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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Rambling with Remus

by Jack McKeon

I recently purchased, reluctantly, The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris, reluctantly because of my belief about its racist condescension towards the character of Remus, its flaunting of illiteracy in the dialect and the exploitation of an oppressed culture’s tales for the oppressor’s purpose.  But I love the Brer Rabbit tales and there seems to be no other source for them.  The Julius Lester versions I’ve read, updated with contemporary insertions, just didn’t do it for me.  I haven’t been able to find any versions “translated” from the dialect and without the presence of the slave context except the old compilation Disney made to go along with the release of “Song of the South” in 1946.  I owned that book, and my mother used to read me the stories.  Now I wanted all these tales and figured I could modernize them myself easily enough. I’d have to bite the bullet and suffer through the racism, made more difficult after I read Harris’s appalling description of Remus as having “nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline of slavery.”  Zip-a-dee-doo-dah and blue birds!  Remus was the happy slave companion of our other relatives, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima grinning with pleasure from the master’s kitchen, and that other uncle, Tom, whose goodness as a slave has made him a pejorative.  Even so, I started reading the first of the books, “Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings.”
            Now I have to confess.  I like and admire Uncle Remus.  I wish I had known him.  I wish I had been the 7 year old boy fortunate enough to have had his company.  And part of my admiration for the man comes from his reaction to ”the discipline of slavery.”  To do this, though, means taking the man from his context.  I don’t know if it’s morally or historically correct, or even possible, to do this without seeming to defend the “silver lining” version of slavery, but if we can look at Remus as just a man living in adversity, in a dehumanizing situation beyond his control, he becomes a person who has centered himself and has found peace in his own sense of dignity and self-worth.  He has taken himself out of the context and it no longer defines him, however Harris may have perceived him.  He demands from the little boy that he be treated with respect and takes him to task when he feels liberties have been taken (Whether he would do this with “Miss Polly”, however, is another thing).  He dresses down the boy for his behavior, even when Remus himself is not involved, and once reduces him to tears almost cruelly, but the boy loves him and respects him, and relaxes into the peacefulness of the cabin, as does the reader.  We are almost always in this cabin watching Remus perform the skills of the poor:  mending his jacket, making a new sole for a shoe, making an ax handle, roasting a sweet potato in the fireplace, sharpening his knife on the palm of his hand.  (How this reveals that slavery, even for Remus, wasn’t always peace in the cabin!)  There’s a calm in him.  He’s the still center around which whirl the action and mayhem of the tales, accounts of the harshness and turbulence of life.  He answers the boy’s questions about the stories honestly, with cynical observations on the fallen nature of man and beast.  You wonder how the young boy digests this wisdom, but Remus pulls no punches.
            I also confess to thoroughly enjoying the dialect.  It’s rollicking, colorful, evocative and funny.  It’s both readable and delightful.  Harris spent a lot of time trying to get it accurate, and for Mark Twain, no one else had done it better.  It does not, as I expected, come across as mocking or condescending but as a folklorist’s effort to capture the feeling, the culture and the true voice of the storyteller.  I recently told  “Brer Rabbit’s Riddle” at the Detention Center.  The version I first went to was in an anthology, told in modern English.  Updating the language, though, made a crucial part of it incomprehensible.  I went to Harris’s version, and though I had to look up a couple of words, it made much better sense and sounded right.  I combined the new and the old when I told it, and, though it needed some explanatory material at the outset, it worked.  It would be impossible for me, certainly, to tell the stories as written, even if I wanted to, but reading them in the original puts in a place and an outlook that modern English can’t convey.  Modern versions can give us the story.  Harris’s versions give us the people.  Maybe it’s difficult to ignore that he is a white man trying to portray the speech of an oppressed people, purposefully denied the education given to their oppressors, but he’s walking the same road as Zora Neal Hurston, with the same purpose.
            Harris (1848-1908) did not grow up on a plantation, but as a teenager he worked for a newspaper on one and spent much of his time in the slave quarters listening to stories.  The tellers became the models for his creation. While he never quite lost his patronizing idea that blacks depended on white assistance, he went on to spend much of his career as a journalist advocating for the emancipated African-American.  He promoted reconciliation between the races, education, suffrage, and equality for African -Americans.  He condemned racism in Southern culture and condemned lynching.  His collection of tales was not a product of a racist mentality, but the work of a serious folklorist trying to preserve the best versions of tales he loved in the voice in which they were told.  It was a labor of love and affection.
            If you read Harris’s introduction to the tales, you need to contend with his benign version of the slave-holding South.  His forays into the quarters as a youth evidently presented him with this vision - Disney’s vision- and he did not know about, or chose to ignore, the horrors of the institution.  “The realities (of slavery),” he once wrote concerning Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “under the best and happiest conditions, possess a romantic beauty and tenderness all their own.”  In spite of our understanding that romantic beauty might have been in short supply during this period,  this is clearly the spirit in which he wrote his Remus books.  There are certainly cringeworthy elements in the books.  There’s a liberal sprinkling of the n-word, not with any negative intent but dropped casually as a part of the language, as it is in Twain and Hurston (or in August Wilson’s Fences today).  Still the word jars, mainly because of the slave context.  Also, Remus, whatever else he may be, exemplifies Harris’s ideal of the dedicated, loyal servant of the family, staying with them through generations, during and after the Civil War.
            You want to see some anger, some sense of injustice and desire for retribution.  You won’t find it in Remus, but it’s there in the stories he tells which are filled with conflict, mischief and sometimes sadistic violence.  The physically weak use their wits to overcome and punish those who would prey on them.  They are funny but not gentle.  Remus doesn’t make the point obvious, but it is clear why these stories were so popular in the quarters.  One would like to think that Harris realized this.
            But maybe he didn’t.  Anyway, I’ll read on, even though the first paragraph of the next book, “Nights with Uncle Remus”, introduces a woman as “the owner of Uncle Remus.”  Just a simple statement of fact, as if nothing could be more reasonable. Still, on I go, keeping Beloved clearly in mind, so I can hear a very human, wise old man tell a little boy some wonderful stories.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Listening to An Other

