News Brief: The Latest in Oral History VI

Kate Brenner is a current OHMA student. Hailing from the frozen tundra of Wisconsin, she spends a lot of time laughing at New Yorkers who complain about the cold, and generally bemoaning a lack of availability of cheesecurds. When she's not busy perpetuating stereotypes about Midwesterners, she explores the dynamics of group interviews and story circles to better capture the history of a community.

The last round-up I did was thematic, and while I was planning on making another focused one, I’ve just come across a lot of compelling projects that do not connect in any way, so this is a selection of recent items that caught my attention.

Of course the week after I do a post entirely about photography-based oral history projects, I’m sitting in the main room at the Oral History of the Mid Atlantic Region conference, and there is a presentation on The Graying of AIDS, which tells the stories of older adults living with AIDS. Originally a photography project, they began collecting stories as well and now it has morphed into this larger oral history project as well.   

 Read Larry's story at www.grayingofaids.org

Read Larry's story at www.grayingofaids.org

The Museum of Modern Art in New York just opened an exhibit on Jacob Lawrence’s iconic series of paintings on the Great Migration. The exhibition website is robust, with a variety of extra media. Though most of it is recordings of songs and poems, I was pleased to see how seamlessly they integrated oral history clips in a few parts. The oral histories are taken from Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South, where you can actually listen to the full interviews. Furthermore, you can read about the artist himself in an oral history interview at the Smithsonian from 1968. 

 By Jacob Lawrence

By Jacob Lawrence

Seeing this integration of oral history made me revisit a site we looked at in class, Goin’ North by students at West Chester University. When learning about Omeka as a platform, we used it as an example. It serves as an online archive where you can access full interviews and transcripts with both African Americans who had migrated to Philadelphia and African Americans who had been longtime residents of the city. In addition, it has various multimedia essays, incorporating video, audio, and images. They explain the different types of new technology they used to create the website, and I think it serves as an example of how interactive and engaging an oral history project website can be.

If those two websites leave you wanting to know more about the Great Migration, last semester I read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It focuses on the lives of three people who experienced the Great Migration in different ways, and is based on extensive interviews with them, as well as others to provide a larger historical context for the main stories. It’s been out for a few years, but if you haven’t read it, it is beautifully written and incredibly compelling, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Forty years after the fall of Phnom Penh, the oral history project Transmissions 2015 is showcasing interviews with survivors of the Khmer Rouge that were conducted by young relatives of theirs, in order to combat the silence within families around that history.

Oral history projects often focus on the impact of an event on those who experienced it, but the Children of Holodomor Survivors Oral History Project looks at the impact of that event on survivors’ children. 

Many museums incorporate and search out oral history to add to their collection, but the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum is going a step further, and showing their dedication to acquiring interviews by closing the museum for the entire month of April to focus on allowing members of the community to come by and record oral histories. 

Because oral histories are primary sources, used by people other than their creators, there’s the possibility for them to be used in ways the creator may never have expected. I was bored and searching Kickstarter for projects, and while nothing came up for “oral history,” when I searched “folklore,” this comic book based on the folklore of ex-slaves as found in the WPA slave narratives came up. I’m sure neither the interviewers nor the narrators ever thought their stories might someday contribute to a comic book, but I think it’s awesome and shows the manifold uses for interviews.