Between signing books, Damon Fordham strolled among tables, playing a tune on his harmonica for friends and guests at his book-signing party at Huger's restaurant last week. I've known Fordham for a long time now, but I had no idea he was so versatile.
His literary style is versatile, as well. The history professor from Charleston Southern University has written two previous books about South Carolina's black history. His latest effort, just released by the Evening Post Publishing Co., is much more personal and less academic.
Mr. Potts & Me: The Power of Storytelling is Fordham's semi-autobiographical tribute to his late, adoptive father, Abraham Fordham, but it is also a tribute to the power of storytelling and the storyteller's influence in his community.
The world that Fordham describes in this small, 136-page book is the world he grew up in — the Charleston area of just a few decades ago. Names and places are familiar. Less familiar — at least to me — are the characters in his narrative: Mr. Potts, his friends, his wife, and Lucas Moore, Fordham's young alter ego in the story. In their homes and communities, without the intrusion of white authority and surveillance, his characters are free to be joyous, smart-mouthed, and subversive.
They tell stories, usually funny, sometimes painful and poignant, but always with a meaning, a message to help young Lucas make his way through this complicated world, made all the more dangerous by the legacy of racism. Some of the stories involve the mythic slave Old John and how he used his quick and subtle wit to outsmart his master.
There is something in these stories reminiscent of Uncle Remus and the talking animals of his Georgia home. But there is a big difference. Uncle Remus was created by a white man, Joel Chandler Harris, based on stories he heard from plantation slaves as a boy. The subversiveness of those stories was concealed by having animals deceive and trick one another. While Harris almost certainly understood the true meaning of the stories, generations of his readers saw them simply as children's stories about clever animals.
Writing in the 21st century, Damon Fordham has no such fears or inhibitions. Old John and his master are completely human, and there is no question who is the smarter, better man. But most of the stories here are not freighted with race or politics. They are stories to explain the world — including adolescent love and angst — to a bright and curious young man.
The genesis of Mr. Potts & Me came on a day in 1991, the seventh anniversary of Abraham Fordham's death. Damon Fordham stood over his father's grave, thinking of the many things he had learned from his father's life of storytelling. Then he went home and started writing while they were still reasonably fresh in his memory. Twenty-one years later, the final product is here and Fordham likes what he sees.
"What emerged here is the story of a lonely, bookish kid who everybody thinks is weird," he said, describing a lot of young intellectuals and writers. "My main purpose was to preserve the lost tradition of black folklore. There was a time when every neighborhood had a Mr. Potts, who told stories not only to entertain, but to inform, to pass along life's lessons and tell stories omitted from history books. I want to encourage people to sit with their old relatives, because so often those stories not only teach us a lot about ourselves as people, but they also keep our ancestors from being just another name on a tombstone."
Fordham adds, "A number of people who have read this book told me how they identified with the idea of a fatherless boy seeking this old man and his stories for solace, which speaks to the epidemic of single-parent homes today. One book cannot provide all the answers for people in that situation, but it can give them some ideas."
Like newspapers, books, and other wonderful traditions, the storyteller has almost disappeared in the electronic age, losing his power to the noisy media that surrounds us all day, every day yet demands so little of our attention or imagination. The storyteller is a tradition we sacrifice at our own peril.
Every time we pick up the morning paper and read that some young man has shot another over drugs or cigarettes or wounded pride, it is proof of something missing in those young men's lives — usually a missing father figure, sometimes a missing sense of history and place in the world. It is a sad and evil pathology, affecting ever more American communities. We need more Mr. Pottses.