Lillie Burdine with her knitting at the Boone County Fair, photo by her granddaughter, student Lacey Vanderpool.
The school semester is over and last week my students turned in their final projects and presentations for their community-based research. It was a short class, with little time to create an in depth research project. But even in this short period of time they were able to document some of the oral histories and folkways of which they were already aware—things like family traditions, community festivals, and oral histories. Some of them introduced me to things about this region I knew little or nothing about. Others addressed topics with which I was familiar, but opened my eyes to new layers, helping me understand more about these living traditions. So I thought I’d share a few of them here.
One student brought in a detailed photo album of his family’s four generations of quilting. His accompanying paper addressed how the craft allowed his family to bond, share family stories, and pass down precious heirlooms. Another student explored the folklife of Plainview, touching on the important, and often under-discussed, topic of school consolidation and the drastic changes it can bring to a community. Another student studied Culture Day at his home church in Mississippi, a tradition begun during the civil rights movement to honor African American culture in the community. Another student interviewed his family about the three generations of woodworking, noting that everyone in the family was “smart with their hands.”
And then there were the students who turned in papers about family foodways, documenting how to make generations-old banana pudding or chicken and dumplings. That might not sound like an important topic on the surface, but by documenting these tradition and making the recipes along side their family members, they began to learn more about their family’s history, stories of life during the Depression, and how recipes can help people connect with those that have long since passed from the earth.
Still others touched on college-based traditions like the culture of ATU football and basketball, highlighting the role these traditions can play in bringing teams together. And another student, who had recently begun knitting, spoke with her grandmother about how she learned to knit, discovering that when access to yarn was difficult, her grandmother would collect clumps of wool caught in the barbed wire, spinning it to make her own (see photo of her grandmother above).
The thing about folklife is that initially it can seem so obvious, so simple. What could anyone possibly learn from such everyday stuff, people often wonder. Or why do any of these old ways even matter, younger people sometimes ask. But scratch the surface of your family’s favorite recipe, or the history of, say, your grandmother’s chicken house and you’ll quickly find countless layers of stories and meaning, an intricate web that binds us together through family, community, landscape, and history. The stories we discover are sometimes heart-warming and sometimes unsettling. We learn about birth and death, success and terrible hardship, human kindness and human prejudice. Whatever we find, there is no doubt that exploring such everyday things sheds new light on who we are and can help us think about who we want to be. After all, as I rediscovered through reading these class projects, a study of one family history can illuminate everything from economics to ethnicity. A person’s garden can open up a door to discussing Native American ancestry. A study of a family farm can lead to information about the building of Arkansas Nuclear One.
In closing, since we’re still in the month of May I’d like to mention that for a few years now I’ve been documenting the tradition of Decoration Days in the area. If you or your family takes part in this tradition, I’d love to hear about it, see your photos, and learn more!