Andrews’ style, tone, and focus place him firmly with Zora Neale Hurston in the African American literary tradition. His works are saturated with folklore and evoke oral storytelling. Andrews is deeply concerned with African American and Southern history, but he approaches these subjects through the lens of the Black Southern communities he writes about by focusing on the customs and traditions of these communities. In his works, therefore, Andrews takes on the role of the griot.1 Linguist Geneva Smitherman, in Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America, defines the griot as an African tribal elder, immersed in the oral storytelling tradition, who “was responsible for maintaining tribal history.” Smitherman further explains that “comprising this history was not merely the chronicles of who did what when, but composite word-pictures of the culture, belief, ethics, and values of the tribe” (1977, 148). In this essay, I use Smitherman’s explanation of the griot as a framework for discussing Andrews’ work. I begin by demonstrating how Andrews evokes oral forms by using literary devices like skaz and free-indirect discourse as well as modes of spoken performance like testifying and call and response. I then argue that this orality is also deeply connected to the narrative structure found in his novels. Andrews’ works are based in an oral storytelling tradition which allows him to shirk developing one major plot or theme in favor of elaborating numerous cultural lessons. Some critics have judged these elaborations as digressions away from a main point. Instead, they represent a rhetorical strategy that allows Andrews to fulfill the duties of the griot. Because Andrews is particularly concerned with the day to day life of his Southern Black characters, he focuses on cultural history to create “word-pictures of the culture, belief, ethics, and values” of the communities he writes about.
Much of literary criticism of the twentieth century assumes a divide between author and narrator and between oral and written traditions. While generally these divisions are important to maintain, I argue that an absolute separation of these concepts or traditions limits an understanding of texts, like Andrews’, that evoke oral forms. The recent discipline of Comparative Oral Traditions offers a useful theoretical framework to consider the possibility of intersections between the oral and the written.2 John Miles Foley, in How to Read an Oral Poem, maintains that “the Great Divide [between written and oral traditions] is an invention that doesn’t square with reality, and that texts and oral poetry can peacefully coexist and even interact in interesting ways” (60). This coexistence of the text and the oral can be difficult to establish, particularly if we only have a text to examine. In these cases, Foley argues, we must provide two forms of evidence of the oral in written works: “direct accounts of how they were composed and performed on the one hand, and structural symptoms of oral composition and performance on the other” (46). I will use these two guidelines to establish the oral nature of Andrews’ novels. In this examination I do not mean to suggest that Andrews’ works are purely oral. Andrews wrote novels and considered himself a writer. Rather, by providing evidence of the oral in Andrews’ texts, I hope to establish that Andrews not only uses literary devices to approximate the oral, but actually participates in an oral tradition as he writes his books.
The “direct accounts” Foley calls for, while often anecdotal in the case of Andrews, are abundant. Most of the scholars who have written about Andrews’ work assume or directly argue that no line separates Andrews’ voice from the narrator of his novels. Those that knew Andrews insist that he was as much of an oral storyteller as he was a novelist. In Richard Bausch’s 1987 “Afterword” to the Brown Thrasher edition of Appalachee Red, he provides a remarkably simple explanation for the distinctive narrative voice in Andrews’ work: he insists that Andrews is the narrator. Bausch is very straightforward with his claim: “I don’t believe there is any reason to suppose that the speaker, sometimes idiosyncratic and bawdy and rambunctious, is not Andrews himself” (1987, 287). With this same certainty, Warren J. Carson reiterates Bausch’s claim in his discussion of Appalachee Red in Masterpieces of African-American Literature:
The matter-of-fact nature of these claims suggests the fact that Bausch and Carson were as familiar with Andrews as they were his works. Bausch confirms his relationship with Andrews in his “Afterword” (1987, 286). In my correspondence with Carson, he explains his statements about Andrews’ work:
Trudier Harris, in South of Tradition: Essays on African American Literature, also insists that Andrews is the narrator: “Andrews keeps readers constantly aware in Appalachee Red that he is narrating” (2002, 93). Although she did not know the author, her assessment is as unambiguous as Bausch’s or Carson’s. Andrews’ storytelling abilities are further confirmed in Jesse Freeman’s documentary, Somebody Else, Somewhere Else: The Raymond Andrews Story (2010). In the film, writers Tony Grooms, Gary Gildner, and Phillip Lee Williams; publisher Judy Long; and family members all tell stories of Andrews telling stories in classrooms, cotton fields, friends’ homes, and bars. Many of those interviewed in the film, as well as others who knew Andrews, attended a two-day tribute to the author hosted by the Georgia Review to celebrate their fall 2010 issue which featured some of Andrews’ unpublished correspondence and fiction. I must admit that, as someone who only knows Andrews through his written work, I was sometimes frustrated at this event because everyone else seemed to have an anecdote of Ray telling them a story and little time was devoted to the Raymond Andrews novels that I know so well.
