Entries tagged with “Mississippi Delta

Language Socialization
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 15: 163-191 (Volume publication date October 1986)
B B Schieffelin, and E Ochs
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Letters to My Tutor….

My dearest Simone,

In reading “Language Socialization” and thinking about how language is used to instruct about culture, I thought more on the baby talk exercises in my extended family. Schieffelin and Ochs write about how some children’s early encounters with language are more one-on-one, mostly caregiver to child, and how others have an early immersion into multi-person conversations and how the latter learn early that conversations can be complicated and multi-layered. They also speak about how children “must learn how to appropriately convey their feelings to others as well as to recognize the moods and emotions that others display.” It seems the baby talk exercises in my family meant immersion from birth into multi-person conversations for the infant as well as early instruction on reading and interpreting emotions and affect. Here’s something I wrote earlier:

When I was younger, there was much baby talk on behalf of the fetus and on behalf of the infant. Older people would talk on behalf of infants (much the same way one might talk in place of a stuffed toy for a child) at least through a time at which the infant was aware that the talk/speech had to do with her. There was an expectation that the older speaker would pay attention to the facial expressions and body language of the infant when creating communication on behalf of the infant. Other would-be speakers might challenge poor interpretation and take up speaking for the infant with a “no, I don’t think that…” I remember these interaction being fun social experiences. Even very young children could give a go at speaking on behalf of the infant as long as the would-be speaker had the requisite language and observational skills.

I felt the whole experience helped communication between children in the family and between children and adults. I think it encouraged a wholistic approach to interpreting communications from children. The authors write of a divide between “child-centered communication” and “situation-centered communication,” and how adults with a child-centered orientation make a greater effort to decipher the verbal utterances of the child in an effort to understand what the child is trying to communicate,  and how those who were situation-centered paid less attention to or even ignored the verbal utterances of a child. I wonder whether it’s not so much that situation-centered adults were ignoring the verbal utterance, as much as it was that the verbal utterances were one of many clues used to decipher the desires of the child, along with facial expressions and body language and environmental cues.

Seems I’m pressing closer and closer to my Monday before midnight deadline for writing to you. Next week, I’ll post earlier.

Many warm thoughts,

P. S.  It’s my grandmother’s birthday.  (Happy Birthday, Granny!)

Letters to my Tutor…

My dear, sweet Simone,

I haven’t finished reading the review scheduled for this week. Most of the reviews I’ve read have been around 20 pages; the latest one is around 40 pages and I didn’t schedule for that.  I could have finished the reading, but I decided that it might be better to stretch it over two weeks.  And plus, this leaves open the chance to write to you about something that has been playing in the back of my head for several weeks now.

Back in the 1990’s one of my African-American history professors asserted during class that all African-Americans were atheists…except for the odd few here or there.  I don’t have a clear memory of my understanding of his statements at the time, so my more recent thoughts might be a rehash of my thinking then.  I also don’t recall the professors exactly elaborations, but I do remember being more in agreement than not.  You’ve written of socializing with Richard Wright, a fellow Mississippian.  Did you two ever speak about religion?  I know he had strong feelings and beliefs about the matter. You’ve mentioned so far in one of your letters to Nelson that Richard might take unkindly to some of your opinions of him, but that you thought that this would be more due to a misinterpretation of your view. I hope to hear more about your conversations with Richard.

I’ve thought back on the subject due to more recent casual observations of an African-American who identifies as atheist.  His atheism is quite strange to me in that it seems to assume and be in reaction to a type of belief that I didn’t think existed in the African-American community.  It’s possible this gentleman grew up in more integrated community, but still it seems that he’s old enough that this should not have skewed his relationship with Christianity so far into the mainstream. He makes remarks along the lines of  this or that Christian belief isn’t true or that church officials will twists general statements in an effort to bamboozle congregants.  Now, my experience (and I think one that was shared by the professor) was that even in a community that was at least ostensibly filled with believers, statements like the above were considered an essential part of the education of the black child such that if an African-American identified as atheist the remarks would come from some place other than Christianity lacked truth.

Part of my early education was that religion, politics, science, society were all used to lie to me about who I was and what my potential was as a black child.  Out in the popular culture “blackness” was spoken of as a punishment from god; “scientific” studies showed that blackness and black culture were inherently inferior; political spin doctors never lacked plentiful justifications for laws now popularly considered to have been unjust.  In all-Black settings especially, there was strongly resistance to these types of things in popular culture.  Children were heavily encouraged to developed a sense of self that stood apart from religious truths and “scientific” truths and truths found in popular culture.  The tone of the statements of the African-American atheist I mentioned earlier suggests to me that he didn’t receive this early education that I thought was the norm.

One thing I do remember the professor saying is something along the lines that Christian religiosity in the black community was more or less a song and dance, a pageant, a play for the benefit of the powers that be.  During American slavery, religious meetings often served as a cover for other activities such as learning to read or planning escapes to freedom or other communications.  Religious singing during fieldwork and other group work was often used as a signal for secret meetings and plans.  Later, during the Civil Rights Movement, stressing the idea that we black people worshiped the same god as the wider population was often helpful in combating racism.  This last thought co-mingled with some of the general thinking about whether all African-Americans are atheist has lead me to reinterpret part of my elementary school education.

