Compelled to Listen: The Making of an Ethnographer

Martha King playing dress-up on Sunday morning, ca. 1982.

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Compelled to Listen: The Making of an Ethnographer

by Martha King
Southern Cultures, Vol. 22, No. 1: Documentary Arts

“When people asked the stale question ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?,’ I started responding: ‘The President’ . . . With ‘President,’ I never had to reply, ‘Well, sir, when I grow up I’d like to understand what compels you to ask me that question.’”

At seven years old I knew it wasn’t the time or place to throw off my light-yellow gingham and go charging into the stream, but the swift water looked irresistible on a hot Sunday in the mountains. My shoes were long deposited under a pew somewhere. I perched on a rock and slid my feet into the current, feeling the rush of ice-cold water send a shock up my legs. Momentarily blinded from the reflection of the midday sun, I blocked my face with the back of my hand, looked up the hill toward the white clapboard church, and saw my grandfather leading a line of people down through the grass toward the water.