The second form of evidence that Foley calls for, the “structural symptoms,” are easier to formally establish. Whether or not Andrews is literally the narrator, the narrative voice found in his novels is deeply rooted in oral tradition. Andrews’ novels are filled with examples of the literary devices that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in The Signifying Monkey, uses to define the speakerly text,
The two devices that Gates associates with the speakerly text are free indirect discourse and skaz. Free indirect discourse is “marked by the grammar of third-person narration and the style, tone, and syntax of direct speech on the part of the character” (McCauley). Similarly, the Russian Formalist concept of skaz is used in instances with “a ‘narrator’ mediating between the author and the audience, [where] the story is told in such a manner as to emulate the phonetic, grammatical, and lexical patterns of actual speech and produce the ‘illusion of oral narration’” (Erlich 238). In all of Andrews’ novels, information is recounted through a third-person narrator. Although some of the characters in Andrews’ work speak in a heavier dialect than the narrator, the narrator shares the oral quality of their speech—in syntax, style, lexical patterns, rhythm, idiomatic words and phrases, and tone. In the following passage from Baby Sweet’s, the point of view is third-person omniscient, but the narrator is clearly not a removed or dispassionate observer:
The narrator is not a character and does not participate in the action of the novel. He does, however, participate in the same oral traditions as the characters. In this passage, he seems to be taking part in the very “talk” he is describing. In particular, his interjections emphasize that he, as much as any character, is capable of taking part in the gossip.
One year before the publication of The Signifying Monkey, Bausch, in his “Afterword” to Appalachee Red, describes Andrews’ narration in a strikingly similar manner as Gates’s explanation of the speakerly text:
Although Bausch’s observation is very brief, the essence of his discussion parallels Gates’s. He does not reference literary devices such as skaz and free indirect discourse, but it is clear that he is pointing out the significance of a third-person omniscient narrator whose voice is decidedly oral. Bausch also insists that this approach to narration is rare. That he knew of “nothing quite like it in American literature,” suggests that he was unfamiliar with Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, the novel Gates would declare, a year later, as the first example in African American literature of the speakerly text.
Gates’s concept rests on the idea of a text privileging the oral, and I contend that the privileging of the oral is possible in Andrews’ work because the narrative voice is based in the oral traditions of the folk characters that are being represented. Andrews’ omniscient narrator knows what his characters know, like any omniscient narrator, but this knowing is possible because he is a part of the community. He is not an active participant in the action of his narrative; he is, however, an active participant in the culture and traditions of his characters. In Andrews’ novels, examples of skaz and free indirect discourse do more than just capture “the style, tone, and syntax of direct speech on the part of the character” or “the phonetic, grammatical, and lexical patterns of actual speech.” They demonstrate the narrator’s empathy with the hopes, fears, joys, desires, and needs of the characters.
Written literary devices such as skaz and free indirect discourse are a part of Andrews’ rhetorical strategy, but more importantly he incorporates into his narrative voice some of the speech practices of the African American communities he writes about. In particular, he includes testifying and call and response. Smitherman provides useful definitions of these terms. She explains that testifying is the “concept referring to a ritualized form of black communication in which the speaker gives verbal witness to the efficacy, truth, and power of some experience in which all blacks have shared” (1977, 58). Call and response is the “spontaneous verbal and no-verbal interaction between speaker and listener in which all of the speaker’s statements (‘calls’) are punctuated by expressions (‘responses’) from the listener” (1977, 104). This practice takes place in both the sacred and secular world and can easily be identified by the “responses,” which take the form of words and phrases like “Amen!,” “Lord, ha’ mercy!,” “Tell the truth!,” and “Look out!” (1977, 106). Following these oral traditions, Andrews punctuates brief vignettes about people, events, or customs with similar responses, calling attention to his testifying and seeking witnesses to the truths that he is exclaiming.
Andrews’ narrative voice combines these oral practices throughout his novels. Examples of his use of testifying and call and response are most apparent in Baby Sweet’s, but they are also present in his other three works of fiction. An instance of this technique is found as the narrator recounts the story of how John Junior, who is the White son of the wealthiest family in town, learns that he has an older half-brother, Red, who is Black:
John Junior is shocked that his father had a child with the family’s maid, but the fact that powerful White Southern men had children with “the help” is no revelation to the Black community. The response, “Amen,” reminds the reader that the narrative is testifying to a truth that many in the White community would rather ignore. In another example, the narrator explains why Red’s Café, a prominent Black-owned restaurant during segregation, had come into hard times:
This partial explanation of the downfall of Red’s Café includes comments on the mixed results of integration, the pleasures (and drawbacks) of eating restaurant food, and the freedom that money allows. “Have mercy!” demands that these issues are important to consider beyond the development of the plot.
