieces need only be about the individual doing the talking: “A life story consists of all the stories and associated discourse units, such as explanations and chronicles, and the connections between them, told by an individual during the course of his/her lifetime that satisfy the following two criteria: (1) The stories and associated discourse units contained in the life story have as their primary evaluation a point about the speaker, not a general point about the way the world is. (2) The stories and associated discourse units have extended reportability; that is, they are tellable and are told and retold over the course of a long period of time” (1993:21).