Take time to listen

I stow my carry-on and settle into a window seat just in time to hear the flight attendant announce, “Has anyone on this flight lost a wallet?” The 200 passengers, including myself, discreetly check through our belongings for our cash and credit cards. Momentarily she breaks the silence, “Now that I have your attention, we will demonstrate the safety features of this plane.”

Caught off guard? Maybe, but even the seasoned travelers who have witnessed the seat belt, flotation device and emergency exit routine countless times now fix their eyes on the uniformed attendant.

Commanding people’s attention is difficult with the increasing number of distractions that assail our senses daily. While this flight attendant used a creative approach to capture our interest, live communication seems to be losing its appeal today. An appeal has come for families to sit down and talk about their lives with each other.

A family in Tennessee initiated the first National Day of Listening, a campaign to emphasize the importance of capturing oral history from their elders before the opportunity is lost. What better way to preserve unique family culture? Yet, some families are reluctant to talk about their past for various reasons.

I remember my mother’s refusal to tell her story about growing up in her sharecropper family. She countered questions about her childhood with the admonition, “Remember, the best part of our family is here and now.” Had I not interviewed numerous friends and relatives after her death, I would not have discovered my family’s Scots-Irish culture and language, rich and colorful even with its warts and scars.

The quest for oral family history is an integral tool for studying humanities. In recent years, this very effective approach for understanding history has found a niche in elementary and high-school classrooms. Teachers require interviews with family members, grandparents and other retirees to demonstrate to students the relevance of the past to their own lives. The results of these interviews may even be documented through quilts, photographs, DVDs, videos, drama productions, journals and storytelling. Furthermore, these projects often become the focus of community heritage celebrations.

The Alabama Humanities Foundation is pleased to have supported numerous oral history projects through the Jenice Riley Memorial Scholarship, which is now accepting applications. Moreover, these assignments enable students to develop effective listening skills. Recording oral history is not limited to schoolchildren. Do you recall the popular television show several decades ago which opened with, “The city has a million stories to tell, and this is just one of them?” There is a wealth of untold stories in every Alabama community, in every Alabamian waiting to be told and recorded—one of the greatest treasures we can leave for the generations that succeed us.

As my plane lands in Birmingham and taxies toward the terminal, several passengers, contrary to the attendant’s instructions, release their seat belts. “Not yet!” she warns. Another click. “Not yet!” The command is louder this time. Then as the plane comes to a stop, she mockingly declares with feigned disgust, “Now. . . get out!” Maybe it’s time to get out and mine that mother lode of stories in your community. AHF is here to help. Click here to learn more.

Written by: Bob W.