I went to a segregated elementary school.  My mother attended an integrated elementary school, at least for a short while, but that had fallen out of fashion by the time I was in school… and then back in fashion again before I had finished grade school.  Getting back to the point, there was prayer in my public school.  And when it was discovered that I did not know the Lord’s Prayer after I had been chosen to lead the class in prayer and failed, my teacher took me aside and taught it to me.  It’s recently dawned on me or perhaps re-dawned on me that prayer in the black school was part of a survival strategy. My teacher taught me the Lord’s Prayer because it was an essential tool for my health and safety as a black child in Mississippi.. this apart from whatever her personal beliefs may have been.  Calls to prayer could sometimes be effective in diffusing racially heated situations headed toward violence.

I’ve been trying to sort out what I was taught about religion as a child.  The same teacher who made sure that I knew the Lord’s Prayer also did a great job at teaching about the religions in other cultures; there was no condescension.  She did not teach in a tone that suggested that non-Christian religions were lesser or further away from some universal truth.  When my mother learned that I liked a Hindu boy she made remarks to my younger brother about maybe having to learn about a whole different religion in a tone that seemed open and accepting.  From many places, I got the sense that Christianity was local and practical.

Perhaps I will revisit this later?  My community service was canceled for tonight, but still I’m writing to you late in the day.  I’ve actually been more efficient this week, but my efforts have been spread across a wider variety of tasks.  I don’t care much for strict schedules generally speaking, but it seems having regularly scheduled chunks helps me get more done during “free” times.  I hope this is true.

Yours faithfully,

The Caribbean Region:An Open Frontier in Anthropological Theory
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 21: 19-42 (Volume publication date October 1992)
Michel-Rolph Trouillot
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Letters to My Tutor

My dear lady,

I’ve been thinking this week that I haven’t been Americana enough, haven’t maintained the upbeat-enthusiastic-everything-is-possible attitude.  I’m not sure I ever was a good representative of that mindset, though I’ve been chastised for it in the past by friends who were ever more fatalistic.  I’ve been away from reading this week, and with every missing page, my sadness grew and grew; and with thoughts of all the pages in all the books, my sadness grew and grew.  But I worked at making money, so that gives me the right to live a little longer, to be a proper person.  If one does not make money, then one should pay the world a kindness and just die… that’s how it seems.  I will read more tonight and work for money tomorrow and work for pleasure the next day.  I did go for volunteering tonight; that was a pleasure, but once again I find myself in a rush to write to you.

I felt an instant recognition in reading about anthropology in the Caribbean.  I could not stop thinking of home and childhood.  When Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote of Caribbean culture being born out of genocide and colonialism and slavery, I felt that he was describing my world growing up in the Mississippi Delta.  There’s such a shared history and circumstance.  But as time is limited, I will write of one specific thing for now, and perhaps more later in the week?

Trouillot wrote that some officials “saw Afro-Caribbean families as ‘deviant’ simply because they did not fit the nuclear folk-model of Western consciousness.  Just as in the United States, these bureaucrats’ views were echoed by social scientists who wanted to explain–or explain away–such ‘abnormalities’ as ‘missing fathers.'”  I grew up with this discussion swirling, this label of my family life as being deviant.  I’ve written many times of how I greatly prefer the family structure I knew as a kid to the “nuclear folk-model.”  I had this enormous, enveloping extended family experience.  I knew the intimacy that comes with mundane interaction with respect to  great-grandparents on both sides of my family.  I shared a household with a great-grandparent.  Did I ever share a household with my father?  No.  Were my mother and father ever married?  No.  However, speaking with people who grew up in the nuclear unit, I’ve come to believe that I shared something more with my father than what many experience after spending their entire childhood in a home with mom-dad-sibling.   Since I had intimate access to the same people who shaped my father growing up, I think I “know” him in a deeper and more significant way than those in many non-“deviant” families.  I may not know his favorite cereal or the way his takes his coffee, but I know the types of information that would allow me to decide whether I could be friends with him;  times when I’ve spoken to him about his views on women or “race” or religion, I had a near instant understanding of milieu from which those views were born.  I understood him.  Many had “present” fathers who were a lot more “missing” than mine.

This is not to say that I would not have preferred the physical presence of my father along with the other that I did have.  I just grew up in a culture where the value of knowing and being around your “people,” your extended family, was greater than the value of knowing or being around any one or two particular family members.  This “way” may have been born in part as a result of slavery where knowing and being around particular family members may not have been an option due to sales concerns;  it could also be part of an older tradition.  I think there is a wonderfulness to it that was often overlooked by “bureaucrats” and “social scientists.”

OK, now, I will post this while it is still officially Monday in my land.  I will read more of your letters and your work this week.  I must also finish some of the books that have been stacked on my desk for longer.  I read a couple of your letters just this night.  When you chastised Nelson (Algren) for not being a good French student, I felt the sting as well.

Devoted as ever,