Examples of skaz and free-indirect discourse in Andrews’ novels are arguably literary devices the author uses to appropriate an oral voice. Andrews’ use of testifying and call and response, however, come from an oral tradition, not a literary one. This distinction is significant because the “structural symptoms” that mark his fiction as oral go well beyond the dialect of the characters or the narrator. As Phillip Lee Williams, a friend of Andrews and one of his earliest publishers, explains in his 1988 “Afterword” to the Brown Thrasher edition of Baby Sweet’s, Andrews “approaches these tales not as the novelist but as the storyteller. . . . His traditions are not literary but oral, and unashamedly so” (214). Andrews is immersed in a Black oral storytelling tradition that guides his narrative strategies, and these strategies may confuse a reader looking for the literary. Smitherman provides an explanation of one aspect of this tradition:
Black English speakers will render their general, abstract observations about life, love, people in the form of a concrete narrative. . . . This meandering away from the “point” takes the listener on episodic journeys and over tributary rhetorical routes, but like the flow of nature’s rivers and streams, it all eventually leads back to the source. Though highly applauded by blacks, this narrative linguistic style is exasperating to whites who wish you’d be direct and hurry up and get to the point. (1977, 147–48)
Because Andrews has so many stories to tell, he often “meanders” away from the “point” of the larger narratives he creates. These digressions do eventually lead back to the plot, but because they are so frequent, the plot often seems less important than the detours Andrews takes along the way.
Williams argues that, “because Andrews’ voice is that of the storyteller, his books often don’t seem like novels” (1988, 214). For some, this is troublesome. “A first time reader,” Williams explains, may find Andrews’ novels “rambling and even, at times, inchoate” (1988, 214). A reader who comes to his work with certain literary expectations may be let down or confused. Bausch admits that he was initially baffled by Andrews’ first novel:
Bausch recognizes that he came to Appalachee Red with the wrong expectations. Because he approached the novel from a literary perspective, he initially could not appreciate the rich storytelling tradition found in Andrews’ work.
Throughout all of his novels, Andrews provides descriptions of Southern Black culture that often steer the narrative away from the storyline. In doing so, Andrews performs his role as griot. Though he does follow “who did what when,” he seems more interested in developing “word-pictures of the culture, belief, ethics, and values” of the Southern Black communities he writes about. Andrews might devote an entire chapter giving the history of a character who only plays a minor role, or he may spend a page setting the table at a church dinner. From a strictly literary perspective, this refusal to stay on task is frustrating. Sometimes these character histories and cultural explanations help further the plot; sometimes they don’t seem to have a reason for being there except Andrews is having a good time talking about it. Andrews does have plots in his novels, but he is often more interested in the day to day lives of the characters he creates. As much as he is concerned with Red’s revenge in Appalachee Red or the last days of the town’s matriarch in Rosiebelle Lee Wildcat Tennessee or the opening night of Appalachee’s first whorehouse in Baby Sweet’s, he is concerned with the foods his characters eat, the songs they sing, and all the other cultural variables that shape their lives.
Food plays a significant role in shaping human action, and much of the community life in the South centers on the preparation and eating of cultural dishes. For Andrews’ small town of Appalachee, the hog is of central importance. Red’s cafe brings the community together with a "menu specialized in the anatomy of the pig." According to one's tastes or pocketbook, the cook "in one way or another prepared for the pork-loving customers the animal's head, back, shoulders, sides, hams, legs, feet, kidneys, liver, tail, guts, nuts, skin, and bones. The only thing that escaped Sam's kitchen was the grunt and the fart" (1987, 21). Andrews’ elucidation on the pig's anatomy suggests a community that cannot afford to waste its resources. His discussion of the grunt and the fart suggests they have a sense of humor. In this example, the information he supplies does tell the reader something about the characters and the restaurant where much of Appalachee Red takes place, but it adds little to the plot. We learn nothing of Red’s mysterious past or his plans for the future. Despite its irrelevance to the main story, Andrews wants to tell us about what his characters eat.
The following passage from Rosiebelle Lee Wildcat Tennessee provides a more detailed account of Southern culinary fare:
This long list suggests that Andrews wants the reader to feel as if they are about to partake in this meal. But the passage is gratuitous for the reader who is simply looking for plot development. The extended menu Andrews presents us with seems like a digression from the main story until we realize that the novel is as much about culture as it is about anything else. In case the reader did not read his first novel, Andrews repeats the importance of the hog in this passage, and only slightly revises his grunt and fart joke. Andrews often repeats information, seemingly because he relishes the telling of it. He also wants to make sure his readers know the culture of the rural Black South.
