Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Oral Pleasures

By Chris Davis

MAY 26, 1998:  Don’t think I won’t fight a man who takes me to task over something I believe in,” Henry Buchanan, author of And The Goat Cried: Southern Tales and Other Chance Meetings says matter of factly. His voice is deep and resonant, and his pace is slow and self-assured. It is clear that this septuagenarian is a man who means exactly what he says, and he certainly has a history of standing up for what he believes in.

In the early days of the civil-rights movement, Buchanan wrote a little letter to a little newspaper supporting the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in favor of integration. It turned him into Shellman, Georgia’s unofficial Public Enemy #1. He was removed from his post as minister of the Baptist church and was hanged in effigy by the KKK in the same building where Buchanan served as scoutmaster for the Boy Scouts. “Perhaps I was a little caustic,” he admits.

The Klan then marched Buchanan’s likeness to the Shellman town square and buried it. “I drove down to see my grave,” he continues, without the slightest hint of dramatic inflection. “It was really kind of pretty. They had decorated it all up, and the epithet was in poetry, ‘Here lies Henry Buchanan, the most notorious nigger lover in the state of Georgia.’” The event made the Associated Press, and as a result Buchanan briefly became a public figure. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. invited him to join the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but Buchanan refused. He confesses it was partly because he thought a white presence would only exacerbate the conflict – especially in the Deep South: “I thought he was crazy to ask me. ...” And partly out of fear for his own life: “I had already seen myself hanged,” he chuckles a bit, then gets deadly serious. “I didn’t want to see myself get shot.”


Illustration from and the Goat Cried by Susan Young Sammons

A man who has seen his own grave has quite a tale to tell. Henry Buchanan has plenty of tales. “I’ve got over 200 of them, and they are all based on things that really happened,” he brags. In And The Goat Cried, Buchanan shares 24 parables. Unfortunately, veracity aside, they aren’t terribly compelling. In many cases Buchanan sabotages his stories by having a character speak the moral. This usually comes off as an underwhelming punch line to an over-told joke. The line, “There ain’t no perfect tree, Sheriff. Just as there ain’t no perfect man” ends The Hanging Tree, a fine folk tale about a convict whose last request is to pick the tree from which he is to be hung. Its simple poetry reads like an American Calvino, until that last line underestimates the reader and puts a huge crack in an otherwise well-told story.

And The Goat Cried’s cover blurbs make the mandatory (He writes about simple God-haunted country folk so he must be like...) Flannery O’Connor comparisons, but Flann he is not. He lacks her wonderful hysteria, and his characters are line drawings compared to her rich close-up portraits. So he’s not Flannery O’Connor. So what? He might be something more important– not in a canonical sense, but important like the snail darter, the endangered minnow-like fish that once halted the march of industry.

Buchanan’s style comes from an oral tradition, and his stories, while original, are tales Southerners have heard all their lives, handed down from grandparents to their grandbabies on still hot summer nights when there was nothing better to do than gaze at the stars and gab. It is this unpretentious back-porch style that makes even the worst of Buchanan’s stories readable, and elevates his better tales into the realm of classic fable. In The Night The Moon Turned to Blood, Buchanan tells of a preacher who misinterprets the eclipse of a ruddy moon as an omen that judgment day is at hand. His terrified flock begins an outpouring of confessions. Couples confess infidelity, a shopkeeper confesses to shortchanging a customer, and so on. When the sun rises the next morning and the world is still standing, the community must face reconstructing their lives in the wake of a devastating flood of honesty. It is in this story that Buchanan’s homespun style merges seamlessly with his often complex notions of justice. It is nothing like Flannery O’Connor, but it brings to mind another great American author, who – before Mark Twain – melded morality with folklore and exposed the tiny deceits of daily life which comprise humanity’s ongoing dance with the devil – Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Buchanan says he wants to publish one more book. While he is a skillful yarn-spinner, perhaps it’s time for him take on a yet more colorful project: an autobiographical piece on his experience as an accidental activist and rallying point of the early civil-rights movement.


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