Photo: Kelsey Englert
On Thursday, September 22, Alysia Burton Steele visited WVU’s Media Innovation Center to give a guest lecture about the writing process for her latest book, Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom. Burton Steele, an award-winning photojournalist and author and a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, was introduced by Professor Glenn Taylor who said, “I want to know sometimes where are the great listeners?...Tonight, one of them is in West Virginia.”
Burton Steele began her talk with the importance of listening when preserving oral storytelling. She said that years after her grandmother died, she desired to hear her voice and her story. She cited this as her inspiration to interview and photograph African American women of her grandmother’s generation who lived in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era.
The key to her research, Burton Steele said, was being able to really listen and hear the stories the women were trying to tell. She didn’t prepare interview questions. Rather, she tried to play off what she referred to as the “vibe” each woman gave her. She cited the ability to listen well and earn the women’s trust as necessities to successfully playing the role of oral historian.
At the end of her research, she’d driven 6,000 miles to interview 54 women. While it began as a personal project to better understand what her grandmother’s life may have been like, Burton Steele plans to develop her research into several books. She told the crowd that, as a writer, it’s important to trust your instincts about what a project can become.
Burton Steele said the research and writing of Delta Jewels has inspired her next book. She plans to interview those who picked cotton in the South because while interviewing the 54 women, so many of them and their family members wanted to share their cotton stories.
To Burton Steele, the success of the project goes beyond her book’s publication. On a personal level, assuming the role of oral historian allowed her to add 54 women and their families to her life while helping to preserve their stories.
The event was co-sponsored by the Department of English, the Department of History, and WVU’s Reed College of Media.