Becoming the Tradition Bearer: Community History and Community Representation in The Tragedy of Brady Sims

By Jeanna Mason


In Ernest Gaines's most recent novel, The Tragedy of Brady Sims, some pretty alarming events have rocked the small community of Bayonne. Before the novel opens, three black men have attempted and failed to rob a bank. Two people, a white bank clerk and one of the robbers, were killed during the attempt, and the two surviving robbers have been tried and convicted and are to be executed by the State of Louisiana. One of these men is Jean-Pierre Sims. The novel opens at the conclusion of the trial, as the convicted men are being led from the courtroom after sentencing; however, with a loudly uttered "BOY," and "the loudest sound that [the narrator] had ever heard," a man named Brady Sims launches a small Louisiana community into upheaval (The Tragedy of Brady Sims 2017, 3). Jean-Pierre's estranged father Sims shoots and kills him in front of a court room full of witnesses. Brady Sims's action leaves the white community and parts of the black community reeling.

A young black reporter who witnesses these events is assigned to write a human interest piece on Brady Sims for his local paper. Seeking insight into Brady and a rationale for his actions, the reporter, Louis Guerin, approaches a group of old men who gather at the local barbershop in town. Guerin wants to understand Brady; therefore, these men tell stories in the form of local character anecdotes in an attempt to explain why Brady Sims would murder his own son. In this essay, I will argue that the sharing of these anecdotes about Brady Sims allows this group of Brady's contemporaries to pass on stories about his character and his purpose in the community to the next generation, thereby teaching them the history of black lives in their community and challenging Guerin to become a tradition bearer not only for their own group but also for their shared community. The transmission of the stories by the old men and Guerin's reception and future transmission of the community's cultural history through these stories, however, is complicated by Guerin's own status in the community, as well as by others' perceptions of his authority to be an auditor of these stories in the present or a re-teller of them in the future.

Sharing Community History: The Place, the Storyteller, and the Audience

In The Tragedy of Brady Sims, Louis Guerin receives his community's history in a series of anecdotes told by members of what can be classified as a folk group. Alan Dundes (1980) famously defined folk as a group of people who share at least one common factor. Other scholars have extended this definition to include characteristics such as "personal connections, values, traditions, beliefs—and other forms of lore" (Sims and Stephens 2005:5). In spite of the fact that it can be argued that people who live in a community share personal connections, Ray Cashman contends that in order for people from the same community to belong to a folk group, there must be some form of interaction between the members that creates a sense of "shared identity and belonging" (2011: 9). In Gaines's novel, the men of Bayonne who gather at Lucas Felix's barbershop share these personal connections, which are strengthened through their shared identity as retired or semi-retired black men who have similar experiences from living in a racially divided rural Louisiana, as well as through their practice of gathering regularly at Felix's.

In Brady Sims, Felix's barbershop functions as a gathering place for the older generation and as a site where stories are exchanged. The barbershop is a public space in that anyone may enter its doors without invitation. Admittedly, though, the space tends to be gendered and populated by a group of septuagenarians. As the narrator notes, "Most of Lucas Felix's clients were old men, hardly ever any women, and no one younger than I [Louis Guerin], and I'm twenty-eight" (Brady Sims 23). Guerin reveals that in spite of its public nature, this is not an open space. Instead, it is patronized by a group that is unique for its age and gender. As a result of its limited population, the storytelling that occurs within its doors is often misunderstood by those who are outside its boundaries.

The sincerity of the practices, beliefs, and oral traditions of a group are sometimes questioned by those outside the group. Because what is said or done is a mystery to outsiders, there is the potential for false reports to be spread about what actually happens between the group members. We see this in Brady Sims when local business owner Stella tells Louis Guerin about Felix's barbershop. Even as she advises him to go to the men for information on Brady, she observes, "Always a bunch of liars over there" (23). In an essay on storytelling at the La Have Island General Store in Nova Scotia, Richard Bauman records one woman's assertion that the storytelling sessions that occur at the male-dominated general store during the evenings are sessions where "one just tryin' to beat the other" as men compete to see "who could tell the biggest lie" (1972: 338). Bauman argues that, as an outsider to such a gendered space and activity, this woman does not have enough knowledge about the group dynamics or group practices to either make an objective assessment or give a report about what happens within the bounds of the group's space. We see this same dynamic at work in Brady Sims. For Stella to call the men in Felix's barbershop "liars" reflects a similar lack of knowledge. As a younger woman, she is excluded from the group due to her gender and age. As the proprietor of the diner, she does not have the time to drop in to gain first-hand knowledge of happenings. Since she neither has the same experiences nor shares all of the same sources of knowledge with the men, her assessments of the group's character are biased.

