Sunday, April 7, 2013

Telling Local Stories

Last night, I attended play called Conjure: the Folklore of Dr. Jim Jordan at one of our local cultural centers.  The story is narrated by F. Roy Johnson, who founded the newspaper in our area, and who wrote about Dr. Jordan in the 1960s -- and, as the playwrights point out, this is significant because he was a white journalist interested in recording African-American lives in a time when most of white America was not invested in doing so.  The stories of the play are based on F. Roy Johnson's book about him, and the recollections of our local historian E. Frank Stephenson, Jr.

The play was written by Stephenson's daughter, Caroline Stephenson and her husband Jochen Kunstler -- two filmmakers who have come to our area, raising their children while continuing their work as artists.  And we're incredibly lucky to have them here.  (They've also made a great short documentary on the Rosenwald Schools in the area.)

I had fun. And it was an especially great experience to be in the audience with people from the area who remember the man.  Even in our small community, with our local community members acting, there's something special about live theater and watching things in a room full of attentive near-strangers.

Watching -- and thinking about -- the play also causes me to reflect on the importance of telling the local stories.  Roy Johnson thought it was important; so does Frank Stephenson; and so do Caroline and Jochen.

I've written elsewhere about the importance of taking the time to embrace the community that you find yourself in.  And even right now, in the midst of a degree of alienation from the community I'm currently in,* I really do still believe that.  But more important, perhaps, than simply embracing a place is investigating its history, its culture -- and telling that history and culture.**

Every place has a history.  Every person has a story.  And those stories are worth telling.

Fundamentally, it's about a radical notion of valuing every person, no matter where they come from.  And as artists and scholars (and I'm going to be bold enough to now go ahead and categorize myself as both), we can share those stories, no matter our particular medium.  We can be inspired by places, and we can share that with the world, even if it's just the world right around us.

Of course the danger for the artist is that not everyone might like the story that you've told.  Some may disagree with your perception.  And perhaps, more dangerously, some may not want to face the truth of a place -- our histories are not always things of beauty, and contain injustices and outright horrors.

Those stories are worth telling. Every place has a history, no matter how complicated and sordid that history may be. Every person has a story, no matter how flawed and contradictory the person may be.

And we really should be telling them.

And we should be teaching everyone that their stories are worth telling -- and worth sharing with the wider world.

*Suffice it to say, my bio will soon say "Ohio" and not "North Carolina." I have a new job and will be leaving my current one, a move made inevitable in part because of the actions of other people.  It's a long story for another day. Or not.
** Also, I'm not advocating for embracing a place completely: there are problems everywhere, and we don't have to turn a blind eye to poverty and injustice. But we don't have to scoff at the local history, simply because it's "not significant."

1 comment:

nwede henry said...

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