A Visit from Ms. Sheila
As I write this, I am not quite over her presence. She just left the Zoom room, and I just ended class by telling the eleventh graders that there is no homework except to just let Ms. Sheila "linger" in your hearts and your imaginations.
Sheila Arnold came to my class today as part of our coverage of the turn of the twentieth century in my eleventh grade humanities class. We have been studying the Reconstruction, the Jim Crow South, and the Progressive Era. Prepping the students for her visit, we studied "Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby," looking at Disney's racist portrayal of Uncle Remus ("the benign, happy, former slave telling the story for the benefit of his former master's grandchildren'') and then at the tale itself, how it could possibly be a critique of white constructions of Blackness, and how white supremacist society tried to trap Blacks by limiting their roles to silent, unthreatening shells of themselves. We paired the story with W.E.B. DuBois' essay on the double consciousness of African Americans (the first essay in The Souls of Black Folk.)
Our "heady" exercise was then blown wide open by Ms. Sheila. She provided us not with a lesson, but with an experience, and the experience was boundless. She told us two Brer Rabbit stories. One was about how Brer Possum put Brer Snake in his marsupial pouch, and then was nearly killed were it not for Brer Rabbit's intervention. The other was a story within a story. A husband begins to take his wife for granted, and then, at Sunday dinner ("And Charlene can burn! She burns so good, she sticks her toe in it...") she stops the meal to tell a Brer Rabbit story. Vulture takes Brer Rabbit for granted, so Brer Rabbit serves him grits, and while Vulture bows his head in prayer, Brer Rabbit slams his head down into the hot grits. This is why Vulture lost the feathers on his head, and this is why Vultures are too ashamed to face you until you are dead.
Ms. Sheila came to us at a very good time. It was a cold, rainy Thursday afternoon, the second to last period at the end of a week of Zoom classes. We were tired, and maybe a little down in spite of the pending weekend, which is a new phenomenon. The end of the week before this pandemic and online learning was always crackling with a sense of achievement and expectation, but now it can be characterized by fatigue, which seems to dampen everything else. Ms. Sheila, as she began to speak, seemed to reach through the computer screen right into our homes. She seemed to be sitting with us privately at our kitchen tables and our desks. She seemed to be reading all of us, and thinking... what is it this group needs? And then she began to minister to us.
Between the stories, and during the stories, she wove her magic so that the class took on many, many levels. There were the two Brer Rabbit stories themselves, which were lively and enjoyable. She signaled to us that she would be lapsing into Southern Black dialect, which she said happens as naturally as a smile when she is eating something delicious. She also instructed us in some of the idiom, such as the use of the word "burn" for cooking that is tasty beyond your wildest dreams, so tasty that the cook has put their entire self into it... which, she told us, is what it means when someone says that Charlene's grits are so good that she put her toe in them. We were being invited into an intimate encounter with a Southern Black world, but we were not just staring in at it, or studying it. She was holding our hand, pointing things out to us, and patiently instructing us.
The class built up to a moment at the end when she spoke about the Tar Baby story. Tar Baby is a beloved story, and Brer Rabbit's emergence from the briar patch at the end has brought joy to many, many people "who were called slaves." Brer Rabbit's getting the best of Brer Fox and Brer Bear has, over the centuries, allowed African Americans to imagine themselves escaping from the abusive power dynamic that has plagued our nation since its birth, only to be misappropriated by Joel Chandler Harris in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and then used to hand the African Americans back to themselves, defeated yet again and made to serve white agendas. But we got to see through Harris, and through Disney, to the stories brought to life as they were meant to be. We got to see what they meant to Ms. Sheila, and, in so doing, they took on a new meaning for our class.
The stories, funny, light, and maybe even a bit bawdy, suddenly took on a tenderness as Ms. Sheila spoke about her reticence in ever telling Tar Baby. This is where she connected the students to the story and to her. She spoke with full awareness of how tired and hopeless we all felt in this Zoom world, and she encouraged us to let Brer Rabbit uplift us. And Brer Rabbit did.
At the end of the Disney production, in which Uncle Remus tells two white grandchildren of his former master several of the Brer Rabbit classics, the white children leave his shack and return to the manor and the world of the white master. The Disney film tried to reassure the audience that Uncle Remus was happy just the way he was, and, in a way that was all too common in the Plantation Romance novels by writers such as Thomas Dixon Jr., it presented the former slaves as non-threatening and bearing no ill will to their former masters. In fact, full of gratitude, Uncle Remus had selflessly entertained and enlightened the grandchildren of his former masters.
As our class ended, we didn't want to part. It wasn't that we were begging for another story, either. The students sat quietly, some a bit teary-eyed, as Ms. Sheila began to take her leave. Master storyteller, teacher, and activist, Ms. Sheila had brought us to a place outside of the terrible, hazy shroud of whiteness in which we live, and , in the brief hour she spent with us, gave us a glimpse both back and forward in time. In this transitory moment, with time gathered together, Ms. Sheila had held the class with her presence, and then she was gone... back to a world seen through clear eyes with sparkling brilliance. We knew we would miss her the minute she left.
Having Sheila Arnold to my class was inspired by the Jenny Fund, a program that belongs to the Storytelling Association of California. This program pairs teachers with storytellers so that the power and magic of storytelling can bring the California curriculum to life for students. Currently, a committee in SAC is working on how to better serve California teachers with the gift of storytelling. Ms. Sheila's visit to my class was evidence that storytellers can make a difference in students' lives.
Guest Storyteller Sheila Arnold at Humanities III Class at Sonoma Academy, Friday, January 29, 2021