Porch-Sitting as a Creative Southern Tradition
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Not Forgotten Porch-Sitting as a Creative Southern Tradition by Trudier Harris I have recently been reflecting on the significance of the porch in the South, on what that space allows and what it means. I have been thinking about the history of sharing and interaction that characterizes porch space in southern culture, about the voices that bring the space to life, about what this space meant historically and creatively to almost everyone in the deep South. Before proceeding, however, a definition is in order. Throughout this discussion, the word "porch" refers to the physical attachment that protrudes from the front of the first level of many houses and business establishments in the South. I emphasize front and first level because I do not wish to identify wrap-around porches, or verandas , or balconies with the activities I describe; I am concerned with those spaces that face directly toward the street, with an unobstructed view of traffic along the road or walkway or, later, sidewalks. Such porches were certainly a phenomenon of the nineteenth century , but I am primarily concerned with the time period in the first five or six decades of the twentieth century, where yards might have been a solid expanse of dirt and where walkways would probably not have been paved. This space is usually not enclosed, though it may be screened in, and it is covered by an extension from the roof of the house, with appropriate supporting joists. Frequently, owners of the houses include swings suspended by chains from the overhead beams, accordingly called "porch swings." In addition to swings, rocking chairs and straight-backed chairs are the usual furniture, and of course people can sit on the porch steps. "Porch-sitting" is an activity in which people can participate from early morning until late at night. All they have to do is plop their bodies down, engage someone in conversation, and the activity is on. I emphasize activity because I interpret "porch-sitting" to be dramatically different from "porch-staring"; a single individual can sit on a porch and stare at the world passing by, and obviously lots of people have done that. However , "porch-staring" lacks the interactive quality that I believe is key to "porch-sitting." Keep in mind, however, that "porch-staring" can be upgraded to "porch-sitting" immediately when a second person joins the first person on the porch, or when that person interacts with people on other porches or with those who are passing by the porch. For example, when I was about twelve, I was sitting on my front porch steps early one morning, just staring—elbows on knees, legs gaped wide apart—when I heard this voice from the porch across the street, up the hill, saying, "[she used my nickname], sit according to your family." (I always wanted to use that line in a lecture or an article.) That was the voice of Aun Nance Ann, and she, like every other woman in the neighborhood , had the right to chastise any child in the community. So, I straightened up 442 Southern Cultures Charlesetta Divinity and friend. Urica, Hinds County, Mississippi. 1976. © 1996 by Roland L. Freeman . Reprinted with permission. Harris: Porch-Sitting as a Creative Southern Tradition443 Left: Basketmakers Edna and Richard Thompson, who make baskets on their front porch to attract customers. Centerville, Wilkinson County, Mississippi. 1976. © 1996 by Roland L. Freeman . Reprinted with permission. 444Southern Cultures A daily gathering of community elders. Woodville, Wilkinson County, Mississippi. July 1975. © 1996 by Roland L. Freeman. Reprinted with permission. Fort Valley, Georgia, 1970. © 1996 by Roland L. Freeman. Reprinted with permission. Harris: Porch-Sitting as a Creative Southern Tradition445 Fort Valley, Georgia, 1970. © 1996 by Roland L. Freeman. Reprinted with permission. immediately. More recently, when I was home in Alabama on the Fourth of July in 1994 and out about 7:00 a.m. doing my walking-jogging routine, I passed a porch-starer— just sitting there, watching the grass grow. He gained porch-sitting status when he yelled out at me, "Out mighty early this morning." "Yea," I responded, "gotta keep that fat off." "You gon cook out today?" "Naw, that's just more fat to...