Meanwhile Guerin, while a member of the community, has spent time outside of the community receiving a formal education and lacks the personal connections with both the old men of the barbershop and Brady Sims that could allow him to become a member of this group. In the novel Guerin defines the men of the barbershop as a group based on both the community's perceptions of the men's collective behavior and his own interactions with them. Part of Guerin's classification of these men as a group is based on the ages of the individuals: Guerin notes that the men are in their seventies, whereas Guerin is much younger; thus, he excludes himself from the group and assumes the role of a sort of ethnographer: "I come there mostly to listen to the old men talk" (23). He even at times becomes a participant-observer in the group: "I feel that it would be unfair to just sit there and listen and not get a haircut sometimes, so I let Lucas give me an edge 'round the neck every now and then. Other times I go to Jack Bouie . . . who is about my age and gives more modern cuts" (23). Guerin's willingness to participate in the group's activities is tempered by the generational differences he sees between himself and the men of the barbershop. Guerin, as an observer of the group, knows of the rituals—the gathering daily, their method of interacting with one another, their ongoing debate about the cause of the community's decline, and their discussions of local events-—yet he is neither necessarily willing nor invited to participate in them. This lack of full participation with or membership complicates his ability to receive and transmit the community's history as a tradition bearer.

Guerin's role as auditor of the community's history is assigned to him by someone outside of the community: his white editor. In spite of this, when Guerin comes seeking information about Brady Sims for the human interest story for the Bayonne Journal, the group elects Frank Jamison as its storyteller. Despite Felix's instructions to "Educate that youngster [Guerin]," Jamison is reluctant to share his knowledge with someone he sees as an outsider (26). Therefore, before sharing his knowledge, Jamison uses the rest of the group to ascertain Guerin's worthiness to receive the information: "You think he knows how to listen, and choose, and don't write what he ain't supposed to?" (26). Even with the others' confirmation of Guerin's trustworthiness, Jamison is still skeptical; however, in spite of his reservations, he fulfills his role of storyteller in the group.

Jamison's distrust of Guerin is based on Guerin's status as an outsider. Even though Guerin will receive the story from this group in his community, he will be transmitting this story both outside the group and outside the black community via his human interest story on Sims. This makes Jamison's question about Guerin writing "what he ain't supposed to" (26) more significant because insider secrets are not to be shared with outsiders who receive Guerin will be sharing these stories about Brady Sims with outsiders—the Bayonne community at large. It is also important to note that while Guerin is receiving the information from the group, he is not necessarily being granted the authority to share everything he will be told. The danger that exists stems from Guerin sharing this knowledge with members outside the community—anyone from white readers to the younger black generation—who are ignorant of the black community's history, and from the possibility this mixed audience will misunderstand Brady's purpose as community disciplinarian and then use that information to develop further biases toward or perpetuate further harm to the black community. Therefore, as the recipient of these stories about Brady, Guerin is granted limited authority to share his newly-gained knowledge. However, since Jamison and the others are not explicit about what can be shared, it is up to Guerin to read between the lines and determine what information he can safely share with his audience.

