Getting to OHMA

By Will Chapman

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I have been interviewing veterans for four and a half years now. I have interviewed members of my family, veterans that are over seventy years older than I, veterans that could have been in my graduating class in undergrad, veterans that have fought in the Middle East, in Europe, and in Southeast Asia. I have interviewed veterans that are physically unscathed, veterans that were grievously wounded, veterans that have never told some things to anyone else and never will, veterans that will answer any question. I have interviewed veterans that joined the Army, the Marines, the Navy and the Air Force, veterans who have fought with their bare hands, and veterans that have played games with foreign children and never fired their weapons. I have interviewed veterans who despise war, veterans who think it can be necessary, veterans who love their country, and veterans who feel it is slipping away from what they know and cherish. I have interviewed veterans that are surrounded by family, veterans who have lived alone for 50 years, veterans who are in college, and veterans who never graduated high school. I have interviewed veterans who were segregated for their race, and veterans who learned that there is no color underneath a uniform. I have interviewed so many different individuals, so many different perspectives, and yet there is one thing that all of them have told me in common, that not one interview has neglected to leave out: they all wanted to try somewhere different, somewhere new and unknown and exciting. After hearing this for four years, I decided that I did as well.

This is the spirit that brought me to the Oral History Masters of Arts program at Columbia University. As a history undergraduate student, I knew that I enjoyed studying history, however I still had that craving to go further, to pursue something that was unknown and exciting. The static world of traditional history was fascinating, yet it still felt too omniscient, too separated from direct human experience through the lens of time and text. I found a desire to pursue history that was not just retelling, commentary, and analysis, but was also memory, emotion, and witness; history that had a human face, and responsibilities to the community it was based on. I know that this desire was rooted in my work with veterans, and what I had contributed to the Central California War Veterans Oral History Project at CSU Fresno, but had grown to include much more. I wanted to go forth and learn more about oral history so that not only could I become a better historian, but that I could give something back to those that I studied as one. With this in mind, I began my search, and found OHMA here at Columbia, and I knew that it was ideal for what I wanted to achieve.

After applying to the program, and thoroughly convincing myself that my chances were slim, I got accepted and moved to New York, never having lived there or visited for any time in my life. Following this culture shift and resettling in the city, I began to study oral history in earnest. Although I was now across the country, and I had finally gone forth and tested the unknown as so many of my narrators had before me, I still felt a tug back to California. This mental itch became stronger and stronger with time and after weeks of trying to figure out what it was beyond normal homesickness, I realized that it was this drive as a historian to give back, and not just to any population that I could be introduced to, but I knew that I had to give back to Fresno, the city that had gotten me here in the first place. Following this impulse, I began developing the thesis plan that I am currently pursuing today, centered around urban Fresno and narratives describing the effects of suburban expansion. I believe now, with my historical training and my oral historian’s education, that I can finally fulfill the dream that originally grew back in undergraduate in Fresno of reaching out to others with history.

My goal now is to finish my thesis, to study the urban identity of Fresno and to create a work that speaks to not only the objective causes of urban decline in Fresno, but also to the subjective image that this has created in the city and currently is so negatively affecting it. It is my hope, that by eliciting stories of Fresno, grounding them in historical context, and then sharing them with the community as an alternate tale of the city that I can confront this negative urban identity. This may seem intangible and implausible, but I believe that it is fully possible with the use of several oral history tools that OHMA has given me. Foremost amongst these tools is the public interview, a performance that I had no idea was even possible until attending OHMA.  In short, a public interview is a chance for others to come and hear an oral history being recorded, to become a part of that narrator’s story first hand, and to even interact with the narrator and ask questions. I have witnessed one of these public interviews as a part of my coursework during this Fall semester at OHMA, and after witnessing it I knew that it would be perfect for my goals. I believe that by interviewing other Fresnans in public about the city’s past, I can display to the public a face and a narrative of the city that is not the self-perpetuating stereotype of a failed city, but is instead a place and rich history of complex issues which is more than simply “bad.” These interviews can not only fulfill an educational role about the city, but also a socializing role, proving that the people who live and work in downtown Fresno are not so easily typed alongside the rest of the area, and that maybe the desertion of downtown by a large number of the city’s residents is something that needs to be reconsidered.

This is why I joined OHMA. Not just to continue studying history, but to study individuals, and by doing so and sharing my research to change the conceptions about the present that are rooted in the past. I am looking forward to exploring this with my thesis work, and I am grateful for this chance that my time at OHMA has given me. Hopefully, when all my work is done, I will have succeeded in changing the minds of a few people, and will have shown them that maybe my home town isn’t so bad, and that the people in it have a history all of their own.