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Sun August 11, 2013

Contested Memories Find Common Ground In 'The Storied South'

For four decades, William Ferris tracked down some of the most inspirational artists and historians of the American South. He sat down with Eudora Welty, Alice Walker, Pete Seeger, Bobby Rush and Alex Haley, capturing their reflections on tape and their images on camera.

The results of his work have now been published as a new book, The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists. The book is a bittersweet love song to the muddy rivers and rolling fields of Oklahoma, Mississippi and the rest of the South — the languid afternoons, the constant static of buzzing insects, and the taut undercurrent of racial tension that produced some of the greatest novels, paintings and music of the 20th century. All of it is heard through the voices of the artists themselves — like Roots author Alex Haley, who describes the South as "a place of hands, it's a place of touch, of caress, of less of slapping, of knocking people down, it's a softer, sweeter culture."

Ferris tells NPR's Celeste Headlee that he sees the book as one large narrative. "Each of those speakers, in his or her own way, wrestles with, is tortured by, is in love with a place called the South," he says. "And I sometimes think of the book as my way of getting all these people to a common table of conversation."


Interview Highlights

On confliction visions of the South

"What this really does is to look at what is called contested memory, the different memories of the South in black and white worlds. Eudora Welty grew up in a family in which books were everywhere, and she was encouraged to read. Alice Walker grew up in a family that encouraged her to read, but had to beg, borrow and steal books from white families to bring home for the children to learn to read. And yet they both began to write about the South. And Robert Penn Warren, who was America's first poet laureate, wrestled with race throughout his life, and wrote a book at the end of his career, Who Speaks for the Negro? in which he interviewed Malcolm X and Aaron Henry and many of the civil rights leaders, looking at how race shapes our nation in such a powerful way. And certainly that continues today."

On the way the Southern landscape changed storytelling

"In a way, that is a key to every one of these voices. Sam Gilliam describes going back to his home and looking at the Ohio River, which often flooded. And his paintings, he says, when they're large and violent, are inspired by the waters of that river. William Eggleston's dramatic color photography captures the deep reds and yellows of the Mississippi Delta, where he grew up and later photographed, in such a powerful way. So place shapes every voice in this book, in a distinctive way."

On why the South preserves its history through storytelling

"Stories are our oldest way of communicating knowledge, of passing on traditions, and Southerners have a gift for that. And when you ask a Southerner to answer a question, they will tell a story. And embedded in that story is the information that they feel is the answer to the question. And so when I asked each of these figures about their novel or their painting, or their song or their photograph, what they did was tell me a story, and it was a powerful story in every case. Complicated, interesting, and opening doors of understanding about the South."

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Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

For four decades, William Ferris tracked down some of the most inspirational artists and historians of the American South. He sat down with Eudora Welty, Alice Walker, Pete Seeger, Bobby Rush and Alex Haley, among others, capturing their reflections on tape and their images on camera. The results of his work have now been published as a new book, "The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists."

William Ferris is an American Folklorist and senior associate director of the University of North Carolina Center for the Study of the American South. I spoke with him last week about his book, a bittersweet love song to the muddy rivers and rolling fields of Georgia, Mississippi and the rest of the South; the languid afternoons, the constant static of buzzing insects and the hot undercurrent of racial tension that produced some of the greatest novels, paintings and music of the 20th century, all heard through the voices of the artists themselves. Alex Haley, the author of "Roots," is one of those voices.

ALEX HALEY: It's said that women's hands in particular show their age and what their life has been like more than anything else about them. And I just feel the South is a place of hands. It's a place of touch, of caress, of less of slapping and knocking people down. It's a soft, sweeter culture.

HEADLEE: I mean, I love that - a place of hands and touch. How does that gibe with your identity as a Southerner? How does the South come out through its storytelling as a place of touching and caressing, as he describes it?

WILLIAM FERRIS: Well, I think the South is an intimate place and it's a place of a familiar touch, a grandmother's touch or a grandfather's voice telling a story. And Alex eloquently talked about an elderly woman's hands telling the story of their life and all they had done working in fields and washing clothes and preparing meals.

HEADLEE: You know, Bill, I was a little surprised by the number of people featured in your book that referred to specific storytellers, specific artists that they themselves had been inspired by and stories that they had returned to over and over. How often did you find people referring back to very specific stories or authors that they had experienced as they were kids?

FERRIS: Often. What struck me at the end of writing this book and looking at its index was that largest number of references in the index are not to writers in the book but rather to William Faulkner. Virtually every person - 26 people in the book - were shaped by Faulkner's work. Sam Gilliam and Ed McGowan are two painters who see their abstract paintings as connected to Faulkner's stream of consciousness literary style. So, there's a powerful influence that moves across from literature to painting and to photography. William Eggleston talks about looking at a stack of 300 of his color photographs and comparing that to reading a Faulkner novel.

HEADLEE: Well, I want to take a listen to the author Sterling Brown here. Because not surprisingly here, when you talk about tortured memories of the South and anguish, a lot of that has to do with conflicts over race. So, let's take a listen to the writer Sterling Brown and what he had to say.

STERLING BROWN: This whole foolishness that the (bleep) going north, if he goes and knocks on the door for food, the white man shuts it in his face. And in the South, the white man says what the hell you doing in my front door, come around the back. And he goes around the back and gets a lot to eat. that's a lot of (bleep). That's a lot of crap. And I ain't got no illusions about no lack of prejudice. Boston is a bad god (bleep) place for Negroes. But it is not North versus South - one perfect and the other imperfect, no. But if I got to take my chances on violence and on insult, I'll take the North any day. 'Cause if I get 10 miles out of Atlanta, I don't know what I run into.

HEADLEE: I have to say that really stopped me in my tracks to hear someone speaking that openly, to a certain extent, profanely. Once we get to race, the story differs. That's a very different story than what we hear, for example, from the writer Robert Penn Warren.

FERRIS: Yes. I couldn't agree more. And what this really does is to look at what is called contested memory, the different memories of the South in black and white worlds. And these writers and artists represent those contested memories. Eudora Welty grew up in a family in which books were everywhere, and she was encouraged to read. Alice Walker grew up in a family that encouraged her to read but had to beg, borrow and steal books from white families to bring home for the children to learn to read. And yet they both began to write about the South. And Robert Penn Warren, who was America's first poet laureate, wrestled with race throughout his life and wrote a book at the end of his career, "Who Speaks for the Negro," in which he interviewed Malcolm X and Aaron Henry and many of the civil rights leaders, looking at how race shapes our nation in such a powerful way. And certainly that continues today.

HEADLEE: I can identify with what you're talking about. Both sets of my grandparents were from the South - one from Texas; one from Arkansas. And I remember being taught lessons from my grandfather, not through facts or common sense, but by telling a story about somebody he once knew. I feel that viscerally and yet I don't entirely understand it. Why is it that the South has this particular tradition of storytelling as a way to preserve their history? How did that come about?

FERRIS: Stories are our oldest way of communicating knowledge, of passing on traditions, and Southerners have a gift for that. And when you ask a Southerner to answer a question, they will tell a story. And embedded in that story is the information that they feel is the answer to the question. And so when I asked each of these figures about their novel or their painting, or their song or their photograph, what they did was tell me a story, and it was a powerful story in every case. Complicated, interesting, and opening doors of understanding about the South.

HEADLEE: William Ferris. His new book is "The Storied South, Voices of Writers and Artists." He joined us from Wilmington, North Carolina. Thank you so much.

FERRIS: My pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HEADLEE: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Scott Simon will be back next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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