In this post, OHMA student Elyse Blennerhassett (2016) discusses how Dr. Leslie Robertson’s community-generated and collaborative methodologies inform her own practice in working with communities who are politically marginalized and stigmatized in the criminal justice system. This article is the first in a three-part series exploring Dr. Robertson’s recent OHMA Workshop Series lecture, “Devalued Subjectivities: Disciplines, Voices and Publics.”
As an audio producer, my medium is voice. Voice holds emotion, time, and identity. Whether I am producing a radio piece, film, or sound installation, I begin by listening and recording voice.
During our class discussion with Leslie Robertson, she asked us to reckon with something invisible and inside of us: voice. I was particularly drawn to Robertson’s work because of her immersive attention to voice. Through such work we can bring about an entirely new way we see the world and our role in it, in terms of power and representation.
In high school, I started thinking critically about voice after reading Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Throughout her work, Arendt expresses how voice is subject to the politics of recognition by first investigating the idea of a self in relation to others. Arendt posits that one's sense of self is not something that can be achieved alone; in fact it is contingent on recognition from others to be realized. This idea is central to my work because it explores why we are so vulnerable when we are misrecognized; it’s as if something inside of you breaks.
I became interested in oral history because I wanted to study this brokenness and understand how certain voices have more legitimacy than others. We see this clearly in American politics; ultimately our participation in the public sphere relates to how we are recognized. For instance, protestors are strategically silenced when labeled as ‘violent.’
This delegitimization distances the public from questioning the structural violences that catalyze moments of resistance and acts of civil disobedience in the first place. If we are to respect justice, as storytellers, we must, as Robertson expressed, “Attend to ‘our’ stories, ‘their’ stories and the connections between them” (—Renato Rosaldo).
I am especially aware of this as a documentary producer. It’s my job to responsibly represent voices that do not belong to me, and to represent those voices as vividly as possible. I cannot just analyze someone’s voice, I must authenticate it. By considering generations of false narratives, Robertson led me to think more critically about my role as an oral historian and the relationship between white privilege, ethics, and accountability and transparency (as an outsider) when approaching contested narratives.
Robertson honored these concerns when she shared her collaborative project, Standing Up with Ga’axsta’las. Working closely with Ga’axsta’las’ family members, Robertson retells the story of Ga’axsta’las’, a Kwakwaka’wakw activist (1870-1951) who used her voice to advocate for the rights of women and children. Yet, Robertson reveals that Ga’axsta’las’ legacy was contested, in part due to the misrepresentation of her intensions when Ga’axsta’las’ spoke out against the potlatch ceremony’s discriminatory treatment towards women (the Canadian government banned the potlatch from 1884-1951).
To counter the dominant false narratives, Ga’axsta’las’ descendants approached Robertson to publish a book that could more accurately represent who Ga’axsta’las’ was, through publishing Ga’axsta’las’ own writings and therefore tracing the history of how such false narratives began.
To humanize Ga’axsta’las’, Roberston began by describing how from birth, she had to navigate two identities (she had a white father and Kwakwaka’wakw mother). Robertson noted that to truly understand the world Ga’axsta’las’ was subject to, we must be cognizant of the politics of recognition at the time: of the voices that represented women, whiteness, Christianity, and colonial power.
In sum, discussing how Ga’axsta’las’ and her descendants came to be stigmatized revealed how problematic decontextualizing voice can be, especially because it so often removes us from listening to the evolving and nuanced voices, values, and events within a community or landscape.
With this in mind, as a researcher and producer, I aim to notice what I notice: to be more aware of the conditions that give rise to the perpetuation of false narratives and the relationship of my own voice to public perceptions of selfhood, community, and equality.
Like the dehumanization of Ga’axsta’las’, in my own work, I witness the voices of incarcerated people being systematically delegitimized when they speak up against corruption in the criminal justice system. I work with people who also find themselves in this liminal space where they cannot participate or realize their potential as citizens because the narratives prosecutors, politicians, and the media promote about them cause them to be distrusted and alienated.
As expressed by Robertson’s work, by failing to listen, we become increasingly attached to our own narratives and deaf to others’ realities.
To learn more about Dr. Robertson’s collaborative work, check out her book co-authored with the Kwagu'l Gixsam Clan: Standing Up with Ga’axsta’las: Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church and Custom.
Elyse Blennerhassett is an Oral History MA student at Columbia University. Her research interests include alterity, mass incarceration, race, criminal justice, displaced communities, and music. She is currently producing an audio documentary with men who, incarcerated as juveniles, were sentenced to life in prison without parole.