Jamison's recounting of various anecdotes about Brady Sims to someone outside of the group crosses generational and communal boundaries. Guerin is a young professional in Bayonne in his late twenties. He is an outsider to this group of septuagenarians. Guerin's status as an outsider is complicated by the fact that, while he is from the community, he has spent time outside receiving a formal education. This separation from the community prevents him from forming the types of personal connections that the men of the barbershop share with each other, with Brady, and with the larger community. The only other person in Felix's barbershop who is unfamiliar with the story of Brady Sims is a true outsider. Jack Burnet, a young black man from Natchitoches, is traveling to New Orleans and has stopped in Bayonne at Felix's shop on a whim. Guerin and Burnet are the audience for the group's knowledge of Brady Sims. As an insider and as a person who is familiar with the community's history, Guerin is less critical of the stories that Jamison shares about Brady Sims. Burnet, less familiar with the community and the history of black lives in this area of Louisiana, is less believing. Burnet continually peppers Guerin with questions regarding the veracity of these anecdotes: "You say you follow what he's talking 'bout?" (42) and "Why the barber keep agreeing with him? . . . Can't he see that man's crazy? You sure he didn't break out of Jackson?" (44). Because he is an outsider and is unfamiliar with these secrets out of their context and then develop and disseminate a flawed understanding of the subject, situation, or group. As a reporter, the dynamics between the different members of the community, Burnet has a hard time believing in Brady's role as champion of the community. Guerin's position as a member of the community and his desire to understand Brady's motivation will allow him to share this understanding in his story for the local newspaper in his capacity as tradition bearer. Burnet however cannot be a tradition bearer due to his skepticism about the veracity of the stories due to his status as an outsider.

From Receiving the Tradition to Becoming the Tradition Bearer

Louis Guerin, as a community insider and professional storyteller [read: reporter], would appear to be the perfect recipient of stories about Brady Sims. In spite of the fact that Guerin has been assigned to tell Brady's story by someone outside of the community, Guerin's own interactions with Brady in the aftermath of the trial suggest that he has been commissioned for this task by Brady himself. Guerin describes his encounter with Brady in the courthouse immediately following the murder of Jean-Pierre in the following way:

I watched the old man back closer and closer to where I stood. Then we were facing each other, three or four feet apart. I had known him all my life, but this was as close as I had ever been to him. . . . [His] eyes looked tired and weak.

He continued to stare at me, as if he wanted me to understand what he had done, or why he had done it. But at that moment, I couldn't even think, I was barely able to breathe. (5)

The anecdotes about Brady reveal aspects of his character and his role in the community that are not necessarily evident to someone outside the people of his generation. Guerin is separated from Sims by both generation and geography. Guerin is a young man in his twenties while Brady is a much older man with a face "the color of dark, worn leather" and hair that is "snow-white" (5). Brady has spent his entire life in the area, while Guerin moved away after the eighth grade to receive an education he could not get locally (18). While Guerin lives in the town (9), Brady lives by himself out on a local plantation (62). Guerin's work as a reporter keeps him busy in the town while Brady's subsistence farming—as well as his own choice to isolate himself from the community after a failed whipping—confines him to a local plantation. Because of Brady's isolation and Guerin's extended absence from the community, the anecdotes that Felix instructs Jameson to share with Guerin are likely the only way for Guerin to begin to understand Brady and to be able to pass on this part of his community's history.

Community History and Acts of Representation

Guerin receives both the facts about Brady Sims and his role in the community's history and the community's cultural history in the local character anecdotes told in Lucas Felix's barbershop. These anecdotes not only bring Brady Sims's past into his present, they also bring the community's past into the present as well. In this sense, these anecdotes about Brady Sims are oral history. These narratives are passed from person [Jamison] to person [Guerin], and, while Jamison is selected to be the group's spokesperson, he frequently "checks" his narrative with Lucas Felix, who acts as both an authenticator for Jamison's narrative and as the granter of Jamison's authority to continue the narrative. Ray Cashman suggests that local character anecdotes reflect a community's sense of pride in the intelligence of its people (2011: 99). In Gaines's novel, the anecdotes that Jamison shares illustrate Bayonne's black community's pride: first in their own ingenuity as they concoct a plan to keep their children out of Angola by having Brady Sims administer whippings to them, and second, in the cunning of their people as illustrated by the various subjects of these anecdotes. Guerin's absence from the community during his teenage years, the years when he would become an adult and would have been taught the nuances of what it means to be a member of his community, have prevented him from learning his community's history and culture as well as the significance of the role that Brady has played in the community's development.

