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John Laudun

«Talking Shit» in Rayne

It's been over sixty years since Zora Neale Hurston (cf. Hurston 1935) returned to her home town of Eatonville, Florida, over thirty years since Roger Abrahams (cf. Abrahams 1970) left a tape recorder on the coffee table of his house in Philadelphia and Bruce Jackson went into prisons in Texas (cf. Jackson 1972). It's been over twenty years since African Americans, in the wake of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, became fully conscious and then proud of the dimensions of black speech that include everything from particular varieties of English to forms of oral poetry so vibrant and witty that decades later, when most of my students no longer recognize Rudy Ray Moore and they have only the haziest of ideas of why Richard Pryor was so important, I still feel compelled to play them examples of toasts from Jackson's work or the few toasts that appear in Alan Lomax's The Land Where the Blues Began.

As I played a version of perhaps the most famous toast of all, «The Signifying Monkey,» one of my students, Raven Babineaux, jerked her head up and could not help herself from exclaiming, «But my dad talks like that to my little girl when he's putting her to sleep!» I began to explain to her and the class more about toasts, and she said, more quietly this time but still astonished enough to say it out loud, «And I thought he was just making that stuff up.» From time to time, as the semester unfolded, I would ask Raven to tell me more about her father. All the signs were there that here was a «man of words,» as Roger Abrahams termed speakers with an established reputation within a community (cf. Abrahams 1983), worth knowing more about. My interest was particularly piqued when one day she came in with a small dictaphone recording of a toast about a mule that I had never heard before. The recording crackled and hissed from the well-worn tape but still the liveliness of the voices, even one telling a Brer Rabbit story, shone through. At the end of the semester, Raven invited me to visit one day.

It was too long a time before I got in touch again. Too long. The riches we enjoy in Louisiana are sometimes too distracting, and the press of being a new faculty member here at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette kept me too tied to my office. Eventually, with reminders from my wife and my colleagues, I remembered why I got into this field: for the fieldwork. It's what we live for: the nervousness of the initial phone call, the first knock on the door, the first moment or two; followed by the amazing warmth individuals who only rarely know us beyond our name show us within those first few moments. Within an hour, we are sitting having coffee, or iced tea, and being told some of the most amazing things we have ever heard.

So it was that I threaded my way westward, following Route 90 as it passes through Scott, Duson, and finally comes to Rayne. Oscar Babineaux, Raven's father, and the focus of this particular field report, lives with his family in a neat, pale green house in a part of town once referred to as Coontown, he told me, but now mostly termed, «back of the tracks.» He is a startlingly young man, with a trim beard and physique that support his energetic style of speaking. He is a self-described talker, having not too long ago invited a couple of Mormon missionaries into the house just to talk with them: «I told them they weren't going to change my faith, and I probably wasn't going to change theirs, but maybe they could teach me something I didn't know before. And maybe I could teach them something they didn't know.» His wife, Pam, equally youthful and welcoming, is quieter, but since I had clearly come to see Oscar, left us to entertain ourselves, or better, Oscar to entertain me.

He knew why I was there, and in fact had been nervously awaiting me the morning I arrived, but still when I explained what I was interested in, I was greeted, as Hurston herself was upon her return, with the question: «You mean what we call shit talking?» Exactly.

Over the course of the next few hours, Oscar Babineaux regaled me with a tour de force of words. Moving smoothly and slyly from toasts to jokes, then on to memorates, which gave him the opportunity to do what we as folklorists have perhaps studied the least formally: opining and truly conversing. That is, having warmed himself to his task—or as John French states in Mules and Men: «Ah got to say a piece of litery fust to git mah wind on»—with poetry, which is virtuosic display of verbal skills, he tested the depth of my listening with jokes and the depth of my understanding with stories about supernatural events or treatments he had encountered first-hand.

The string of four toasts he began with were «Two Blind Boys,» «Jenny Jenny,» «The Signifying Monkey," and then «The Missing Mule.» Since the last one was the reason that took me out to Rayne, I include it here:

I just come back from my motherfuckin' barn
I look in my stall my old mule was gone
Said Miss Lady have you seen my mule?
She said no man I just come back from bringing my kids to school.
He said but you give me time to put down my books, 
I'll tell you exactly how that poor motherfucker looked
Said he got three legs broke and one leg lame
Said he's nine now but he'll be ten next spring
He said he used to go with this girl named Mabel
Fuck her three times and he's dead back to the stable
He said I put him in the barn when he's catching a fit
I put a light in his ass so he can see his own shit
He said every time the dirty come to pass
You can tell him cause he's got a star dead in the crack of his ass.

What is striking about the toast is its clearly rural setting. As David Evans (1977) has pointed out, we have tended to relegate the toast to two contexts, the inner city or the prison, based on a relatively small amount of scholarship. We know that much of the blues that developed in urban north had its origin in the rural south. Perhaps the same is true for the toast and adjacent African American folklore forms.

Oscar Babineaux has gleaned his repertoire from a variety of sources, chief among which is his childhood spent riding with his father from house to house on weekends, where his father would socialize and sometimes gamble. The children would hang around as much as they could, but as Babineaux notes:

We just picked it up by listening to people talk. Just sitting around. In the olden days, you couldn't sit around and look in the old folks' mouth, you know, because they'd spit in your eye with some 'bacco or something to get you out the room. Because they didn't want you to hear their conversations. So as kids, you had your ears to the door. You know what I'm saying? You'd listen to what they was talking about.... They wouldn't want the kids to hear «motherfucker» and this and that. So they'd be in private, in the house. My daddy and some of his friends and my uncle. They'd gather around on a Sunday and they would play.

«Shittalking,» as Babineaux calls it, was and is a dimension of social life among African Americans in Rayne, and no doubt elsewhere in Louisiana. It is a verbal and masculine art of a much larger complex of activities that includes drinking, playing music, dancing, eating, as well as other kinds of talk. It tends to be masculine, at least within Babineaux's characterizations, since he notes that even when his daughter, who has always been interested in and proud of her father's ways with words, approaches a group of men who are «shittalking,» their inclination is to quiet down and turn to other forms of conversation.

There is clearly quite a bit more work to be done here to substantiate some of my speculations and conjectures, but I think a more comprehensive picture of toasts and other forms of shittalking are well worth our while. Clearly, in non-urban contexts, toasts are not relegated to a particular age group, as we have had occasion to imagine (Ferris 140-143), nor a particular milieu. With some return visits and the opportunity to meet more of the talkers of Rayne, I think we are well on our way to tracking the toast much further south than it has ever been before, and perhaps giving it a longer history than it has heretofore had.

References

Abrahams, Roger
1983. The Man of Words in the West Indies: Performance and the Emergence of Creole Culture. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
1970. Deep Down in the Jungle...: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia. New York: Aldine Publishing Company.
Evans, David
1977. The Toast in Context. Journal of American Folklore 90(356): 129-148.
Fauset, Arthur
1927. Negro Folk Tales from the South. Journal of American Folklore 40(157): 213-303.
Ferris, William
1972. Black Prose Narrative in the Mississippi Delta: An Overview. Journal of American Folklore 85(336): 140-151.
Jackson, Bruce
1974. Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: Narrative Poetry from Black Oral Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
1972. Wake Up Dead Man: Afro-American Worksongs from Texas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hurston, Zora Neale
1935/1990. Mules and Men. New York Harper Perennial.
Lomax, Alan
1990. The Land Where the Blues Began. Beverly Hills, CA: Pacific Arts.