- Compelled to ListenThe Making of an Ethnographer
Click for larger view
View full resolution
At seven years old I knew it wasn’t the time or place to throw off my light-yellow gingham and go charging into the stream, but the swift water looked irresistible on a hot Sunday in the mountains. My shoes were long deposited under a pew somewhere. I perched on a rock and slid my feet into the current, feeling the rush of ice-cold water send a shock up my legs. Momentarily blinded from the reflection of the midday sun, I blocked my face with the back of my hand, looked up the hill toward the white clapboard church, and saw my grandfather leading a line of people down through the grass toward the water.
This is how my first memory of being an ethnographer begins. It was the first time I remember seeing through the glaze and straight into the wilderness of my southern home. Many years after that hot mountain Sunday, I was visiting my grandmother as she doddered in the fog of advanced dementia. It was impossible [End Page 10] to talk to her about what she ate for breakfast but she could fill the room with detailed stories of Alabama in the 1940s. In a lucid moment, she turned to me and said, “Don’t wait to write out your life in order as it came. There’s a reason people make a pie before putting a chicken in the oven.” I could rarely untangle those metaphors, but what follows is an entry in my out-of-order memoir.
For much of his career, my grandfather was the pastor of a large, wealthy First Baptist church. Sundays when he preached there swirled in chaos for a little kid weaving through the throngs—the massive crowds gliding across deep red carpet, the perfectly coifed Sunday-go-to-meet air of the ladies with their puffy hair and perfumed snowy skin, and the other kids darting about with smocked dresses or crisp jon-jons. Church seemed like a fancy play everyone put on—an activity, not a practice. After the service, a line would slowly stream out of the large double doors, each congregant shaking my grandfather’s hand and thanking him for the message that morning. Sometimes I would stand very close and, as a game, I’d record each face in my mind. A pat on the head or pinch of the cheek, and those swanky men and women would stream out into their workweeks, rematerializing on Wednesday night or Sunday morning. I started to catalog people, crossing them through networks with imaginary strings tied to the thumbtacks of my mind.
At retirement, my grandfather began to serve interim shifts to flocks in need—landing him stints at that one-room, North Carolina church with the deep stream out front. The building still sits atop a grassy hill framed by leafy deciduous trees fading up the mountain. That hot day when I sat with my feet in the water, he wore long, black preacher’s robes. I squinted through the simmering heat, turning my face up from the water and saw him walking near the creek’s bridge and right into the rush, getting the lush velvety edges of his robes all sopping wet. A man in brown dress slacks and a short-sleeved dress shirt walked right in too, with the small crowd bustling on the bank. A woman joined them, her eyes closed and palms lifted toward the one fluffy white cloud perched in the sky above. They both had this anticipation in their eyes; it almost looked like fear. One by one, my grandfather’s steady hands submerged their bodies. He held them there for just a bit longer than I expected—momentarily sealed away until he pulled their soaked forms up again. Each rose out vibrant, a look of release shocked...