Because of his absence from the community during his formative years, Guerin has not been "educated" in what it means to be a part of this community. He does not understand who Brady really is. Nor does he fully recognize his own responsibility to it. Two of the anecdotes that Jamison shares reveal the community's pride in themselves for choosing Brady as the community disciplinarian whose actions can save the youth of their community. In one of these light-hearted anecdotes, Brady is the victor; in the other, Brady is the loser. Regardless of Brady's levels of success, the community still sees Brady's intervention on behalf of the community as a positive thing. The first light-hearted anecdote, about Brady and Nelson, proves that Brady is successful in meeting the community's goal of keeping their children on the straight and narrow and out of Angola. Nelson is known in the community as lazy and as a thief who would "steal a nickel off of a dead man's eye" (39). He lives with his elderly aunt, who "could hardly move around with her walking stick" and has a difficult time controlling Nelson (39). When Nelson is commissioned to mail a letter containing money by one community member, he steals the letter's contents instead. Nelson's stealing is particularly bad, because as Jamison notes, "Times was hard for poor people," and he shares that the woman from whom Nelson stole could not even afford the stamp she needed to mail the letter (39). Knowing that she is not physically able to discipline the boy for stealing from his neighbor, Nelson's aunt goes to Brady. According to Jamison, "When Brady finished with [Nelson] Aunt Tobias had to bathe his back in Epsom salt for over a week" (40). This beating drives Nelson from the community. However, after some time, Nelson returns to the community and thanks Brady "for changing his life" (41). Brady's whipping of Nelson has the desired result in the eyes of the community: it causes Nelson to change from a selfish young man who does not care how hard others in the community have to work to save what he steals to someone who has a sense of the cost—both physical and financial—of his actions.

This anecdote about Brady and Nelson can be read as a warning to young Guerin that he, like Nelson, should remember both his place in the community and his responsibility to it. For Guerin, he must guard how he represents the community in his article. As elected spokesperson for the group, Jamison is open about his skepticism of Guerin as a suitable auditor for these stories and his fears that Guerin will claim an entitlement to share parts of the community's history that he has not been granted. Jamison has authority in this storytelling context not because he directly claims it, as he fears Guerin might do, but because it has been granted to him by the group. This authority comes in the form of entitlement to speak for the group gathered in Felix's barbershop. This entitlement is not necessarily assumed because Jamison knows the facts of Sims' story but because the group trusts him to tell these anecdotes about Brady Sims the way they need to be told. Jamison's question: "You still with me, Lucas?" and Felix's response: "I'm with you all the way, man" (38) is a double authentication of his entitlement: Jamison is both verifying the facts of his narrative and the fact of his authority to share the story.

Amy Shuman argues that in storytelling situations, a storyteller's entitlement is often challenged by the group rather than explicitly claimed by the speaker (1992:135). This means that the speaker does not necessarily announce his or her entitlement to share but that the group challenges the speaker's attempt to falsely assume entitlement. Additionally, Shuman notes that challenges to entitlement occur not because of issues of knowledge or the accuracy of information (i.e. the events of the narrative) but because of issues of distribution (i.e. who should share the story and with whom the story should be shared). A different challenge to entitlement involves the relationships between the people involved (i.e. between the narrator and the subject or the narrator and the audience) (Shuman 1992:135).

For some, this is where the story would end, with Balkan brass finding a home in the Marigny, longtime folk dancers and newish-to-the-city free spirits joining hands to dance. But I can't help but see this not as one story, but as a complicated braid of a few. A story that goes back to 1968 and involves the International Folk Dance movement, which in turn involves local folk dance groups and a folk performance ensemble. It considers a man who came to this city to study the clarinet and ended up laying the groundwork for a musical movement of sorts, and a woman who, as a child, came to this country to find freedom and now celebrates her heritage with Americans who had already appreciated her country's music and dance long before they met her.

Therefore, challenges to entitlement occur not because of issues with the accuracy of the details of the narrative but because of a matter of rights: who has the right to share the narrative or who has the right to receive it. Jamison frequently checks with Felix to assure his listeners that he is not appropriating an unauthorized authority to speak for the group but is willing to concede to the will of the group. Jamison's frequent checks are a model for Guerin, who must acknowledge that the community's needs come before the individual's and that, just because he has the facts of Brady's story, he should not share everything he learns about Brady and the community in his article because of potential consequences for the community. Guerin must first recognize his responsibility to Brady and the community before he can share the story.

