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Mary Anne Mushatt’s Lion’s Tale and the Power of Oral History

May 8, 2017

 

Amistad has recently added the film Lion’s Tale (2000) to its online digital collections. The film was written, directed and produced by Mary Anne Mushatt. For her MFA thesis project, Mushatt collected the oral histories of residents along Louisiana’s River Road, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, including members of the African American community and the Houma Nation. The result is a documentary challenging the dominance of the “plantation country” narrative that most know as the primary reputation of the area.

 

Mushatt guides us through the community, acting as narrator, weaving together the stories of the River Road’s residents and local historians. Community members share their family histories and reminiscences of life in the area. We hear from Kathe Hambrick, the Executive Director of the River Road African American Museum, and Grayhawk Perkins, Storyteller for the United Houma Nation, among others. Some residents recall the difficulties of the past. Lydia Gloster recalls the lessons she learned from her mother and grandmother about how to stretch a meal; Richard Keller talks about his grandchildren’s incredulity as he described to them the days of living with no electricity or indoor plumbing.

 

The common thread throughout the interviews is the idea that written history can only provide a small slice of the truth, particularly in communities that have relied heavily on oral traditions. For the Houma people, learning their own story from their own oral traditions can mean something as powerful as learning about a past made up of freedom fighters and heroes, rather than renegades and troublemakers. For the African American community, it can mean being taught pride in the resiliency of their culture, rather than shame and negativity. The oral history culture is inclusive of the present, and emphasizes the participatory nature of history, a notion that can be difficult to capture in written form.

 

Lion’s Tale is available streaming for free as part of the Tulane University Digital Library.

 

 (Please click on one of the three images in the above gallery to enlarge.)

 

Images from the Mary Anne Mushatt collection. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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