Thursday, February 18, 2010

In defense of Big Mouths

I told this story at massmouth's first Folk Tale Slam, held at Toscanini's in Central Square, Cambridge. I've been telling it off and on for the last year, because it is a story that I relate to personally, as anyone who knows me well can probably guess.

Who is the Big-Mouthed Frog? Also known as the Wide-Mouthed Frog, he (or she) is a garrulous amphibian, who just can't keep a lid on himself. He spends his time importuning the various animals he meets by showing off - and demonstrating - his extraordinarily large mouth. This guy is loud and loving it!

Eventually, though, our hero runs out of animals to show off his big mouth to. Everybody he knows has seen it, and what's more, is sick of seeing it. So, he decides to head out into the world and find a larger and more appreciative audience. Naturally, he ends up at the zoo. Here he spends a delightful day going from animal to animal, introducing himself and his marvelous mouth, impervious to the obvious annoyance he is causing to one and all. Anticipation builds as the BMF finally meets the one animal that can make him change his tune.

In fact, by the end of this story the Big-Mouthed Frog is no longer that; he transforms himself into something else entirely, a necessary act of self-preservation that presumably nobody but he regrets. We laugh at the foolish little loud-mouth, reduced at last to the humble - and quiet - little frog we all think he ought to be. Who does he think he is, going around bothering everybody with his loud self-aggrandizing chatter?

But something in me always feels a little sad to think that he has been silenced, reduced to ordinariness. The Big-Mouthed Frog is a piercing reminder of my own experience in elementary school (and beyond), where I was constantly being told to be quiet, tone it down, or just plain SHUT UP already! I've always been a big mouth, a talker, a noise-maker, a complainer. In other words, a Storyteller. So even though this story has a "funny" ending - the loud obnoxious noisemaker is made to shut up and we all get to laugh at his discomfiture - I always feel a little uncomfortable telling it, because I identify so closely with BMF. When he is silenced, so am I.

I was fascinated, therefore, to find out something about the background of this story that I had never known. Other than the fact that it is a piece of American folklore, I could find little else about its roots, until I stumbled across this interesting blog posting, by Conservatory Girl, from August 2008. In it, Conservatory Girl explains that the story (often told as a joke) of the Wide-Mouthed Frog became popular in the U.S. during the early '70s, when it was understood to be a metaphor for the experience of many African-Americans living in a white-dominated society. The brilliant folklorist Alan Dundes, on page 64 of his book Interpreting Folklore, says of this story and its protagonist, "the frog in order to survive has to curb its natural way of speaking. It must speak literally and figuratively in a closemouthed way in order to stay alive. The frog must keep its mouth shut to remain free."

Stories like this one continue to fascinate and engage me. On the surface, it appears to be a simple comedy: a loud talker is silenced in a funny way. But look deeper, and the narrative reveals itself as a kind of tragedy: a vibrant mode of self-expression is stifled in the interests of self-preservation. Our dominant white culture too often demands conformity from people of color, who are pressured to silence themselves in order not to "annoy" or "disturb" their white neighbors, school mates, or co-workers. However, history has shown that we all lose out when any of us choose to remain silent, especially when it comes to expressing our truest selves. I plan on continuing to tell this story, appreciating a deeper awareness of the messages it carries within it.

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