Oral History in the 'Post-Fact' Era: Exploring ‘Voices of Crown Heights’ (Part II)

This article is the second in a three-part series examining the Brooklyn Historical Society’s ongoing oral history project “Voices of Crown Heights.”

Earlier this fall, Zaheer Ali an OHMA Workshop Series lecture on a multi-year oral history project on the history and future of Crown Heights, a neighborhood that has taken on continued national significance in conversations on ethnic relations, racial justice, and urban renewal.

In this piece, current OHMA student Rachel Unkovic (2016) focuses on how oral history can illuminate (rather than obfuscate) historical narrative even in times of confusion and conflicting ideas. 

Article after article after article in major U.S. outlets declare that we are living in a “post-truth” political age. Politics now rely on feelings over facts.

See, for a prime example, minute four of Newt Gingrich being interviewed by Alisyn Camerota at the 2016 DNC in which Gingrich says, despite FBI statistics showing that crime is down, he will continue speaking about rising crime in America. “People feel more threatened,” he says. “As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel.”

If the job of the politician is no longer to represent reality, the job of the historian remains inextricably tied to truth. And yet, oral historians rely on the memories of their interviewees to build their evidence bases.

Memory can be broadly dissected into two categories: episodic and semantic. Episodic memory is personal and experienced. Semantic memory is collective and learned—it can be influenced by national narratives, such as those outlined in the articles linked above. And so we must ask the question: Wouldn’t oral sources—so filled with conflicting narratives in this day and age—be inefficacious to the aim of uncovering fact?

After watching the Gingrich video, see—for a second example—your own Facebook feed. A majority of U.S. adults (62 per cent!) get news from social media, and fake news sites are both rampant and shared widely. The screenshot below offers examples of articles—all patently false—shared by people in my own Facebook network within the past two weeks.

Fake News.png

While the people who authored those fake news stories know them to be lies, the people in my Facebook feed (and yours) who share them do so because they believe them to be true. Their understanding of the age we live in is shifted by these sources.

Again, we must ask: in a world where people build up their semantic memories via fake news sources, can the historian ever truly trust an oral source? And moreover: do narratives that are constructed on harmful falsities—which collectively attempt to scapegoat minorities—even deserve to be surfaced?

Oral historians confront these concerns every day.

On a micro level of this national problem, historian Zaheer Ali has been directing an oral history project at the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) entitled Voices of Crown Heights. Different communities who live in Crown Heights—from West Indian immigrants to Hasidic Jews to black Americans—tell remarkably distinctive stories about the one-mile-wide, two-miles-long set of tree-lined blocks. Yet, Ali argues, this is exactly what makes oral history a necessary source in constructing a portrait of the neighborhood: “Oral history is important for recovering the marginal voices, the marginal stories, to help us complicate our understanding.”

A neighborhood or a nation, Ali says, “Begins as a story. Before you have the ‘place’, you have the story that justifies the place”—and that is something crucial to unravel. Crown Heights became famous twenty-five years ago, in August 1991, when riots broke out. Ali’s project shows that Crown Heights is more than just the story of these quarter-century old riots—and that diverging understandings of the neighborhood simply underline its “national significance in conversations on ethnic relations, racial justice, and urban renewal.”

Let’s now cross the ocean to Italy. In his book The Order Has Been Carried Out, oral historian Alessandro Portelli confronts the issue of mass belief contradicting historical fact in the city of Rome. Portelli reminds us that, while “the historian must work on both the factual and the narrative planes, the referent and the signifier, the past and the present,” his most important focus needs to be on “the space in between” the planes.

Though oral history is careful to distinguish between events and narratives, history and memory, it does so in order to treat narratives and memory as historical facts…. Even when [oral history sources] do not tell the events as they occurred, the discrepancies and the errors are themselves events, clues for the work of desire and pain over time, for the painful search of meaning (16).

In other words, a child can believe in Santa Claus. This does not make Santa Claus real, but the belief itself is real. A person on my Facebook feed—let’s call her Joanna—wrote on the day after the 2016 U.S. election: “I know from a trusted contact that Hillary just donated millions of dollars to ISIS in revenge [for losing]”. The latter part of this sentence is verifiably untrue, yet it is true that Joanna remembers a conversation with a contact and that she believes the lie he told her. The job of the oral historian, then, is not to interrogate the lie itself—that can be done readily through other sources—but rather to examine Joanna’s very real belief in the lie. This belief must be placed within proper historical context so that it can be understood and unraveled.

As Ali and Portelli demonstrate, if we are indeed living in a “post-factual” political landscape, rather than being feckless, oral histories are now more necessary than ever. Conflicting narratives must no longer be siloed as they are in social media, but neither can they be ignored. They must be confronted side-by-side with an accurate historical timeline.

Patterns of beliefs—untrue (and ugly) as those beliefs may be—can inform the pain and struggle of an age in the way bullet-pointed facts cannot. We must interrogate divergent memories alongside provable facts to complicate our understanding of historical accounts, and thus, as historians, learn how to better breed narratives of truth.

For more information on Zaheer Ali’s work, please visit his website.

Rachel Unkovic holds a Master of Arts in Conflict Transformation from SIT Graduate Institute, and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Trinity College. She is a current OHMA student. Her study in oral history focuses on refugee rights and humanitarian aid practices.