The storytelling event in Felix's shop would have been very different if Jamison had assumed entitlement and attempted to share these anecdotes without the group's blessing. Instead of Jamison's request for authentication of the narrative and an appeal to Felix in order to determine his unity with the group, there might have instead been challenges from the group. Shuman notes that attempts to assert entitlement are often assertions of identity or responsibility (1992:136). In other words, people assert their entitlement to tell specific narratives in order to announce their affiliation with a certain group or to demonstrate responsibility to the group for what is shared about it. In the event that this assertion is an appropriation of power in the name of one's position, it becomes a misappropriation of entitlement. As Shuman notes, under the conditions for entitlement "the right to tell or hear a story [. . .] require[s] respect for the privacy of information and depend[s] upon narrative conventions for controlling the form of appropriate disclosures" (1992: 138). The men gathered in Felix's barbershop are all entitled to share these stories due to their status as eyewitnesses to these events; however, they grant entitlement to share only to one specific member of the group. In spite of this approval, Jamison is still careful to protect the privacy of both Brady Sims and the group as is illustrated by his initial distrust of Louis Guerin as a worthy recipient of these stories.

As Jamison shares anecdotes about Brady with Guerin, he reveals that Brady's whippings are not always successful; however, he also shares that the community does not blame Brady when he is not able to execute a successful whipping. Instead, the community sees these failures as a source of entertainment. As the men in the barbershop observe, Brady "[saved] some, lost some; and sometimes it was just funny" (41). Even if the community is not rewarded because another of their young men has been saved from Angola, they can at least enjoy the show. In a second anecdote shared by Jamison, Brady is sent to whip a young man named P.J. who has stolen food from the community store. In this episode, P.J. hides under a house to eat his stolen goods. When Brady attempts to whip P.J., the young man throws pieces of broken brick at Brady, hitting him in the head and knocking him senseless. Brady has to be dragged from under the house by some by-standers. Brady does not succeed in whipping P.J., who goes on to die in a fight far from the plantation. Though the community loses another young man, they do not see this as a failure on Brady's part but simply a fact of life. Jamison's recounting of this anecdote for Guerin is a lesson in the community's resilience. In spite of the tragic consequences of P.J.'s behavior, the community does see the event as a source of humor and is willing to celebrate that even as it mourns the lessening of the community's strength through loss of a part of the next generation that could sustain it.


As Jamison shares anecdotes about Brady Sims, he allows the men of the barbershop to transmit their community's history to the next generation, represented in Louis Guerin. These anecdotes reveal the community's pride in its members, its fears for its survival, and the lengths to which it will go to save the next generation and, by extension, its future. The community's fate has been threatened by two forces outside of the community: the introduction of the tractor to local farming practices, which endangers the community's livelihood as its members cannot afford this new technology, and the migration of its able-bodied adults away from the community and into urban areas, where work related to war manufacturing allows them to have a life that is more than mere survival. These anecdotes still highlight the community's pride in their ability to problem-solve through its capitalization on Brady's ability to control the youth of the community, as well as their culpability in Brady's self-inflicted isolation and his willingness to turn to murder in order to prevent his own child from going to Angola. The irony embedded in these anecdotes is that the community's expectations of Brady cause him to choose filicide, an act which will condemn him to the very prison from which he has spent the majority of his adult life saving the community's youth.

Guerin represents the future generation that the community saves through its election of Brady as disciplinarian. As auditor of the anecdotes and potential tradition bearer of the community's history, Guerin is the fulfillment of the community's hopes; however, his suitability for this role is complicated by the distance that has been created by his absence from the community and the lost opportunities to learn the community's history though personal experience. In lieu of such experience, the anecdotes shared by the men of Felix's barbershop function as a way of closing that gap, allowing Guerin to explore his own role in the community and his responsibility to it.


Bauman, Richard. 1972. The La Have Island General Store: Sociability and Verbal Art in a Nova Scotia Community. The Journal of American Folklore 85 (338):330-43.

Cashman, Ray. 2011. Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Dundes, Alan. 1980. Interpreting Folklore. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Gaines, Ernest J. 2017. The Tragedy of Brady Sims. New York: Vintage Contemporaries.

Shuman, Amy. 1992. "Get Outta' My Face:" Entitlement and Authoritative Discourse. In Responsibility and Evidence in Oral Discourse, edited by Jane H. Hill and Judith T. Irvine, pp. 135-60. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sims, Martha and Martine Stephens. 2005. Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions. Logan: Utah State University Press.

This article was first published in the 2018 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Jeanna Mason is a PhD student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she is a graduate assistant in the Ernest J. Gaines Center.