For four decades, William Ferris tracked down some of the most inspirational artists and historians of the American South. He sat down with Eudora Welty, Alice Walker, Pete Seeger, Bobby Rush and Alex Haley, capturing their reflections on tape and their images on camera.
The results of his work have now been published as a new book, The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists. The book is a bittersweet love song to the muddy rivers and rolling fields of Oklahoma, Mississippi and the rest of the South — the languid afternoons, the constant static of buzzing insects, and the taut undercurrent of racial tension that produced some of the greatest novels, paintings and music of the 20th century. All of it is heard through the voices of the artists themselves — like Roots author Alex Haley, who describes the South as "a place of hands, it's a place of touch, of caress, of less of slapping, of knocking people down, it's a softer, sweeter culture."
Ferris tells NPR's Celeste Headlee that he sees the book as one large narrative. "Each of those speakers, in his or her own way, wrestles with, is tortured by, is in love with a place called the South," he says. "And I sometimes think of the book as my way of getting all these people to a common table of conversation."
"What this really does is to look at what is called contested memory, the different memories of the South in black and white worlds. Eudora Welty grew up in a family in which books were everywhere, and she was encouraged to read. Alice Walker grew up in a family that encouraged her to read, but had to beg, borrow and steal books from white families to bring home for the children to learn to read. And yet they both began to write about the South. And Robert Penn Warren, who was America's first poet laureate, wrestled with race throughout his life, and wrote a book at the end of his career, Who Speaks for the Negro? in which he interviewed Malcolm X and Aaron Henry and many of the civil rights leaders, looking at how race shapes our nation in such a powerful way. And certainly that continues today."
On the way the Southern landscape changed storytelling
"In a way, that is a key to every one of these voices. Sam Gilliam describes going back to his home and looking at the Ohio River, which often flooded. And his paintings, he says, when they're large and violent, are inspired by the waters of that river. William Eggleston's dramatic color photography captures the deep reds and yellows of the Mississippi Delta, where he grew up and later photographed, in such a powerful way. So place shapes every voice in this book, in a distinctive way."
On why the South preserves its history through storytelling
"Stories are our oldest way of communicating knowledge, of passing on traditions, and Southerners have a gift for that. And when you ask a Southerner to answer a question, they will tell a story. And embedded in that story is the information that they feel is the answer to the question. And so when I asked each of these figures about their novel or their painting, or their song or their photograph, what they did was tell me a story, and it was a powerful story in every case. Complicated, interesting, and opening doors of understanding about the South."