Photo:Cedric N. Chatterley
1993 N.C. Heritage Award Recipient
In an African-American community rich in speech and narrative
traditions, Louise Anderson became a master storyteller. She
always lived among family and friends who could match wits
and entertain each other with poems, toasts, and tales. In perfecting
these arts herself, she drew on personal experiences and
accounts of "slick snakes, mad dogs, and wierd people" for stories
that transcended differences of age, sex, religion, and color.
Born in Georgia in 1921, she was the fourth child of John and
Bertha Davenport Anderson. From age three, she lived in North
Carolina, growing up in High Point and then moving to Jacksonville
when her family relocated there in 1941. Both parents were good
storytellers. She remembered that "people used to hang around at
the filling station just to hear daddy tell stories."
Among her early memories of her mother, who did domestic work
during the day, were the games she played with the children in
the evenings--"Jack and the Beanstalk," "Hambone," "Rabbit Hop--and
her stories. "I know her stories and sometimes tell them now,"
she said. "I know how frightened she was as a young woman in Buckhead
[Georgia] when the Ku Klux Klan marched. I know how one of her
uncles got word that a white man was coming to get him, and the
uncle sent word back, `Tell him to come on, the table is set.'"
Ms. Anderson remembered the fears being countered by the "wonderful
feeling in that house when people were telling stories...a feeling
of everybody in there loving you and [of] you belonging."
During her teenage years, she found further encouragement and
inspiration in her local community. When she was a student at
William Penn High School in High Point, the principal, who also
"directed the choir, sponsored the debating club, and taught black
history," gave her many opportunities to give public "recitations."
Ms. Anderson realized then that she loved to perform before an
She honed her skills in social gatherings as she and her friends
regaled each other with their own versions of "Signifying Monkey,"
"Titanic," and other traditional toasts well known in many African
American communities. She absorbed still more verbal forms and
styles of speech from the sermons, prayers, and testimonies she
heard in church.
The civil rights movement made Ms. Anderson aware that these traditional
speech ways were important expressions of African American identity,
and she sought performance opportunities that would promote understanding
of them. She saw humor as one of the most important elements
in the stories she told. "A nation that can't laugh, can't survive,"
she said. "We were able to laugh--like Br'er Rabbit. You laugh
and you keep on going because there's going to be another day.
You're going to see something else."
Louise Anderson's storytelling delighted thousands of people
across the state. Audiences heard her in North Carolina's
Visiting Artist program, and in festival, film, and stage performances. She was the subject of a documentary film, When My Work is Over: The Life and Stories of Louise Anderson, produced by Davenport Films in 1999. Even in casual conversations, however, she often reminded her listeners
that "to know each other, you have to talk--and tell each other
your own stories."