Alex Haley: Southern Living

(Alex Haley: Southern Living was originally published in the January 1990 issue of Southern Living.)

In his article, Alex Haley’s Better Day, Haley delivered parts of the following at Brown University on May 26, 1984: “Almost involuntarily, those of us who were southerners began to draw away from the others and just discuss among ourselves why was that. What we arrived at was that we, much more than the others, had grown up in a regional culture where of evenings the family would gather for its entertainment either in the front room or on the front porch. The elders would talk and the kids would listen; thus we had grown up in a storytelling culture.

“Every evening we would have supper, as the evening meal is called in the South, the dishes would be collectively washed, and then the sisters would all start trickling toward the front porch. It was about the time when dusk deepened into early night. There were numbers of rocking chairs on the front porch and anybody could sit wherever they chose, except nobody but Grandma sat in her white wicker rocking chair. I always stood right behind her chair because it seemed to me somebody should look out for Grandma and it should be me; I was the oldest. George was very frequently in her lap. All around the front porch were thick honeysuckle vines, and there were lightning bugs flicking on and off over the honeysuckle. Anybody who’s lived in the South knows how honeysuckle smells particularly heavily sweet in the first cool of the evening of the summers.

“Nobody planned these things; it was just what happens on front porches in the South of evenings. First thing was, they had to get the rocking together. You don’t just sit down in a rocking chair and start rocking. You’ve got to get it maneuvered to just the right angle, and only you know what’s just the right angle.” ~ Alex Haley.

Alex Haley: Southern Living

Since the days of the early settlers, the front porches such as this one preserved at the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee, have provided the most influential weekly forum in America’s history. Across the generations when all homes were built with porches, those homes, also as a rule, housed three generations under one roof.

On those porches of yesteryear, especially on Sundays after community churchgoing had been followed by each family’s special big meal, the mid­afternoon would see a family’s gathering on the front porch where those who were the elders would do the talking and those who were younger would listen. And it was thus during these front-porch forums that the generations of accumulated diverse knowledge and information got relayed from those elders’ memories and minds and through their mouths into the inherently absorbent ears of their audiences, on down to the littlest of the young’uns, who largely on those porches learned to revere what seemed the endless and bottomless wisdoms of their grandparents.

But sadly, by today America’s front porches have mostly disappeared. Perhaps our richest single cultural institution, they have been victims of technology—for what ultimately did in our front porches was air conditioning. ~ Alex Haley.

(Alex Haley: Southern Living is presented to our audience under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published within the January 1990 issue of Southern Living. © 1990 Time Inc. Lifestyle Group. All Rights Reserved.)

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