Songs are also found throughout Andrews’ works. Simply flipping through any of his novels one finds lyrics interspersed with the text. Sometimes they are relevant to the plot, but just as often they seem to be showing off Andrews’ knowledge of music. He presents us with examples of spirituals, the blues, soul music, and folk songs. In Appalachee Red, Baby Sweet is introduced as she dances to the chants of clapping teenagers:
The song Andrews provides us with does serve to further the plot. Because of her sensual dance, Baby Sweet must run away to escape one White man’s sexual abuse and ends up the unwilling mistress of the brutal Clyde “Boots” White. But the tone of the song and dance is celebratory. Andrews unflinchingly details the appalling consequences of a beautiful young Black woman expressing her newly-found sexuality, but there is no moral lesson here. Andrews wants us to hear the song that Baby Sweet dances to, not simply to heighten the tragedy that follows, but because of the joy that the characters experience in singing and watching. At the end of the novel Andrews brings in a spiritual to heighten the tension at Little Bit’s funeral. The “Sanctified sisters” begin to sing as the church falls into tumult:
As the events become more chaotic, more congregants join in the song:
In the two novels following Appalachee Red, Andrews increases his use of lyrics. Throughout Rosiebelle Lee Wildcat Tennessee, Tampa Red records play on the Victrola. “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone” fills the room as Rosiebelle Lee’s White lover, Mister Mac, comes to see her on her deathbed. “No Matter How She Done It” plays as the men and boys of Appalachee stop what they are doing to appreciate young Doris Virginia’s walk:
The song serves as a soundtrack for this weekly ritual, but the lyrics don’t further the plot any more than the accompanying discussion of Doris Virginia’s derriere. Lines from the “The Boll Weevil Blues” occur near the beginning and end of the novel, signaling the demise of the Old South. In Baby Sweet’s, James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s World” plays on a transistor radio as Leroyrogers is unable to perform certain masculine duties. On the opening night of Baby Sweet’s, Lea sings “The Lonesome Atlanta Blues” and “The Dirt Road Blues.” She also sings the entirety of a version of “The Signifying Monkey” as tensions rise in the brothel’s lounge.
The list of cultural factors that Andrews presents also includes religion, gender roles, language practices, work, entertainment, clothing, taboos, and education. He often breaks from the plot to describe in detail a dance, a game, or a job. Each factor adds another dimension to the complexity of the community. As a storyteller and griot, Andrews is more interested in his characters and their everyday lives than he is in one storyline. The oral tradition informs more than just the voice of the narrator or characters, it provides a narrative strategy that allows Andrews to explore the social history of his Southern Black communities. This approach may be confusing from a written literary perspective, but the reader of Andrews’ novels must remember that the plot is not necessarily what his books are about.
Andrews, Raymond. Appalachee Red. 2nd ed. Aft. Richard Bausch. Athens: University Press of Georgia, 1987.
——. Baby Sweet’s. 1983. 2nd ed. Aft. Phillip Lee Williams. Athens: University Press of Georgia, 1988.
——. “Raymond Andrews Papers,” 1934–1992." Mss. 673. Woodruff Library, Emory University, Atlanta.
——. Rosiebelle Lee Wildcat Tennessee. 1980. 2nd ed. Fore. Mary Hood. Athens: University Press of Georgia, 1988.
Carson, Warren J. “Appalachee Red.” Masterpieces of African-American Literature. Ed. Frank N. Magill. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. 9–12.
——. Email to the author. 2003.
Erlich, Victor. Russian Formalism: History-Doctrine. 3rd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.
Foley, John Miles. How to Read an Oral Poem. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Freeman, Jesse, dir. Somebody Else, Somewhere Else: The Raymond Andrews Story. 2010.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Harris-Lopez, Trudier. South of Tradition: Essays on African American Literature. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.
McCauley, Karen A. “Russian Formalism.” The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. 1997. 7 Nov. 2004 <http://litguide.press.jhu.edu>.
Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1977.
1 Alex Haley has also been labeled “a Southern griot” and “the griot from Tennessee.” See Helen Taylor, “‘The Griot form Tennessee’: The Saga of Alex Haley’s Roots,” Critical Quarterly 37.2 (1995): 46–62.
2 For this brief discussion, I use the work of John Miles Foley, the founder of the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition at the University of Missouri and the academic journal Oral Tradition. I must point out that Foley insists that novels cannot be “wholly oral” (56, 42). However, while Foley understands that on the surface novels are “presumably among the most textual and literary of species and therefore the ‘least oral,’” he argues that “that presumption turns out not to be true” as some literary traditions “have their roots sunk deep in oral poetry” (148).
Brennan Collins is the Associate Director of Writing Across the Curriculum and the Center for Instructional Innovation at Georgia State University. He teaches courses on African American and Multi–Ethnic U.S. literatures. His scholarship explores African American literary perspectives on the South, often comparing and contrasting oral storytelling with written literary production.