In this inauguration season post, OHMA alum Jonathon Fairhead (2015) writes about applying the skills he learned as an oral historian to listen deeply to a friend whose political perspectives he does not align with and as a path to understanding a nation divided.
“I’m supporting Trump,” Pete said, iced coffee in hand, as we crossed the park together in Brooklyn a few months before the election.
“You’re joking!” I responded, but I listened as he went on—stopping for a cigarette on the corner of Manhattan Avenue. He told me that people like me simply weren’t appreciating the political moment, and that we were in for a rude awakening.
I dismissed him as another maverick in a city full of them. I walked home curious, glad that Pete was a friend but also conflicted that I knew a person who supported Trump, in Brooklyn, in 2016. Of course no one was listening, I thought.
I’ve known Pete for over a decade. He’s always been a Democrat, albeit with idiosyncratic views. In that time, he’s published two novels, co-authored a third, and mentored MFA candidates at a prestigious university.
For a while now, he has provided for his family by bartending. He’s the type of New Yorker I like: opinionated, open to a good debate—a man who will buy you coffee while you tell him he’s a fool.
We have a few mutual friends: other writers, editors, musicians, filmmakers, creative types who lived downtown in the ’80s and ‘90s, some of whom later migrated across the rivers to Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx.
And now Pete was voting for Trump. He’d been engaged in the prospect for about a year, he told me. “Nobody wants to hear what I have to say,” he said.
I wasn’t sure I did either. But then, he told me a story about how he’d been dropped by life-long friends after he entertained the possibility of a Trump presidency during a holiday dinner. A decades-old friend told him she refused to speak about it.
“'The matter is closed,' she had said. And I haven’t heard from them since.”
That’s when I decided to listen to Pete. I was uncomfortable about what his views might be. To tell you the truth, I did not actually want to know what his views were.
But I thought back to Mary Marshall Clark’s Oral History Method and Theory class at Columbia, and how there we discussed the possibility of interviewing people with whom we had profound disagreements.
We had imagined interviewing an avowed racist. Prof. Clark had said she would have to let the interviewee know she disagreed with them in order to continue—a point I didn’t really understand at the time. But now it began to make sense.
I saw a way to navigate my friendship with Pete, to interview him within the context of our friendship but without the false pretext of his thinking I agreed with him. I didn't want his trust for me to be false.
I decided to use the tools of oral history to learn how Pete thought. I would let him know I disagreed, as everyone around him in Brooklyn did. But I would push myself to listen.
I believe the call of oral history is to listen beyond our comfort zones. That, for me, is the promise of oral histories open-ended questions. We are not saying, “Why do you believe this?” But instead we say, “How did you come to believe what you do?”
The promise of reconciliation lies for me in these methods: in the ability to be aware that my beliefs are important and that I should not compromise them. But that I should listen beyond them, too.
What brought me to oral history remains the promise of active peace brought about in letting others define their experience as it relates to history—even if their views are deplorable.
If I disagree, I can say so. But the interview process has taught me to let others define their experience, no matter how very far away from my comfort zone that might be.
I never imagined that Trump might win as I fostered my friendship with Pete over that summer. Had Pete not been, on many occasions, instrumental in calling me out on my shortcomings and blind spots, I might not have been able to continue. I trusted Pete before Trump and my affection for him deepened as I listened to him—often in great conflict, which I sometimes described to him.
I learned that Pete is a registered Democrat. Like many Trump supporters, he said he had voted for Obama in the last two elections. His Canadian wife is the daughter of an Irish immigrant, and he had been born and raised in upstate New York of Italian-American parentage.
“I’m a generation away from a coal mine.”
He had not finished college and had educated himself when he moved to the East Village in the early ‘80s to pursue his dreams of writing. He’d grown up Catholic, lapsed to some degree, but had renewed his faith and now attended mass regularly. Sometimes he’d duck into an afternoon service after we grabbed a coffee.
Pete moved to Brooklyn from the East Village when he needed a bigger apartment, and had been employed at an industry-leading Williamsburg restaurant. He knew my type well, he told me: “Brooklyn transplants who support Bernie Sanders.”
I began to call him “my deplorable friend,” which he rather liked. His views seemed crazy, distant, and odd. Like the mumblings of a mad man. Until Trump won.
The New York Times had mostly said there was an 8% chance this could happen. No one I knew was prepared. I have one Republican friend and even he had sat the election out in protest.
Until Trump won, I hadn’t asked Pete the hard questions directly—the ones I didn’t want to know the answers to. But now I knew I had to.
We found ourselves together the Sunday after the election, grabbing a quick brunch at a place in Brooklyn. Like everyone else I knew, except Pete, I was bewildered and appalled. I told Pete this.
He knew I was a Bernie man and he was not surprised. I told him there were questions I didn’t want to ask but that I now had to.
He was patient, gentle, but strident. A man who was finally being heard, I thought. I asked him about the wall, and about torture, and about international human rights law.
I, too, was gentle but dismayed—the bravado and dismissiveness of my summer questions gone. I grimaced as he spoke and told him, as he knew, that I could not disagree with him more.
But I listened. At the end of our conversation, my heart sank as I said, “I never thought I would hear myself ask this in 2016, but: do you believe in climate change?”
“Maybe,” he answered emphatically.
A week later, at Columbia, I recounted this conversation to my colleagues, friends, and peers at a book signing. There was an understandable post-election pall over our gathering. I told a friend about Pete and our conversations.
“I couldn’t do that,” she said. “As a woman, I couldn’t do that.”
And I understood. Thinking about Pete’s daughter, who is a teenager, I thought of him working at the bar to put her though private school in Manhattan. I thought about the things I had in common with Pete: our mutual friends and how he had won my trust years back with his incisive call-outs.
I recognized that the foundation to my relationship with Pete is a decade old and that this is a special situation. It holds multiple conflicting truths and would not be as meaningful as it is today without it being informed by the mores of oral history:
- 1. Letting people define themselves in relation to history.
- 2. Respecting the agency of the interviewee.
- 3. Following along the interviewee’s lead in research.
- 4. Being well aware of one’s influence in the intersubjective space.
And I’ll add another:
- 5. Interviewing those with whom you disagree without endorsing their views.
The last time I spoke to Pete, he told me was hoping to work in the new administration and would perhaps be working at the inauguration.
“I’ll be protesting,” I said with a wry smile.
“Protesting democracy?” he asked empathetically, raising both his hands like an Italian.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll be playing my part.”
Post-Script: I had Pete read this article before sharing it. He made a few changes and said I should highlight my conflicted affection for him.
I thought about how had I not studied oral history, I would have dismissed him. And our friendship would not have deepened through this mess.
Jonathon Fairhead (2015) is a South African oral historian, living and working in Brooklyn. His research focuses on the fields of education, human rights, activism, and the arts.
A recent graduate of the Oral History MA Program at Columbia, Jonathon's thesis maps the individual narratives of the Equal Education social movement in South Africa.