Current OHMA student Carlin Zia reflects on her experience of the penultimate workshop in our fall series—Michael Roberson’s A History of Echoes, Pt. 2: Sound of Trans Freedom—and shares how the event influences her own approach to oral history.
On the evening of Thursday, November 2nd, current OHMA students and members of the community engaged in a listening session and conversation with Michael Roberson, an activist, public health practitioner, and leader in the House|Ball Community. At the outset Roberson specified that he didn’t intend to set aside time for Q&A because along with the videos being put in conversation with each other, we would be creating the discourse in the room: “This will not be hierarchical; this will always be dialogical.” Indeed after the last video ended, it was Roberson who asked the questions: What did you hear? What did you see? What did you feel?
I was sitting at the very front of the room, just a few yards from moving bodies on the projector screen and just a few feet from Roberson when he stepped into that space for the conversation, even closer when he would lean in to catch the voice of someone in the back, when he would surge forward as he spoke, as he gestured words like community by raising his elbows up and wide then dropping them down and in tight under his spread hands, gathering up the air and whatever else and squeezing it to him.
When he posed the three-part question, I had spent the previous twenty five minutes clenching my jaw, sucking my teeth, and gingerly crossing and uncrossing my legs, leaning forward and back in my chair. I was up front because I had brought my audio equipment to record our cohort’s opportunity to meet with Roberson earlier in the evening, and I had set up my recorder again for the public talk as a back up for the video camera microphone. I linger now on this situating because during the listening session, I was acutely aware of my recorder there on the table right in front of me, acutely aware that any sound I made, whether vocal or from shifting my body (or worse, scraping my chair on the floor!), would be picked up on the tape and could compromise the audio. As oral historians we are trained to curb phatic noises because of at best how they distract the future listener and at worst make unintelligible the narrator’s next words. I felt a responsibility to OHMA and the future audience of the workshop video to keep the tape clean. And besides, I barely heard a peep or a rustle from the roomful of people behind me, let alone the volume and kind of response I was suppressing. My chest wanted to belt out the song during the video of a drag lip sync performance, and I could feel my diaphragm contracting in preparation; my arms wanted to wing out as the performer’s did; my body wanted to bow to the ground as hers did towards the end of the song, and my shoulders arched forwards as my head sunk towards my sternum. I wanted to shout out my resilient queer joy (albeit cis, relatively privileged, considerably less marginal) with the other young people in the video of the club in Paris where House Mother Leiomy performed and death-dropped relentlessly, breathtakingly.
But I wasn’t surrounded by other young queer people in a club in Paris; I was surrounded by other scholars, most of whom were older than I, in a seminar room at Columbia University.
After a few folks shared their responses and Roberson gathered them in, I tried to explain my experience, that I’d had a lot of trouble sitting still and silently, watching and listening. To which he immediately asked: “What made you think that you had to not respond?” It was something about the critical mass behind me, I said, my physical position in the room relative to “everything else.” (I didn’t name the recorder at the moment, as I know from listening back to the exchange.) And then as I added “I think maybe also, we’re at this Workshop thing,” Roberson offered, “It’s also what the academy creates; the academy says this thing called feeling is not supposed to happen. We don’t privilege the register of feeling.”
He segued into explaining the provenance of one of the most recent major projects he’s been involved with. First convened in November 2016, the Arbert Santana Ballroom Freedom and Free School is a movement to build “a curriculum to enable members of the HBC community to consider how collectives are organized and sustained, and how they can teach, learn, and work in solidarity with others in struggle” (Roberson, “Ballroom: The Trans Sound of Black Freedom”). Out of our conversation about the discontinuity between the academy and feeling, Roberson continued:
You know, one of the reasons why we created the Ballroom Freedom School was to 1) use Antonio Gramsci’s notion of the organic intellectual—that the intellectual does not arise from the academy, only, but it arises from the community. Beverly Walter Harrison says the community engages in the ethical imperatives of the everyday lived experience. So these practices, if we’re going to do oral history, these practices are necessary—and it can’t just be voyeuristic. Allow yourself to be in the space and feel, and go beyond the comfort zones. Because if you’re always in a place of comfortability, learning is not happening: stagnation.
As he spoke about this intentional, intra-vening yet organic pedagogy, the imperative to bear it both in mind and in body when doing oral history, and the conditions of learning, I considered again a story about when Roberson was a teenager that he had told our cohort before the listening session: “I was sitting in church and I heard a voice say to me, that work that I want you to do, that work that I'm going to do through you, you can't stay in church because the way that you're learning about me is restricted and limited. And I left church.”
I’m not about to leave Columbia, but often, and November 2nd was one of those times, I have gotten the feeling that the way we are learning even oral history, a field more embracing of the reality of affective power than most, is restricted and limited by this “academic” construction of “seriousness” as the absence of emotion and the maintenance of composure. I am not advocating for the rampant uh-huh’s and mm’s that mark most “normal” non-interview conversations, or for doing even close to half the talking, but as Mary Marshall Clark articulated in a recent meeting of our Methods & Theory class, our silence is also recorded, and we are equally responsible for that. I am wary of strict silence and “seriousness” being just another form of autopilot, restrictive and limiting.
When Roberson says “[the practice of oral history] can’t just be voyeuristic,” I take him to mean we must look inward simultaneously and ask what we heard/saw/felt as well as that question “what makes me think that I have to (not) ________,” essentially the “why” we ask when we guide our narrators to think critically about the construction of their lives in an oral history interview. We must ask ourselves the same, and then be transparent and vocal about the results of that self-inquiry. The resulting discourse will teach everyone involved. And again, this reflexive and vulnerable discourse needn’t occur “during the interview,” but I agree that it is essential to oral history practice beyond the mic, a continuous practice. “Allow yourself to be in the space and feel, and go beyond the comfort zones. Because if you’re always in a place of comfortability, learning is not happening: stagnation.” If listening is the means to feeling, then feeling is the means to learning. How would our collective reflection on the listening session have been different if I or anyone else had joined in the call-and-response we were witnessing? How much more could we have learned?
You can watch the entire History of Echoes, Pt. 2 workshop, as well as A History of Echoes, Pt. 1 with Robert Sember, on the OHMA Oral History & the Arts | Fall 2017 Workshop Series YouTube Channel.
Carlin comes to OHMA fresh out of undergrad where she majored in English. She brings with her a love of language and narrative and writing, and is excited to get up to speed on social science theory and audio/visual mediums. She is currently working on a project with her Chinese-born grandfather to record his life story, and in so doing to engage more deliberately with her own Asian\American identity.