In this post, current OMHA student Yutong Wang (2016) explores how oral histories can be both meaningful and impactful to public audiences.
While I was enriched by these thought-provoking historical projects—which collect individual stories from various communities, such as Los Sures, Williamsburg, Prospect Heights, and Crown Heights in Brooklyn—a key question that always haunted me was: why are these stories worth telling?
Before an oral historian decides to conduct a project, one crucial element they consider is the project’s potential audience. If a project focuses on a certain group, who will the audience be besides its constituents?
In fact, sometimes it’s difficult to attract local residents themselves to participate in a community project. If a community’s history and stories don’t engage its closest audience, why should the broader public pay attention to any oral history project? And what is the meaning of listening to these individuals’ stories anyway?
I finally found answers these questions in the last session of the OHMA Workshop Series, after reading Prof. Tchen’s articles and listening to his lecture.
Jack Tchen is a curator, writer, historian, associate professor, founding director of the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute at New York University, and co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in America. Over the past few decades, he has conducted a series of studies, projects, and exhibitions about Manhattan’s Chinatown.
In Tchen’s talk, he explained how historical work becomes meaningful to its audience(s), using the word “dialogue” to describe the dynamic interaction that transpires. One example he spoke about was the Chinese Laundry Workers in America Exhibition at the New York Public Library in 1984. The exhibit was bilingual and told the lives of Chinese laundry people in Manhattan. The opening attracted 500 visitors.
In his essay Creating a Dialogic Museum, Tchen described three functions of history to a public audience, which apply to this exhibit and to oral histories in general:
First, the exhibition gave recognition to a certain group. By recording the community’s stories and providing them a chance to express themselves, the history gave the Chinese laundry workers respect. I think that’s also the primary function of most historical projects: documenting people’s lives, paying attention to their feelings, and expanding their representation in society.
The second function he discusses is to make sense of the present through learning of the past because understanding what happened in the past can help people see the world differently.
For instance, listening to the stories of Chinatown helped me to reshape my impression of it—I could feel the hardship, tears, and sweat of the early Chinese immigrants in New York City. This process changed my impression of aged, crowded, and cluttered Manhattan streets to views of a more respectful, mysterious, and attracting neighborhood.
For the same reason, reframing what people remember about themselves in the past could shape their identification now. Studying others’ memories and stories also allows people to avoid the mistakes of the past and to learn from the successes.
The last responsibility of history to the public audience is to exchange understandings between diverse individuals and groups—and thus, to encourage mutual respect.
The Chinese Laundry Worker Exhibition, as an example, provided a broader audience the chance to understand and acknowledge the workers. Tchen mentioned in the lecture that a lot of children of these laundry workers were often embarrassed of their parents’ occupation and social class. Through the exhibition, they could better understand their parents’ hardship and recognize the value of their work.
Historical dialogue of this sort can also help generate mutual respect between old Chinese immigrants and newer ones by identifying their differences and similarities. In his book, Tchen wrote, “People can begin to bridge the differences between their experiences and others’, and feelings of mutual respect begin to surface.”
These approaches and their outcomes directly answer my question about why oral histories are worth telling. Tchen reaffirmed that the voice of each individual, group, and project is worth expressing, especially those stories not often recognized.
Oral history stories are important for giving recognition, for learning through the past, for encouraging mutual respect—and in further ways we are only discovering over time.
Yutong Wang is an international student from Shenzhen, China, who graduated from the Ohio State University in 2015. Her project this year in OHMA is about recent Chinese students who study in America. By interviewing these students, she hopes to help them tell their stories of studying and living abroad.