About 20 years ago, I conducted a couple of storytelling workshops at City Lights Bookstore.
I remember a very enthusiastic young man named Gregory who told me that he intended to become a professional storyteller. The plain truth was, I had very little to teach this fellow since he was obviously self-confident and eager to perform.
In the following years, I heard from him, and he was doing well telling stories in the Miami school system. He even had his own radio show. As I remember, he loved King Arthur and told Appalachian Jack Tales.
A few months back, I received a CD from Mr. Gregory. Among the blurbs on the cover was a colorful sticker that proclaimed “Winner of the National Storytelling Festival Award.” The title of his story was “The Hanging of Tom Brown.” The package contained two CDs, and I discovered that listening to the recording was quite an investment in time since the story was more than two hours long. I put fresh batteries in my cochlear implant and settled down with a cup of coffee.
Gregory’s tale was full of surprises. Instead of traditional storytelling, this was (allegedly) a personal experience that had a kind of Forrest Gump structure. It followed our storyteller through the civil rights movement, and it was filled with drama and tragedy. It seems that Gregory was one of six dedicated civil rights workers who spent years in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee assisting African Americans in their fight to acquire the right to vote. Operating out of an old school bus that had been converted into a kind of rolling school room that was known as “The Black Bus,” Gregory and his friends equipped the bus with seats and tables and acquired a stock of old text books and painted the bus so that it could move through the dark roads of remote African-American communities in some of the most dangerous regions of the south. It is an exciting story, and eventually, it is a tragic one since all of these dedicated workers were killed. Well, all but our storyteller, Mr. Gregory.
The central story of Tom Brown is short and brutal. Tom is a young carpenter/electrician and he serves as a role model for others when he learns to read and write on the “Black Bus,” registers to vote and then dies mysteriously while doing electrical wiring at a construction site. The KKK and a murderous group of white racists pursue the bus and eventually destroy it and kill the civil rights workers. However, our storyteller not only survives; he goes on to join the famous Selma march and walks with Martin Luther King Jr. It is a torturous march and in one dramatic episode, Gregory and a fellow marcher have their bruised and bleeding feet bathed by King, himself.
Certainly, the Selma march was the most memorable event in Gregory’s life, and he tells us that if we study the pictures of those courageous marchers, we will find him walking arm in arm with his friend, Willy. We may even find the famous foot-washing scene in which King performs like Christ, using the act to create unity in the marchers. Gregory is present for the victory celebration.
But our storyteller isn’t through with marching and protest. He joins the protesters against the war in Vietnam and once more finds himself in dangerous situations. He also finds himself unemployed (he is a teacher), because his commitment to his ideals regarding the war in Vietnam gets him identified as a trouble-maker.
Being a storyteller myself, I am fascinated by ‘The Hanging of Tom Brown,” but I’m not sure if I approve of it.
First, I can’t help but notice that Tom Brown’s death is barely mentioned in this lengthy tale. In like manner, the civil rights movement is only one part of a tale that also includes the protests and demonstrations about the war.
Now, here is the thing. Is “The Hanging of Tom Brown” true? Probably not, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. Perhaps this story can be a useful tool in teaching students about this country’s troublesome past. It is based on actual history, and I guess the final issue is, does it do that fairly? Perhaps there was no Tom Brown, but of course, there were hundreds of unknown African Americans who died so that others could vote.
Ah, but I am always suspicious of “the pretty lies.” Can they justify their existence? When does the storyteller go too far? Maybe it is the foot-washing that bothers me the most. Perhaps I am wrong. I need to think about it since I sometimes find my own stories becoming pretty lies.
I remember when my third-grade teacher told my grandmother that she was worried about “the stories that Gary tells the other students. Does he know the difference between fact and fiction?” My grandmother assured my teacher that “Gary knows what is true and what isn’t. His stories are usually true, but he does decorate and add a bit of color here and there.”
Yes, I do. I just hope that Mr. Gregory doesn’t “decorate” too much. We should be able to discern the truth within all of that thunder and lightning.