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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Beck: Remembering Daisy

Daisy Turner was born the daughter of slaves in Grafton, and she was one hundred by the time I first met and began to interview her in 1983. I’d heard she could be feisty and cantankerous, but I found her intelligent, cautious and utterly riveting when she began relating her family saga.She was vibrant, eloquent, and I remember thinking she must have been a beauty in her youth with her high cheekbones, wide set eyes and smooth skin. Only later did I realize how petite she was - little more than five feet tall. Her power with words and the rich timbre of her voice made her seem much larger.

Daisy was first and foremost a storyteller - her voice rising and falling, stories tumbling out one after another. First quiet; then electric – she’d perform with her arms pantomiming a reaction, cane mimicking a task. She knew how to build a story to its climax using repetition, suspense, and surprise.

For 40 years she’d listened to her father, Alec Turner, tell these same stories. He wanted his family to know their heritage. “We have a background,” Daisy told me. “And that background can be traced right down to the roots.” She was determined to keep her father’s stories alive, and she wanted me to put them into a book, since she had come to believe that only a book would give them the credence they deserved.

She told me a multi-generational saga spanning two centuries - until then mostly told by Turners to Turners.

Beginning with early 19th century British-African trade and shipwreck survival, it covered the birth of a biracial child, slave trading, enslavement, plantation life and escape, surviving the Civil War, moving north, battling racism, buying land and settling on a hilltop in Vermont that became a family center. The arc of this epic runs through a seminal period in American history, and it’s rare that we have access to it from an African American perspective. But thanks to Daisy’s determination and skill as a storyteller this unusual saga, with its tremendously valuable insights, lives on.

My interviews with her are now archived at the Vermont Folklife Center, and the book I promised her will be out later this year.

Daisy Turner’s powerful narrative created an immediacy that brought me into the action, allowed me access to the lives of her forebears, and conveyed to me new meaning and understanding - a remarkable gift!

Jane Beck is the founder of the Vermont Folklife Center.
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