Thursday, April 7, 2011


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intimacy motivate the sharing of personal narratives. Communication can be subverted, however, when storytellers leave their own folk group to reach across the color line for story-listeners, so that impulses toward intimacy are forced to compete with anxieties that accompany unfamiliarity. Communication within a common folk group establishes codes, protocol, and rhetorical strategies which lose power in their translation to other, different communities. Further, in cross-cultural oral events, tellers risk finding listeners who do not share their critical beliefs, ones which serve to insure understanding between them and th positioned deeply within a Southern folk group, thus inviting them to play an intimate role in a distinctive cultural setting where paradoxes of race rest at the core. By contrast, conflicting critical beliefs or clashes in community protocol that emerge when cultural and/or racial boundaries are crossed can serve to obscure the listeners position through irony and indirection. Southern racial paradoxes become yet more complicated with the structural complexities that the novel itself embodies in the novel, telling events can be performed on several narrative levels, with a range of possible relationships between the implied author and the implied reader; or between overt, intra-textual narrators and narratees; or between covert narrators and narratees.(6) Because the novel is, as Paul Ricouer has put it, a prodigious workshop for experiments (8), the dramatization of telling and listening can undoubtedly be enacted in multifarious, if not inscrutable, ways.

Such manifested events of storytelling and listening necessarily set a particular course for readers. In framed narratives, for instance, we frequently encounter the dramatization of tellers and listeners who serve as models for our own reception, directing our understanding. The manipulation of an oral storytelling dynamic indeed seeks to engage readers in an active, performative role. Robert Stepto has argued that intra-textual storytelling events particularly signify in African American fiction, which has historically called on the vitality of its oral tradition to empower the literature.(7) Stepto has identified in African American novels a storytelling paradigm, one which suggests a storytelling interpretive community where readers -- in spite of the inescapable fact that they are reading -- are asked to become hearers whose responsibilities of listenership. . . are defined in purely performative contexts.(8)

Stepto further identifies in African American letters a discourse of distrust, saying that both the distrust of literacy and an attendant distrust of the American reader and of American acts of reading have influenced Black writers writing. These writers cannot wholly trust a White readership -- or, as Stepto recognizes, some members of a Black readership -- because of the suspected unreliability of readers. Steptos discussion usefully extends traditional theories of narrative, which account for unreliable authors and narrators, but not necessarily for unreliable readers. A discourse of distrust frequently admits, in the form of a framed tale, the inclusion of a fully dramatized story-listener to maneuver readers through layers of institutionalized distrust between the races while providing, according to Stepto, a Black storyteller with a way of telling off his or her unreliable reader. Stepto further identifies different types of performances which manifest a discourse of distrust narrative events comprised of Black and White tellers and listeners, who vary in degrees of competence -- from master to novice tellers and from reliable to unreliable listeners -- and who are present in varying combinations, are depicted as either primary or secondary in the performance (18-0). Steptos typology is certainly provocative and useful for interrogating the workings of oral storytelling events where the teller and listener are overtly dramatized in a framed narrative, even if they develop as ancillary.

We are accustomed, for example, to the image of intra-textual Black tellers speaking directly to White listeners in both Black and White Southern literature. And we begin to see grounds for Black writers distrusting not only White acts of reading but White acts of writing when we note how this racial dynamic has been traditionally represented in White Southern fiction the Black teller is frequently sentimentalized as an intimate part of the family -- an image rooted in White plantation fiction where the Good Slave cheerfully entertains White children by the hour. African American writers, such as Charles Chesnutt in The Conjure Woman, have worked to revise these sentimentalized portraits by relying on text-centered forms of indirection, manipulating rhetorical features both to tell off a White reading audience, which has sanctioned sentimentalized portraits of slave storytelling to White children, and to offer veiled instructions for readers in order to expose White presuppositions of authority in the shaping of American literary tradition.

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Steptos morphology fully accounts for such events as those in The Conjure Woman, with intra-textual Black tellers, both master and novice, explicitly engaging White listeners. But we might address a gap in Steptos work he does not include in his discussion the possibility of intra-textual White tellers speaking directly to Black listeners. Indeed, in Southern letters -- if not in American letters -- there is a dearth of White telling to Black listening; the White cultural posture of presumed authority resists cultivating self-conscious intimacy with members of the Black community.

This is not to say that Southern Blacks have not traditionally had access to White stories. It is, rather, to argue that White Southern storytelling -- while including the sound of a Black voice -- has not traditionally been directed to Black listeners, who are compelled to overhear rather than to hear White narratives. Thus, while Black-to-White storytelling is largely characterized by text-centered indirection, White-to-Black communication tends to rely on audience-centered indirection, with Black listeners comprising a secondary audience. Brenneis notes, however, that this secondary audience is not merely residual, in that it can still exerciseeir listeners inside a mutual belief space (Bruce 7-08).

In cross-cultural storytelling situations, where members of separate belief spaces converge, perhaps one of the most exacting rhetorical strategies to consider is indirection, where, as anthropologist Donald Brenneis has noted, the audience is necessarily engaged in a search for hidden meaning (40). Brenneis has noted, the audience is necessarily engaged in a search for hidden meaning (40). Brenneis, clearly informed by Mikhail Bakhtins theories of dialogism,(5) has identified in ethnographies of speaking several types of indirection that can occur during a storytelling event I am most interested here in his descriptions of text-centered indirection, which relies upon rhetorical features in the discourse to render the message opaque, and in audience-centered indirection, which distinguishes between

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