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  • Testimonies of the Disappeared:A Response to Margaret Randall's AFS Address
  • Elaine J. Lawless, Curator's Distinguished Professor (bio)

First, I want to say what a privilege it is for the American Folklore Society to have Margaret Randall here as a guest speaker, as we are most fortunate to be able to hear and learn from her. When I first agreed to give a response to her talk, I began to locate some of her sixty books—at least, what I had read suggested she had written sixty books; I guess that information was a week or two old, because Bill Westerman says she now has eighty books! But I was thrilled with the exercise. Randall's political work can enrich and inform my own in so many ways—although to call my work "political" in the same breath as hers may beg the question of whether or not what we do, as folklorists, can ever correctly be termed "political." I invite you to find her books when you return to your homes. The effort is well worth it! Lucky for us, Randall lives here in Albuquerque; lucky for us, also, is the fact that Westerman went far out of his way to make this lecture possible. Thanks to them both.

In reading Randall's address for today, I was struck by how well she grasped the notion of what folkloristics is and what the discipline of folklore might be concerned with. She knows the danger of going to the dictionary for definitions of terms, yet piecing these definitions together with the paragraph about the AFS that is included as the signature of every email AFS executive director Tim Lloyd sends, she has constructed a viable kind of definition that will suffice for these purposes. Furthermore, I was particularly struck with how Hufford-esque (see Hufford 1982, 1985) was her analysis of the belief system that guides the president and many folks in government—a belief system that is invisible but, nevertheless, guides with a fierce hand the efforts to "bring freedom" to the entire planet under the rhetorical stance of goodwill and peace. The fact that this belief system is tied directly to Christian rhetoric and belief, she points out, makes it more powerful—and dangerous. Hufford reminded us nearly two decades ago that the academy largely shares a religion or belief system of "disbelief" [End Page 353] —the belief of academics, he posited, is "disbelief" (1982). This belief system guides most of our field research, scholarship, publications, conference papers, and so forth. We do not address the study of the supernatural, visions, dreams, ghosts, and the spirit world with an open mind—open even to the possibility of these worlds as actual and real. Rather, we begin with disbelief and we draw our conclusions planted squarely in the belief of disbelief, which of course relegates our ethnographic works to description and the "othering" of believers and our analyses to reductionism and functionalism.

I would like to guide us toward a better understanding of how Randall's work can intersect with and inform our own folkloric inquiry. Because I am firmly grounded in my own current work, some of my remarks will necessarily reflect upon how I may be able to rely on Randall as I tread carefully through the minefields of violence against women and the use of the performative to share their stories.

In Our Voices/Our Lives: Stories of Women from Central America and the Caribbean (1995), Randall claims that while living in Nicaragua she "had been in close touch with political movements to make change possible—for people and, increasingly . . . for women" (127). Information about Randall given on the inside cover of her book states: "Margaret Randall has been listening to Latin American women tell their stories and been presenting those stories in text and image for more than forty years." I cling to that notion of a multiplicity of representational forms—"text and image"—words and art? Song and dance? Chant and narrative?

Of the stories included in her powerful collection of women's narratives, Our Voices/Our Lives, Randall states, "What serves as connective tissue and can be heard throughout like some...


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pp. 353-356
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