Beyond Bonding to Collaboration

Bill Smith reflects on Brian Purnell's workshop, which explored questions about when and where oral historians should enter products of oral history.  This talk took place on Thursday, November 6, 2014.

Throughout our first semester the OHMA cohort analyzed collaboration in our interviews. In the fifth Workshop Presentation,  Brian Purnell invited us to think about the advantages, pitfalls and possibilities of bonding with our narrators.

At the beginning of the Columbia Oral History program in September, the cohort group read Alessandro Portelli‘s account of his field work with the coal mining families of Harlan County Kentucky.  Portelli emphasized the value of being accepted by his narrators.   He had been warned that the families would be suspicious of “strangers and anthropologists.”   We all enjoyed the Harlan County matron’s explanation to Portelli that “The reason I talked to you… was that you came in and you sat down.  You didn’t look around for a clean place to lay your butt on.” [1] Portelli’s advice to the beginning oral historians:  ‘behave yourself’—‘start a conversation’—earn the trust of your narrator. 

Brian Purnell took us a step further.  Purnell’s upcoming biography of New York City activist and educator Jitu Weusi is the fruit of a ten year relationship and hours of interviews.  Brian admired his subject—a leader in Black and Latino educational rights in Brian’s home borough, Brooklyn.  

Weusi won national recognition in 1967-68 for his role in the Ocean-Hill/Brownsville strike.  “In 1967, only four out of 865 principals and 12 out of 1,500 assistant principals in New York City were Black [2].  The Black community of Bedford led a fight for a stronger voice in the city’s public schools.  The Ocean-Hill/Brownsville strike was the largest teacher’s strike in American history.  Ocean-Hill/Brownsville advanced community authority over school leadership and policy across the United States.  Weusi went on to campaign for state senator, city councilman, and  governor.  While unelected, he was a critical adviser to Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and David Dinkins.

Brian Purnell admired his subject and he bonded with him.  Brian’s challenging question to all of us was, “Should oral historians enter their own oral histories?  “Is the best use of oral history one in which an oral historian seems to disappear from the dialogue?  If so, why?  If not, when would or can the oral historian speak?”  

“The Art of Conversation” in the December 8 Issue of the New Yorker, profiles a leader in the art world, Hans Ulrich Obrist.  The publication ArtReview named the 46 year old Obrist as “the most powerful figure in the field of contemporary art” in 2014 [3].

Obrist, a Swiss born, London based curator, finds his power as an accumulator of information: he has conducted 2400 hours of interviews with artists and related talkers.  As an interviewer, Obrist believes the “conversation should be supportive… (he is) seeking always to make a connection” [3].

Portelli, Purnell and Obrist bond with their narrators.  Purnell and Obrist go even further  -- they bond with their audiences as well.

Purnell transitioned from our informal OHMA Q&A to his prepared talk for the workshop by inviting the OHMA group to join him as collaborators: “You’re gonna help me run this right?”  We were invited to share his authority.

The contribution of Obrist in the art world is that he subverts the notion of the passive viewer.  His exhibitions are collaborations both with other curators and, more importantly, with his audience.  In one show visitors were invited to leave with an object from the exhibition.   In another, viewers were invited to bring something and leave it.  For Obrist, the content “cannot be separated from its communal reception.”  The New Yorker describes this style as “relational art.”

The OHMA cohort resisted the style of presenters who were not relational. We became the Harlan County families suspicious of strangers who defined their authority by disassociating ours.   We embraced Brian Purnell’s invitation to join him in creating a dialogue.

As a narrator, as an interviewer, as a presenter, as an audience:  to make it matter, you have to be “in it.”  

Steven Puente, one of our OHMA Cohort has pioneered cross provider/client storytelling in methadone treatment.  Steven shared a passage from his oral history with Dr. Robert Roose, the Co-director of an HIV/Methadone treatment center in the Bronx:  “It can’t just all be uni-directional.  When you’re in something you are fighting together.”

Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts Program sponsors a workshop series that is free and open to the public. Join us next time.



1)     “Tryin’ to Gather a Little Knowledge.  Some Thoughts on the Ethics of Oral History.” The Battle of Valle Guilia:  Oral History and the Art of Dialogue.  University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.


2)    Rickford, Russell. "A struggle in the arena of ideas": Black independent schools and the quest for nationhood, 1966-1986. Columbia University dissertation. Gittens, Olufunmilayo. ‘Baba Jitu Weusi’. –


3)    Profiles, The Art of Conversation, by D. T. Max, The New Yorker, December 8 2014.