Heath, Shirley Brice. “Protean Shapes in Literary Events: Ever-Shiting Oral and Literate Traditions.” Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook. Eds. Ellen Cushman, Mike Rose, Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry Kroll. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2001. Print.
One Sentence Summary
In this case study, residents of Trackton (southeast US) enacted various modes of literacy (reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing and performing) in manners not associated with widespread representations of literacy.
AAVE, multimodal literacy, literacy, illiteracy, cased study
“Descriptions of literacy events and their patterns of uses in Trackton do not enable us to place the community somewhere on a continuum from full literacy to restricted literacy or nonliteracy. Instead, it seems more appropriate to think of two continua, the oral and the written. Their points and extent of overlap, and similarities in structure and function, follow one pattern for Trackton, but follow others for communities with different cultural features.” (p 461)
In this chapter of her case study, Heath reports the literacy practices of folks who live in a semi-rural town populated predominately by African-Americans. One of the important points Heath makes is that the distinction between oral and literate practices are determined by individual communities; in other words, a strict delineation between the two is likely a false dichotomy, and certainly is in this particular circumstance I think this is an important point because it begins to complicate the notion of what a literate practice is. All throughout the writing, Heath reports that people move from oral to written modes fluently, one building off or setting the ground for the other. This was particularly clear in the prayer said at a church service; the written text served as a groundwork from which a more elaborated oral performance was given. In this performative orality, the style, Heath reports, was significantly different (intonation, prosody, etc.) and the two modes, Heath notes, even had different grammars.
What becomes clear to me as I read through this piece is that if literacy is defined through a number of, then, to varying degrees, six modes appear in this community: reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and performing. The latter two are perhaps the least obvious, though a careful examination appears to demonstrate even these. When Heath explains the initiation process employees go through at a mill, she reports that new hires must watch (view) seasoned workers throughout a day. Later, near the end of a shift, those same new hires are paired with a mentor to work at a specific machine or at a specific task, and in so doing perform the activity he or she will be learning in an apprentice-like manner.
One thing I take away from this reading is an appreciation for the situatedness of literacy; in other words, the contexts from which we emerge should be taken into consideration when attempting to define or place individuals and communities within a wide-ranging literacy spectrum. Also, I appreciate the complications of the concept of literacy, and the acknowledgement (albeit tacit) of how the spectrum metaphor of literacy (which I take to be linear and ranging from nonliterate to fully literate) can be problematic.