Collections: Jane Beck - The EVIA Digital Archive Project

Oral History of Daisy Turner (1984-1985)

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Daisy Turner narrates her family history. Grafton, Vermont, 1985. Image from video © Jane Beck.

The 26 tapes in this collection contain approximately ten hours of interviews with the late Daisy Turner, born in Grafton, Vermont in 1883. Daisy was the daughter of Alec and Sally Turner, both former slaves who migrated north after the Civil War. The interviews focus on both her personal and family history. Her family narrative contains rich detail that begins in England and West Africa, continues on to slavery and plantation life in Virginia, her father's experience during the Civil War, marriage, moving north, and their ultimate arrival in Vermont. In addition to the epic arc of her family, Daisy shares her own life story, a narrative of discrimination, resilience and strength—a powerful and rare account of the African American experience in New England from the 1880s through the 1980s.

In addition to presenting the rich accounts of her life and her family experience, the recordings also document the profound talents of Daisy herself. Daisy was a remarkable oral performer, one of the greatest storytellers I encountered in my 40 years of conducting fieldwork in Vermont, the West Indies and Great Britain. She was highly skilled in building a narrative to its climax, using repetition, pacing and suspense to draw out and gesture to underscore shock and surprise. One is held spellbound as much by the power of her voice as the scope of her story. Like the West African griot who was schooled by elders to serve as genealogist, historian, storyteller and singer for the community, Daisy fulfilled this role within her large extended family. Her narratives are nuanced, detailed and well fleshed out. She was a master verbal artist.

Through her storytelling skills, Daisy gives immediacy to her narrative, a story that encompasses four generations, spans two centuries, and plays out across three continents. Daisy's family story is a powerful account of African American experience in the United States. It was a family narrative transmitted to her by her father, and Daisy carefully preserved it in turn—a precious family heirloom. The interviews with Daisy form a rare document because few African Americans in the first generations following emancipation were comfortable remembering slavery. (The slave narratives collected in the 1930s frequently give only limited vignettes and there is concern as to how these narratives were affected by their collectors' race and class.) These recorded conversations create a rich and rare picture that gives insight into how an African American family transmitted culture and family tradition (including the importance of singing, poetry and prayer), across two generations of slavery and the breadth of the twentieth century. Through Daisy we are given access and understanding into another time, another way of life.

Daisy Turner's personal and family story, her impassioned determination to stand up for her own rights, her pride in her identity and heritage, her negotiation of life in Vermont-at that time known as "the whitest state in the union," all make her narrative significant. Her skills as a master storyteller raise the material to another level.

This collection is currently in production and is not yet available to the public.

Image © Vermont Folklife Center

Jane Beck received her PhD in Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969. She was awarded a Wenner Gren grant for research in the Lesser Antilles. From this came a number of scholarly articles and the book, To Windward of the Land, published in 1979 by Indiana University Press. In 1978 she was hired by the Vermont Arts Council as the Vermont Folklorist, and in 1983 founded the Vermont Folklife Center becoming its first executive director, a post she held for 24 years. During her tenure she worked on a variety of projects, bringing them to the public in publications, exhibitions, video programs and radio. Among these was the twenty-part radio series, Journey's End: The Memories and Traditions of Daisy Turner and her Family, which won the Peabody Award in 1990 and incorporated some audio from the video tapes proposed for this project. Beck was active in the American Folklore Society, serving on the editorial board, on the executive board and as president. She has also served on the Smithsonian Advisory Council for the Bureau of Folklore Projects and Cultural Studies and is currently on the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center Board. Over the years she has been recognized by the Governor's Award of "Extraordinary Vermonter," the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from Middlebury College, and the Benjamin Botkin Award from the American Folklore Society to acknowledge her achievement in public folklore.

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