Heritage Search

Louise Anderson
Oral Traditions (Folk/Traditional Storytelling) Jacksonville
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 audience.

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."