by Paula Davidoff

A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, Gerry Fierst and I co-taught professional development workshops for upper grade teachers. To begin each workshop, we told an African folktale about a man who married a woman from the sky. As in many tales about other-worldly wives, the woman’s consent to wed comes with a condition. Her husband must not open a box that she has brought from her homeland. The man breaks his promise and, to his surprise, finds that the box is empty. When his wife confronts him with his actions, he replies, “I don’t understand why it matters. There is nothing in the box.”
When she heard this, the sky woman’s eyes filled with tears. “You’re wrong,” she replied. “That box was filled with sky – with light and air – everything from my homeland that I hold dear. I’m not leaving you because you opened the box,” she continued, “I’m leaving because you couldn’t see what it contained.”

When workshop participants talked about the story, they related it to their own teaching and their students’ learning. Their remarks could be summarized as follows:
1.    Many of my students don’t see the value of what I’m offering them, and
2.    I sometimes forget that each student has unique insights and experiences that affect his or her perception of my classroom.

The workshop took place on November 10th and, after waking in the wash of election results, it was good to spend the morning immersed in work with thoughtful and enthusiastic teachers – telling stories, teaching and learning, dwelling in the timeless aspects of human experience, and reflecting on how we, as individuals and as a collegial learning community, can help our the youngest generation effect a positive change for their future.  However, we live in the present and, even as we walked back to our cars after the workshops, Gerry and I talked uneasily about what changes the immediate future might hold.
In the days and weeks since that workshop, I have heard from many friends who are depressed and frightened about the future. National news has been dotted with accounts of violence that may or may not be related to election-wrought fear and anger. And, in the few days preceding Thanksgiving, I heard more than a few radio bites about the less disturbing subject of how to avoid unpleasant holiday dinner table conversation. Through all of this, that teacher workshop has been running through my mind.

