Oral history invites us in

Audrey Augenbraum is the communications and outreach coordinator for OHMA, CCOHR, and INCITE. A native of New York City, she is constantly surprised by the important and oft-neglected facets of her community that OHMA students illuminate. In this post, she reflects on witnessing preparations for OHMA's April 29 year-end event, Then, Now, Next: Oral History and Social Change.

At his workshop several weeks ago, Stories I Skipped: Narratives of Care, Narratives of War, oral history guru and professor of literature Alessandro Portelli told us that he enters each interview as a student, with a willingness to learn. This approach struck me as a poignant example of the engagement, participation, and perhaps even downright reversal of traditional roles involved in oral history that makes the method unique. Oral historians seek to move away from the oppressive dynamics that might condition a narrator’s answers in a conventional interview. This is one of the reasons why oral history has such potential as a catalyst for social change—if we define ‘social change’ as altering the status quo balance of power in a community. Through narrative, long-established power structures can dissolve—because everyone is an expert in their own life history. Change is enacted not just as a result of the oral history being collected, but also in the very act of collection itself.

On visiting the Oral History Master of Arts students as they gear up for their upcoming April 29 event, Then, Now, Next: Oral History and Social Change, I saw an extension of that mentality. Then, Now, Next is a multimedia interactive pop-up exhibition of stories whose eleven installations seek not only to immerse the audience in vital spaces around and outside of New York City, but also to encourage some level of communion with those spaces.  Whether it’s writing a note to someone buried on Hart Island, adding a brick to the bridge between you and the homeless, sharing your birth story, talking about your hairstyles, or making a gods-eye at a Human Be-In, you as audience member are invited to take part in this performance.

Why the emphasis on immersion and participation? This year, the OHMA program has made it an explicit goal to reach new audiences, in order to prevent oral history’s products from languishing in archives. OHMA Associate Director Amy Starecheski sees this project as a continuation of that work. “By choosing to create an interactive, multimedia exhibit we are teaching our students how to share oral histories with the public in ways that are engaging yet still grounded in sound oral history practice,” she told me. “But really, as they experiment and create, they are teaching us, and others, new and exciting ways to bring oral histories to life in public.” Just as Portelli argued, oral history provides a space where the teacher can become the student.

Much of this participation gives the audience an opportunity to consider whether or not traditional historical narratives are sufficient. Steven Palmer studies The Human Be-In, an early countercultural happening that took place on January 14, 1967 in Golden Gate Park. He hopes that visitors will “evaluate whether this hippie gathering was worthy of the mythological place it has achieved in history.” Kate Brenner laments that ”the recorded history of the Lower East Side does not include African Americans. Their only presence has been through the Slave Galleries that remain in St. Augustine's Episcopal Church.” Her research delves into the vibrant African American community around St. Augustine's Church on the Lower East Side, which will host another version of her installation during that same week. Benji de la Piedra’s exhibit, a popup incarnation of Word Up Community Bookshop in Washington Heights, enriches debates over what ‘gentrification’ means. It explores how the bookshop gives something that other spaces don’t. Jonathon Fairhead’s installation, a simulated hair salon experience, envisions different ways of thinking about archives and interviews in its promulgation of the hair salon as living oral history archive. 

Other projects use audience participation and oral history as a kind of advocacy tool. Leonard Cox’s installation will be a space for audience members to share ideas on connecting with the homeless. Steven Puente’s project investigates the use of personal storytelling as advocacy among Hepatitis C (HCV) patients in the South Bronx. “Telling personal stories has always been a part of programming in peer recovery and outreach,” he says. “The innovative programming at Einstein’s Hepatitis C Peer Program has incorporated storytelling in their peer-training curriculum to enhance skill building and outreach potential.” Puente has invited HCV peers to come to the exhibition and share their stories there.

Oral history’s ability to excavate untold stories means it will always be a crucial contributor to deeply textured histories. But these stories also have the power to impact our attitudes and our thinking now, in their telling and retelling, by inviting us in. When you attend Then, Now, Next: Oral History for Social Change, you’ll experience it firsthand.