Wednesday, April 8, 2015

F = Fannie Lou Hamer: A-Z Blogging Challenge 2015: History Stories and the Telling of Them

Okay, so I’m a day late (again) in this A-Z Blogging Challenge 2015.  My desire is to share some history facts and the stories I think are intriguing around them, along with some ways I’ve told history stories and techniques of researching and telling historical stories.  So here was yesterday’s (which, since it’s history is good any day J)...

F = Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer, a voting rights activist from Mississippi in the 1960’s and a fighter against poverty, is one of the 10 women in history that I portray.  (See the others at my website,  She was a woman who had been a sharecropper all of her life and didn’t even know she had the right to vote until 1963.  Once she found out she had the right, she became a strong voice and leader in the voting rights movement.  She was a highly respected woman and leader in Mississippi in spite of, or maybe because of, severe opposition – forced to move from her home, lost her job and her husband’s, shot at, beaten severely, jailed without even a phone call, released from jail without an apology or compensation, and more.  YET, through all of this she was able to keep herself from hatred of those who opposed her, and was a beacon of light and hope, along with a throaty voice of soul, for all who took their first steps to political and social freedom.

What a story to tell!  I loved learning about her and once I read about her, I knew I wanted to portray.  So I did what I usually do:
a)      I read some children’s/young adult biographies about Fannie Lou Hamer
b)      I copied her timeline from one of the books and proceeded to look online at a larger timeline and see what else was happening in her life.
c)       I wrote down things that impressed me about her life, which would become the basis of what I would share.
d)      I wrote down what I hoped people would learn, feel or be inspired by when I finished the presentation.

How I felt when program flopped for teens
from movie, "Appaloosa",
which I just happened to be watching
while writing this.  
And I was ready!?!   No, I wasn’t.  You see, “c” was so long that I couldn’t wrap my head around how to tell her story without it sounding like a bunch of facts, events and dates.  As a matter of fact the first 3 times I did the Historic Character Presentation – me portraying her – it was a flop.  Okay, the fact was that two of the groups were very receptive [one group only had ½ hour and the other group had more older folks than children], but I knew it wasn’t close to where I wanted it.  My third group were high schoolers and I had the equivalent of “being run out of town”, at least for me:  I couldn’t keep their attention, the interactive parts seemed too forced and the students couldn’t understand distinguish serious moments from humorous.  Although the teachers were more focused on the students’ behavior rather than me; I was frustrated that I couldn’t share Fannie’s voice in such a way that she moved the students like she moved me.  After talking to one of the principals after the program, he said it was good, not my best (he had seen me many times before and I still go to his school annually), but that what he thought was missing was that the students had no point of reference.  Ah, a wise observation!

I had to make some changes and most of them were in myself.  I was so determined to tell her “whole” story, that I wasn’t really looking at her “stories”.  I knew so much history about and around her and her era, that I was forgetting to bring people in on the secret.  Also, in an effort to try to make her relatable, I was making her sound humorous and unrealistic.  I had to make a change…..and I did!

For my Fannie Lou Hamer presentation I have two people join me on stage:  myself and Fannie.  I begin the presentation sharing a bit about how I became interested and learned about Fannie Lou Hamer and giving some background information.  Then I say that she didn’t even know she could vote until she was in her 40’s.  I pause and step to the side and change my demeanor; now I’m Fannie and through her voice, I tell about the day I went to vote and was denied, but still lost my job and my home.  Then I come back, sort of as a narrator, and relate a few other things in her life, in the life of Mississippi folk and the nation, and end by saying, “having the right to vote was essential, but not everyone believed it was essential for all folks.”  I move away and sit in a chair, hunched over, and in the voice of Fannie I share about when I was forcible jailed and then beaten and then I sing one or two of the songs she sung in the jail.  There usually is applause, but then I let another minute pass so folks can reflect on her words. 

I come back to my narrator self and tell about the assignation of Medgar Evers, of Hamer’s release and her move to the world of politics.  I tell about the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and their trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey for the Democratic National Convention.  Then I move over to the chair, and pull around a wooden table tray that has a purse on it.  I put the tray in front of the chair, pick up the purse, sigh deeply, change into Fannie and sit in the chair.  I set the purse down and put my arms on the arms and hands on the table, with my fingers intertwined and I say the exact words that Fannie Lou Hamer said at the Democratic Convention…adding some of her additional words from that time and ending with, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”  I make a pregnant pause, stand up and return to being the narrator.  I tell briefly of Fannie’s rest of life and then I tell why I believe she is so important.  Then, I ask for questions, and I’ve always left just enough juicy fragments, that people will either ask questions or go search for her; either way I’m pleased.  Oh, and this is 45 minutes before questions. 

I have presented it this way once and it was very successful.  I had a variety of ages at the program and everyone was gripped and loved the back and forth.  No one felt lost and there were plenty of questions afterwards.  I think I’ve found a way to tell her story and present her voice. 

Now here is Fannie Lou Hamer’s actual voice:  Fannie Lou Hamer's speech to Democratic National Convention 1964

Today’s Blog Question – please leave an answer in comments. 
What do you think about the way I am telling her story?  What historical figure would you find it difficult to portray (historic character presentation) or through stories?  How do you tell the difficult life stories?


  1. Perfection! Thank you for sharing your presentation of civil rights heroine Fannie Lou Ramer! I know those kids walked out of your presentation changed from the inside out! I had to watch Fannie in action on the Youtube you linked - goosebumps! I'm a changed person - so powerful. Thank you!

  2. I am glad to know that you did not give up and found a way to make this important story accessible. I hope you get to keep telling Fannie Lou Hamer's story!

  3. What a heroic and inspiring woman!!! I listened to her words and they bring such sadness that people the world over cannot find a way to accept each other in peace and friendship. That the struggles continue and that generation after generation have to bear this burden, every student in America should listen to her story every year.
    Your Point of Reference mention was just the inspiration I need when dealing with a very similar story full of fact and history and a need to bring humanity and connection to the listener. Thanks for that bit of coaching in your shared blog!