Although I love teaching professional development workshops, I almost always anticipate them with trepidation. I fear encountering the unfriendly faces of people who will proceed to talk and text and grade papers while I’m trying to teach. To make matters worse, I also tend to measure the success of a workshop by the responses of the most disengaged participants. I want everyone to be involved and, although I really do understand the frustration teachers feel when given one more thing to do, I don’t understand not taking a chance on what might be an opportunity to learn something new.
But in the weeks since that workshop, I’ve been questioning my own willingness to take that chance. I’ve become uncomfortably aware of the many times I put down the newspaper or turn off the radio when someone is expressing an opinion that doesn’t jibe with my own. Like the sky woman’s husband, I assume the contents of that box are not worth a closer look.

 In that workshop, I also told The Three Feathers. In this story from the Brothers Grimm, a king gives his three sons a task that will help him decide which of them shall rule after his death. The older two of the sons are quick witted; the third is not.
To start his sons on their quests, the king blew three feathers into the air, saying, “As they fly, so you shall go.” One feather flew east and one feather flew west, but the third feather flew straight up into the air and fell quickly to the ground. Laughing, one of the older brothers ran to the east and the other ran to the west, leaving Dummling to stand where the third feather had fallen.
But, as it turns out, the third feather has fallen on a hidden door that leads down a staircase to an underground chamber, and it is there, in a spot he has trod upon through his whole life, that Dummling finds what he needs to win the contest. The princes are given three trials and each time Dummling brings his father something extraordinary, while his brothers return with the first thing that crosses their paths.
The teachers in the workshop had a deep discussion of The Three Feathers. They understood the story’s metaphors and, so, talked about the importance of looking deep into one’s own thoughts and reactions, as Dummling looked beneath the surface of his familiar landscape. They also talked about how crucial it is for teachers to value their students as individuals, to discern each child’s talents, weaknesses, and misgivings about learning.

The king in The Three Feathers doesn’t understand that. He hands over the fate of sons to whichever way the wind blows. Dummling, the least valued child, is lucky to find himself forced to look within to find his way, but then, he’s probably used to learning hard. The older sons, who are given slight direction, don’t understand what is at stake once they’ve been sent on their way. Because of their quick wits, things have come easily to them. They haven’t encountered the obstacles that are an essential part of deep learning and, when put to the test, they have no way of judging the value of what they find.
Sometimes learning is unpleasant. It requires time, patience, and practice. It requires reflection. It can also require doing things you don’t want to do, like listening to people you don’t agree with and giving them a real chance to explain themselves. Listening only to what one want to hear limits growth. Since that workshop, I’ve decided to try to be more like Dummling, to look deep and, perhaps, learn to find something of value in things that, at first glance, seem empty.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

I Tell an Old, Old Story

written by Luray Gross

I Tell an Old, Old Story

            I cannot say, I cannot say that anything I tell you will be true, but
                  I cannot say, I cannot say that anything I tell you will be false.

Once a woman scoured and scrubbed her two cooking pots and carried them along the stream until she found a sycamore tree in fruit.  The fruits, the wise man had told her, she must carry home.  She had asked for children over a husband.  Old as she was, and bitter, what good would a husband be?  She did as the healer said.

And the medicine worked.  Children's laughter filled her yard.  Small heads lay in her lap while she sang a crazy lazy tune.  Their hands swept the dirt yard and made shadow animals on the walls.

Why discount joy at any age?

            The inmates in their matching t-shirts and pocketless pants listen. The guard in his navy uniform appears to fall asleep.  I tell the story to soothe and to provoke. Jonathan calms.  William fidgets.  Jameer returns my gaze.  Jose misses the story entirely.  He's off to court.  That's all I know of his story.

But the old story does not end with happiness.

Perhaps the woman woke with a bad dream; perhaps she felt its tiny knives at the base of her skull.  Why is not remembered.  Only this: when the child knocked the pitcher onto the floor, when the milk spilled, when the blue clay shattered, the woman turned on the child, and the child silenced, but his eyes spoke, and the old woman could not bear his tears.

