In this post, current OHMA student Shira Hudson reflects on how Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz’s lecture inspired her to consider what it means to identify as an oral historian.
As a child, Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz, hoped to become a ‘lady explorer’ when she grew up. Though I am not quite sure if Mi’Jan has achieved this just yet, her experience and career is vast, multifaceted and accomplished. Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz, is a cultural worker, a community scholar, a story collector and a documentarian…among other things. She truly is a renaissance woman.
Before Mi’Jan’s presentation, “Oral History as Engaged Community Listening, Ceremonial Practice and Performative Art”, OHMA students had the opportunity to hear from Mi’Jan in a more intimate setting. During that time, we learned about Mi’Jan’s family, upbringing and professional journey. My interest was piqued when Mi’Jan said the following, “The term oral historian still doesn’t resonate with me, in all honesty, because of the archive piece...” Mi’Jan goes on to explain that she has only worked on a few projects in which she deposited her interviews in an archive, so she feels ‘green’ in regard to this aspect of oral history. It was confounding to me to hear Mi’Jan, an accomplished oral historian (from my perspective), who has even developed her own methodology for interviewing and story gathering, shy away from the oral historian identity.
As a student in the OHMA program, I often reflect upon what it means to identify as an oral historian. What makes each one of us an oral historian once we walk off that graduation stage? Are we oral historians only if the interviews we conduct are transcribed, indexed and deposited into a traditional archive? Is it someone’s masterful interview technique that allows them to identify as an oral historian? Or, is it how one interprets, analyzes and then artfully incorporates oral histories into their research, book, podcast or exhibit design?
In the Oral History Association’s description of oral history, it states “It begins with an audio or video recording of a first-person account made by an interviewer with an interviewee, both of whom have the conscious intention of creating a permanent record to contribute to an understanding of the past. A verbal document, the oral history, results from this process and is preserved and made available in different forms to other users, researchers, and the public.” This succinct overview is helpful, but I do not believe that this is where oral history begins and ends, nor does it define the parameters of what it means to identify as an oral historian.
The OHMA student body has diverse interests and intentions for incorporating oral history into their work or studies. We will all walk off the graduation stage with a different plan in mind, and will all identify as oral historians in a different way. Though I am still on my journey of becoming one myself, I would like to humbly offer my own definition of what it means to identify as an oral historian:
To be an oral historian means to take the many dimensions of oral history into account as one approaches each project in which first person accounts are captured: preservation, interpretation and presentation.
Preservation: Oral historians must ensure that the recorded interviews are preserved and accessible in some way for generations to come. This could mean that the interviews are deposited in a traditional archive, or that they are preserved on a website that will be maintained in perpetuity. It could even mean that the stories are preserved through embodied remembering, part of a ‘living archive’, as they are heard, remembered, and retold (like those at Mi’Jan’s live story gathering events). The most crucial component is that as oral historians, we think critically about the implications of the chosen methodology and how these choices will impact the current project and future accessibility.
Interpretation: Oral historians must contextualize each project and attempt to make meaning of the interviews gathered, or allow space for others to add their own interpretations. An analysis could be done from a historical, anthropological, cultural, or literary lens, and the knowledge produced could prove to be valuable to the respective field.
Presentation: How will the collected interviews ultimately be incorporated into an oral historian’s work? Will narrator’s quotes be intertwined in an article or book? Or perhaps, the story gathering event itself will exist as the mode of presentation, as it does for Mi’jan’s projects. Oral histories can be incorporated into works of research, art, theater, museum exhibits, and more. Oral historians must be mindful of the intended audience and how to best reach them.
It will be impossible for every one of our projects to perfectly account for each dimension of oral history. However, it is our understanding and awareness of these nuances, and our intentional decision making and designs, that allow us to own our oral historian identities and to contribute to our respective fields as oral historians.
Shira Hudson is a student at OHMA and is also the associate director of planned giving at UJA-Federation. She comes to the program to explore how oral history techniques can be effectively integrated into various aspects of non-profit organizations.