No One Sings the Blues Like Charlie Patton's Sister
Guest post by Jonathon Medeiros
I spent part of last summer in the Mississippi Delta, studying with Delta State University and The Delta Center. We immersed ourselves in the places and the people, the music and the food, the heat and the water, and all the stories. We heard so many stories that too many people don't know.
We learned about Vera Pigee, a key figure in the civil rights struggle, whose "already marginalized existence began to fade" immediately upon her death. As this Mississippi Today article notes, "Like other women in the civil rights movement, [Pigee's] legacy became a footnote to history."
We learned about Fannie Lou Hamer, who absolutely destroyed the Credentials Committee meeting at the 1964 Democratic National Convention with an intricate and beautiful speech that rivals any of the more famous speeches associated with the men of the movement. Incidentally, anyone watching the event live that night saw a speech from Lyndon Baines Johnson instead—one that he set up, as The Washington Post wrote, "to make it impossible for the national television networks to cover [Hamer's] testimony live"—another white man trying to erase the words of someone else.
We also learned about Alvin Sykes and his crusade against our penchant to ignore crimes against black men and women and his fight to stand up for victims of sexual assault so that others won't have to fight alone, like he did.
I kept thinking that we should all know these people. Why are these stories so quiet? Why are their protagonists mere footnotes? Because these are the stories of the hunted, not the hunter, as Chinua Achebe might put it. These are the stories of those not allowed to record their experiences because they don't own access to the dominant language or culture. These quiet stories should be burned in our collective minds, but they have been almost erased or partially replaced, rewritten in someone else's voice and language.
And between the lines of these quiet stories, between the bars of the songs we were learning down in the Delta, I began to wonder about the entirely invisible voices. For every Vera Pigee, for every Fannie Lou Hamer, for every Alvin Sykes, there are dozens of people whose stories have been completely lost, are unrecorded, and I wonder about these people.
"History" traces itself back to the Greek word "histor," a wise man or a judge. In Achebe's sense, a history is not just a story: It's important to consider who is telling the story and to remember that others may have their own stories about the same events.
And what is a story? Is it what we leave behind so that people will know us? Is it what we create to communicate what it means to be us? When we hear or read a story, whose voice are we really listening to? Is it the original participant's, or the author's, or has someone transcribed, edited, and changed the story to push an agenda?
And here is one of my worries: If a story isn't recorded at all, are the participants erased?
As we heard the story of the Delta blues, drenched in testosterone, I kept wondering about the women. Weren't they there, with arms and hands and fingers and legs and feet and mouths and minds, right there next to Robert Johnson, who made that pact with the devil; right there next to Charlie Patton, the father of the blues; right there next to Henry Sloan, who taught Charlie to play?
And yes, I know about Sister OM Terrell and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but these women came later, had their stories confined and altered, turned into footnotes of a larger movement, unimportant sideshows to the dominant narrative. The Ace of Cups are a lucky exception, getting to finally write their story now, but they were almost perfectly erased from the American story of '60s rock.
To steal from Virginia Woolf, I want to know about Charlie Patton's sister or wife or mother. What song did she sing in the field or the kitchen that would have moved our hearts, moved our feet, moved our bodies even now?
Hannah Gadsby notes that people in power tend to curate the stories we hear: "These men control our stories. ...They're shifting our culture. They're the ones people look at and go: 'This was a turning point in our culture. This art is important because this great artist did this thing.' So they're essentially driving culture and driving our sense of selves culturally. And they're toxic, irresponsible, damaged humans." These are the hunters crafting the lions' narratives.
When others tell our stories, we lose our voice in the process. We become Shakespeare's/Patton's sister. We become the lions in the hunters' tale. Whoever has the power to write, broadcast, and sell the story solidifies their image and reaps the rewards. When "toxic, irresponsible, damaged humans" write our stories, they perpetuate the marginalization of already marginalized people, playing a horrible magic trick on all of us in disappearing now unknowable cultural practices, ideas, wisdoms.
Does a story last, matter, or exist if no one will acknowledge it? It is hard to feel as though we last, or matter, or even exist, if no one will acknowledge us because of who we are, how we talk or don't, what we look like or who we love.
It's hard to think about unthinkable ideas that are already gone because we ignored the stories of those historically disenfranchised—women, indigenous people, LGBTQ+, people of color. There is so much that we never know or experience because we have suppressed these voices for generations.
What happens to our children, girls and boys and nonbinary and trans children, when we don't ask for their stories? The consequences can be fatal. Woolf might say that these people, the silenced sisters, are doomed to live tortured lives that end in obscurity or tragedy, maybe both.
In her essay "What's the Cost of a Lonely Teenager," Michigan-based teacher and adviser Sarah Giddings notes that "many students come to school thinking that their life narrative has already been written. They feel as though they will never be good enough for school. They complain that schools don't know or care about their stories, anyway."
So let's ask each other, our neighbors, our students, for their stories. Let's be like Misha Euceph in her new podcast "Tell Them, I Am" and provide space, honor the truth beneath the labels, and listen. As teachers, let's help all our students to be in control of their stories. We must give students the power to explore and share their stories and broadcast them, record them, so we don't unfairly distort the truth of who they or we are.
Jonathon Medeiros has been teaching and learning about English/language arts, rhetoric, and people for 13 years. He is a national-board-certified high school teacher and has served as an instructional coach, peer mentor, and a Language Arts Department chair. He is currently the Kauai Teacher Fellowship director and has also worked with IIE and Fulbright Japan on an educational teacher exchange focused on incorporating sustainability into education. Jonathon enjoys writing, surfing, and spending time at the beach with his wife and daughters. He earned a BA in English from the University of Portland, an MA in English from Portland State University, and an M.Ed. from the University of Oregon. He strongly believes in teaching his students what Nick Offerman has stated: that if you changed all of your mistakes and regrets, you'd erase yourself.