In this post, Oral History Masters Student Alissa Funderburk discusses the methodology of self-interrogation mentioned by E. Patrick Johnson, oral historian and Carlos Montezuma Professor of Performance Studies at Northwestern University, in his recent talk for the OHMA Oral History and the Arts Workshop series.
What do we see when we look in a mirror or picture ourselves? What do others see when they encounter us? How often do these images or perceptions match up? How well do we really know ourselves? Often, the answer is not that well at all. However, as oral historians, we have a responsibility to overcome that norm and truly investigate ourselves if we're to be effective listeners towards others.
A gifted performer and inspiring orator, E. Patrick Johnson embodies what I envision an oral historian to be when I think of oral history in the arts. However, no one bursts out of a self-assured bubble able to immediately conquer the methodology of oral history interviewing. Even with his degrees in Speech Communication and years of experience on the stage, E. Patrick still found ways in which to make the “tools” in his “oral history toolbox” even sharper.
His work in creating both Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South—An Oral History and Honeypot: Black Southern Women Who Love Women, included not just self-care in the process of oral history work but also self-interrogation. In his talk at Columbia University for OHMA’s Oral History and the Arts Workshop Series, E. Patrick discussed the methodology he developed while performing his play made up of the oral histories of gay southern men he collected in the making of Sweet Tea.
As a performer, E. Patrick has long been accustomed to the practice of “getting into character” in order to play a role. In creating and performing Sweet Tea the play this practice was no different. E. Patrick found himself using three specific practices to prepare himself and produce this work, practicing an “immersive ethnography where the researcher becomes immersed and ravaged by the subject, disappearing into the field of study through the co-creative process.” These three practices were self-interrogation, self-care, and immersion into the experience of his subjects.
By following these three steps E. Patrick eventually also learned to embody himself for the sake of his performance. However, whether or not an oral historian intends to perform their work, I believe these three practices should be a general oral history strategy for understanding and respecting the role of the self within the stories of the subject.
First, I think that, in the same sense that you're instructed to put your oxygen mask on before helping others on a turbulent plane ride, in oral history, caring for yourself is essential. Johnson spoke to us about the importance of pacing himself between interviews, especially when the content of what he was hearing was traumatic. However, in order to provide oneself with the proper care, you must first develop an understanding of yourself. Therefore, purposeful self-interrogation is the second essential step in this process. As Johnson’s experiences suggest, only after these first two steps are completed, should an oral historian do the work of delving into the worlds of others.
Purposeful self-interrogation for oral historians should be done in three stages: before, during, and after the interview. For each of us, this means first understanding both our own motivations, and our positionality to the big picture of the work. Then, during the interview, observing the power dynamics between ourselves and our subjects, recognizing the authority we hold in the position of interviewer. Finally, after interviewing we should again interrogate ourselves and our influence as interpreters of the material of the interview. We must consider the way our voices will interplay with those of the "other" and those of future people who either listen to or build on to our work. For E. Patrick this meant recognizing his privilege as a cisgender man, his image of being African-American and gay, and his success both academically and professionally throughout the interview process.
After attempting to understand ourselves, from a multitude of angles, including our privilege and our image as it relates to our subjects, we must spend time in a space of self-care. After his interviews were conducted, after he experienced the emotions and stories of his subjects, E. Patrick committed to spending time alone, finding ways to rest and re-center himself. This step enabled him to then move into a phase of creation, transforming the co-created interviews into a staged play. E. Patrick, by performing the stories of others, embodied his subjects, fully immersing himself in their experiences.
When it came to interviewing other black gay men of the south, a group E. Patrick identifies himself as belonging to, it meant viewing the narration as “not only a recollection of historical events,” but as facts in relation to an ‘authentic’ self or identity. According to E. Patrick “the moment of storytelling itself is an epistemological and embodied experience of the self as same, the self as other, and the intersubjectivity between teller and listener.” With this understanding, E. Patrick as an oral historian first and a performer last, had to switch roles from listener to embodied teller.
Likewise, we should all be prepared to do that deep work before we ask for the stories of others, and especially before we begin to use/impose our subjectivity (and intersubjectivity) on them. We should all make an effort to privilege the voice of the narrator politically and aesthetically, without forgetting to communicate the complexity of our roles as co-performative witnesses to the story in both the interviewing process, and the product that comes after.
You can see the entire talk as well as the recordings of each of the other workshops in this series on the OHMA YouTube channel.
Alissa Funderburk is a part-time Oral History MA student at Columbia University currently serving as one of OHMA’s communications fellows. A Columbia College graduate (2012) and New Yorker, Alissa is currently interested in producing an oral history on the dichotomy between religion and spirituality.