"I am sorry," did not cross her lips.  The children returned to the trees.

            Kevin sits at his desk, head in his arms.  When he lifts his face and looks at me, I covet his thoughts.  What does it mean to him that the old woman does not get a second chance?

            "She should have known," he says.
            "Known what?"
            "Known she wouldn't be able to take having children, all their running around.  All that trouble.  She should have asked for a husband.
            Yes, and would he have beat her?  Would he have raved?  Would he have insisted she be the strong one, the one with the even temper, the kindly tone? Would he have listened to her stories, been soothed by her songs?

            What good would a husband be, I wonder, but do not ask Kevin to speculate.  Kevin, whom I don't yet know.  About whom I know more than I should.  Seventeen and three murders to his name.

The old woman tries again, scrubbing the pots until they shine like the sun, carrying them back to the place where the sycamore rises, still abundant with fruit.  Although she is old, although she has felt the press of shame, she pulls herself up into the branches.  But each fruit bears eyes that convict, the eyes of a staring child, eyes that do not hide their pain.

For her, there will be no repair.  No happily ever after.

            For Kevin the story is not yet fully made, or for Dani, already a father, or Joel, who is spurned for his African mother, or for freckled surly Callie, this week the only girl in the class.

The pitcher lies in pieces on the stone-hard dirt.  The kraal is silent, and so it will remain.


Every storyteller I know tells certain stories as much for themselves as for those who listen.  These are the stories that have taken up residence in our hearts and minds and refuse to leave. Some raise questions we have never been able to answer; some mirror a journey we have taken or know we must someday take.  Each, I suspect, still has much to teach the storyteller herself.

We tell others of course, some learned for a particular occasion or audience, perhaps learned only knee-deep, some just for fun.  They are useful stories.  But the stories I’ve speaking of are ones we’ve entered as one might enter a cavern, once with a candle, another time with a wide beam mag light.  Each time we tell the story, we are listening, alert to something more the story might teach us, alert to the body language of the listeners and open to their thoughts and questions, even it the interrupt the telling itself.

For me, one such story is “The Children of the Sycamore,” the Maasai tale I reference in the above poem. I first encountered it in Julius Lester’s delightful anthology of African and Jewish stories, How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have?  Lester stays quite close to his own source, African Folktales, edited by Paul Radin.  It is a story that does not end happily.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons I found myself going back to it again and again.  It is a story about making a seemingly small mistake that cannot be undone.  A story, among other things, of the consequences of careless speech.  (Oh, how many times I have spoken too soon, too harshly, too broadly.  At other times my silence has wounded.)

Though once another storyteller told me she hoped I would not tell it because it was too sad, I’ve not heeded her advice. It is a story I’ve told to grown-ups and youth, but also to children as young as ten whom I’ve gotten to know at least a bit and at a time when we can process the story together.  We may write poems.  We may simply share our reactions and pose questions.  Like Kevin at the detention center, our thoughts about the story may give us or those with us some insight into our own lives, our own predicaments and victories.

Monday, September 5, 2016

... And Justice For All

by Julie Della Torre

The term ‘social justice’ has been used quite a bit this summer.  But what exactly is meant by ‘social justice’? I decided to explore a bit to learn and to figure out how stories fit into this whole discussion. I started my exploration wide for terminology and understanding and then tried to narrow the search to pinpoint individual stories that might be used to start a conversation.

Before I describe my search, I’d like to go into a bit of rationale. For SAI, I do work in the Paterson School District, a district taken over by the state. Many of the students are living with problems associated with life in an impoverished inner- city setting. In my freelance work, on the other side of the Passaic River, I work in affluent, well run school districts. Here we all are in northern Bergen/Passaic Counties, side-by-side, and every morning, around the same time, all of these students are uttering the phrase “... with liberty and justice for all.” How do we understand these words?

