The Seed and the Story: Paths of Tradition Bearing

Delegates from the Kentucky Remembers! camps. 2007. Photo by author.

The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring folklife, sustainability, oral history, human rights,and community in Yell County, Arkansas.   The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier.  Please remember to support your local paper and independent media!  The Seed and the Story column is just of many features you can find on the Boiled Down Juice.  Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  If you enjoy our posts, please tell a friend. And thanks for reading.

I recently mentioned the online folklife and oral history class I’ve been teaching and that I’m a big believer that learning should always be multi-directional. Teachers come to class with knowledge and years of study, but engaged students come with open minds, questions, and curiosity, a form of wisdom that is truly under-recognized in our society. This willingness to ask questions and to seek out a greater understanding not only helps students think more deeply about the world around them, but it also encourages the teacher to view their work in new ways. Everyone learns together.

I first noticed this when working with the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights back in 2007. I was the staff oral historian for the Kentucky Remembers! Camps where I helped students prepare to interview community members about the civil rights movement in Kentucky. Our goal was to document some of the lesser-known figures in the movement, the every day people who fought, and are still fighting, for equality. I was there to helps the student do research, conduct interviews, and formulate in-depth questions. I soon discovered, however, that the students were teaching me. Their willingness to be inquisitive, their desire to understand more about their communities, and their willingness to connect the stories of the past with the realities of today helped me to rethink my role as a teacher. And at the end of the camps when I sat down and listened to their interviews with community elders, I began to realize that there’s nothing quite as powerful as the young and the old speaking together.

This is all to say, I’m deeply appreciative of what my students bring to the table. So I want to share one example from my current class. The students have been reading texts and watching videos about various cultural traditions including Laotian weaving, African American gospel, and Ozark Balladry. I’ve asked them to think about the concept of tradition bearers, of being someone in their community who carries traditions from one generation to the next. In the film A Singing Stream, a film by Tom Davenport about African American gospel singing traditions in a North Carolina family, the matriarch of the family, Mrs. Landis, isn’t one of the main singers. But she sees to it that her sons learn to sing, providing them encouragement, surrounding them with singers, and giving them time and space to soak it all in. As one of my students, Jeffrey noted, “It’s her tradition to maintain the tradition.”

His phrase stuck with me. So often people tell me they have nothing to pass down. They can’t cook; they don’t garden; they can’t sew. They’re not tradition bearers, they conclude. Of course, that’s never true. We all have skills worth passing down. That aside, the important point here is that Mrs. Landis didn’t have to be a singer to be a tradition bearer. She opened up her home and assured her sons access to the tradition. We may not all be excellent quilters or know how to speak the language of our foremothers and fathers. But that doesn’t mean we can’t support those who do, partially by making sure the young people in our society gain exposure. The tradition bearers can only carry it on if we help them and the young people won’t know if we don’t tell them. That’s something we can all do.

Please don’t forget about the garden book we’re working on! More information here and here.