Oral History and the Myth of Progress

Audrey Augenbraum is Communications and Outreach Coordinator at OHMA, and Research Assistant at INCITE. In this post, inspired by Dr. Paul Ortiz, she challenges historians to learn from #BlackLivesMatter organizers.

Is my life going to be worse than my parents’? Do I have a future?

Many young people, especially young people of color in the United States today, are asking these questions. I am not a person of color, but I am a student of history. And so I know that during my parents’ generation—as Paul Ortiz claimed in his March 24 presentation “Oral History in the Age of Black Lives Matter”—most young people weren’t asking these questions at all. Instead, the dominant interpretation of the future resembled the Whig narrative, or, more colloquially, the “myth of progress”: Things always get better. Now, Ortiz argued, young people—and especially young people of color who are policed by the state on a daily basis—aren’t buying it. The questions that formed the origins of the #BlackLivesMatter movement represent a total refashioning of how we tell our stories, and our national story.

What is so wrong with the Whig narrative, exactly? It doesn’t deny that things are bad—that, to borrow a term from Ta-Nehisi Coates, the state imposes (and has imposed) “unfreedom” on the African American population in the US—it just suggests that we will overcome. From the fight to expand personal liberty and parliamentary authority relative to the monarchy in sixteenth century England, to the New Deal’s pathbreaking policy and spending cures for the Great Depression, to the end of the Vietnam War, it reminds us that liberation struggles got ugly, and then they got better. Right?

Wrong. So very wrong. According to Herbert Butterfield, who coined the term “whiggish history” in 1931, a narrative emphasizing progress ignores the ways in which the “liberties” attained are farcical or unequally applied, revolutions have failed, or our most promising regimes have regressed—resulting in “a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present” (Butterfield 1931, preface). Put another way, these types of stories ultimately legitimate today’s political and economic structures, inducing an ethos of complacency—or if not complacency, a frustrated inertia.

The encounter of the oral history interview brings together the past and the present in a way that achieves catharsis and resolve, rather than some contrived moral clarity. As part of its Mississippi Freedom Project (MFP), Ortiz’s students at the Samuel B. Proctor Oral History Program make annual research trips to the Mississippi Delta to collect oral histories of the local civil rights movement. The late Margaret Block, a lifelong civil rights activist who was field secretary for both the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panthers, guided these trips. Ortiz told us that many of his students’ parents were also involved in revolutions—such as in that in the Dominican Republic in 1965—and these students find a deep centering in interacting with and learning from Block and the other SNCC activists interviewed.

Most importantly, this kind of encounter is politicizing for the young oral history student. In remembering Block, a former Proctor student writes,

I distinctly recall one evening, sitting on the porch of her home, when a handful of us students recorded Margaret’s stream of consciousness about her life and times as an activist. We sat for hours, utterly riveted, some of us scribbling and scrambling to write down every word she said. We sat until the sun set and darkness surrounded us. (From the comments here)
 Margaret Block ( source )

Margaret Block (source)

As Ortiz pointed out, when young Black men are killed by the police, or when registered voters are turned away at the polls—if you are acquainted with the organizing tradition, you organize. If you aren’t, you just get angry. The oral history interview becomes a crucial setting for making social justice activism imaginable for the next generation.

I hope that it also inspires the next generation of history writers. Butterfield cautions against “abridgement,” or oversimplified historical narratives produced by gazing through the lens of present values. He writes,

By the very finality and absoluteness with which [the historian] has endowed the present he has heightened his own position. For him the voice of posterity is the voice of God and the historian is the voice of posterity (Butterfield 1931, 59).

Oral history methods can be an antidote to this aspect of whiggishness, too. During the interview, any self-aggrandizement by the oral historian ought to be challenged. The historical “artifact” being constructed—the audio and transcript—is a collaboration between narrator and oral historian. If the interview is good, no narrative can be imposed. If the interviewer tries, they won’t get away with it—because their subject talks back. I have both heard and experienced this—too much, or too incorrect, or too facile of an interpretation of the information given will elicit a “No, it was like this,” or “In part, but not exactly,” or, in the meekest of rapports, a lukewarm “I guess.” In that space, the historian cannot claim to be the voice of God; the interviewer’s analysis must be held in check by the narrator’s own understandings.

This business of “changing the narrative” may seem abstract, but Ortiz insists that it’s a life or death matter. In a 2015 phase of the MFP, Proctor program students interviewed lawyers of and former inmates exonerated by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Stories of battles to overturn life-sentence convictions, despite testimony in favor of the plaintiff’s rock-solid alibi, abound. Ortiz reported a common sentiment among EJI lawyers: “until we change the historical narrative in which our clients operate, our work is futile.” Until juries jettison privileged narratives of dysfunction, decay, disease and crime when presented with Black men falsely accused of murder, we have no future.

I’d like to expand this idea—of developing a critical awareness of the historical frames through which one peers—to historians, in addition to juries. History writing can be radical, can get to the root of things, when the past is understood on its own terms…when we stop saying Things always get better. To me—though at first it may seem paradoxical—a historian’s rejection of the myth of progress actually amounts to honoring the struggles (and real victories!) of activists of earlier generations. Such a rejection signals an appreciation of the risks these activists had to take, and the work that still has to be done. It means you were really listening to what they had to say. As Ortiz showed, the collaborative practice of oral history can increase thinkable options for the interviewer. It can nuance reductive narratives, and hold their authors accountable. And perhaps, it can spark a powerful social movement—if we ask the right questions.


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Peruse MFP Collections here

Herbert Butterfield. 1931. The Whig Interpretation of History. London: G. Bell & Sons, LTD.

William Cronin. “Two Cheers for The Whig Interpretation of History.” American Historical Association. Published online, September 2012.