In previous years, when I have asked students what this word ‘justice’ means, they usually responded with the word ‘fairness,’ but I believe ‘social justice’ is a bit different. Last year at the Detention Center we explored Super Heroes and how they fight for justice. However, Super Heroes fight one particular evil entity to bring justice to the land. How would a Super Hero fight such things as voter rights protection, fair housing, industrial farming, and systemic racism?

As an individual I try to become more aware by reading and listening. How can I make a difference?  As a storyteller, I believe I have a unique opportunity to make a tiny, tiny bit of difference. Brene Brown says, “If we choose not to get involved or pretend it’s not happening, we’re going against the very sense of connection that makes us human.” Noticing is the first step.

Now, folktales are humble things, but they DO come from the folk. The folk know about these social injustices and have something to say about them, often in a delightful and charming way.  How are social injustices addressed in the old folktales? Maybe we storytellers CAN be an instrument for change, if just the very beginnings of change. We can bring awareness to ourselves and our listeners as we search for stories and as we tell them.

But, I repeat, folktales are humble things. They are not didactic. We can’t put too much on them. We storytellers can think about issues as we search and learn stories and become aware of injustices. Simply telling and listening to particular folktales gives voice to injustices. Helping students think about social issues while discussing folktales will deepen the experience. But we must remember to follow the students’ lead. Fortunately, they know more than we think they do. Students are always observing, listening, reading the world and engaging in discussions.

Any didactic approach to telling a folktale or even leading a discussion will be disastrous to the tale, to the telling and to the listener.

And so I started my search for tales. Many folk tales address individual justice, but I wanted stories that would speak to social injustices. First I enveloped myself in terminology and in the state of education on social justice issues.

Definitions from various dictionaries and the Department of Justice include:
  • ·      Justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society
  • ·      Promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity
  • ·      When all people share a common humanity and therefore have a right to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources

While trying to define and understand social justice as opposed to individual justice, I discovered the following sites which proved helpful:

  • ·      Teaching Tolerance website
  • ·      Global Oneness Project
  • ·      UN Declaration of Human Rights

As I read and learned more, I was reminded of collections of tales that I own. I pulled down four:
  • ·      Fair Is Fair by Sharon Creeden
  • ·      The Moon In the Well by Erica Meade
  • ·       Once Upon a Time by Elisa Pearmain
  • ·      Spinning Tales, Weaving Hope ed. Ed Brody,

None of the tables of contents contain the specific term ‘social justice’, but they do list such terms as equality, fairness, justice and community. Each volume contained a story or two for my growing list of folktales.

Then I started reading more and more folktales.  Below is a list of stories I will use this year to help deepen my understanding and exploration of the term ‘social justice.’ This list is just a brainstorming list. I found many stories in which one individual helps a community, for instance “The Magic Porridge Pot” in which a young girl feeds a village with an unending overflowing porridge pot. I particularly wanted stories of community members doing good work together for the benefit of all of its members.
  • ·       “Chief of the Well” (Haiti): any of the ‘keeper of the well’ stories would work. The water belongs to us all.
  • ·      “Bringer of Fire” stories, particularly those with many animals working together to bring the fire to the community.
  • ·      “Minu”: a wealthy man dies just like the rest of us. I found this in an old Cricket magazine. Julie P tells a version of this tale.
  • ·      “Nyngara”: the children of a Nigerian village help heal the chief. Found in Lion on the Path
  • ·      “The Magic Garden”:  a family (one young man in particular) help soothe the poor. Found in Stories of the Steppes.

I would love your comments and any additions that come to mind.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Anecdote of a Story

by Paula Davidoff

All storytellers have a list of stories that we can rely on: stories that always elicit the proverbial “ha ha” or “aha,” stories that are good openers and closers, and stories that are just the right length for social occasions. We tell these stories several times a year to begin a workshop or assembly, or because they can be discussed in ways that fit most character development curriculum objectives, or because, after hearing them, people always have something to think and talk about.
I also bet that most storytellers have a few stories that they tell again and again because, for the teller, the story has never quite resolved itself. Because each telling opens new windows that shed different kinds of light on pieces of the tale. Because each time you tell it, you understand or remember something new about yourself and the world.
The Goose Girl at Gruchy, Jean-Francois Millet
I have a list of stories like that. Some of them have been in my repertoire for years; others are relatively new. Sometimes I’m surprised by a story that I thought I thoroughly understood and I add it to the list.
A couple of days ago, while reading through the notes I took during the past school year’s workshops and residencies, I came upon this sentence:
“How did The Goosegirl get to be the story of my life?”
I wrote it during an independent writing activity in a professional development workshop Julie Della Torre and I taught for sixth grade English LA teachers. (My thoughts about the answer to the question are also in the notebook, but they wouldn’t be interesting to anyone except, maybe, my imaginary therapist.) However, reading that entry made me think of some of the many times I’ve told the story, and gave me an idea for the first workshop of a summer program I’m co-teaching with my friend and fellow teaching artist, Carolyn Hunt.

For over ten years, Carolyn and I have co-taught Girls Surviving, a writing and theater program for teen girls that we created together. The program runs all year – one evening a week during the school year, and for an intensive four to six weeks in summer. In each of these ‘seasons,’ participants write, rehearse, and perform an original play about issues that affect their lives. We often open the first workshop of a season with storytelling. This summer, we opened with Grimms’ Goosegirl.
Because the program is community based and long term, many of the girls participate for five or six years. This summer, three of these ‘veteran’ troupe members, all going into their senior year of high school, are planning and directing workshop activities. Most of the other participants will be starting high school in September, so there is a big knowledge and maturity gap between the oldest and youngest members of the group. This was apparent on the first day when the older girls encouraged the younger ones to talk about themselves, their school experiences, and their thoughts about entering high school. The new girls were, understandably, shy, but they had also come in friend groups, clusters of two or three girls who sat together whispering and trying to sneak peeks at their phones during lulls in the workshop. Their focus and their conversation was all over the place. Until we placed The Goosegirl at the center of the discussion circle.
Almost immediately, the story began to organize both thought and activity. The thing that came together immediately, of course, was focus. This is something I’ve experienced, probably, thousands of times, but until I began reflecting on this workshop, I don’t think I have ever fully appreciated the power of having everyone in a group deeply centered in the same place, visualizing the (almost) same things.
After the story, conversation was more coherent. It became discussion. Which makes sense because everyone still had the story in mind and, although talk about story characters led to talk about personal experience, the story was still holding the group together.
What has surprised me, workshop by workshop, is how, although there have been few, if any, direct references to The Goosegirl after that first day, ideas from the story are reflected in the girls’ discussions and writing, and in the theme of the play they are constructing.  In an exercise in which we wrote dialogue between the inner and outer voices of a character, one writer had the inner voice say, “If my mother just saw the way I spoke to that kid, it would break her heart.” This nearly verbatim quote from the story was written days after I told it.

What happens when a heterogeneous group of people is given a story? Each individual enters the telling space with his or her own worries and joys, head filled with the events of the day behind or ahead, all very personal and specific to the self. Then, I think, the story speaks to each of those individuals in a way that connects some aspect of each personal experience to the characters and events in the story, and that, in turn, connects each person to the others in the group. In situations, like the Girls Surviving workshop, the talk that follows the story can make these connections obvious. But I think that even in situations where an audience hears the story and then gets up to go their separate ways, the connection still happens because the group had those moments of communal focus and, once the story enters the heart and mind, it stays there. Lying beneath the thoughts and events that push past it as people go through their day-to-day, the story helps give meaning and purpose to one’s inner and outer lives.
The effect that The Goosegirl is having on the work of my summer students brings to mind the Wallace Stevens poem, Anecdote of the Jar.*

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Placing the story in the workshop lent order to the ideas and experiences of the participants by offering a reference point for one’s own words and providing context for the words and actions of the others. It doesn’t change things in any obvious way. The big girls are still conscientiously teaching and the little ones, although they are getting better, still feel bereft without their phones. But the group is coalescing and all of the girls have begun to make art.

*This poem, from Stevens’s Harmonium, is in the public domain.