In this post, Rachel Unkovic, member of the 2016 cohort, talks about why oral historians have a unique role to play in amplifying and signal boosting marginalized voices to enable "history" and communal memory to be appropriately critiqued.
The Internet will tell you that Winston Churchill coined the phrase History is written by the victors. The Internet will also tell you that Churchill, a victor in WWII, wrote down nothing of the kind.
(Whoever said it, Microsoft Word, hater of the passive voice, urges you to correct this to “Victors write history,” and a user on Reddit says that actually Hitler said it.)
Does the age of the Internet, where more people on earth have Smart Phones than indoor plumbing, herald in a new democratization of history—or an increasingly jumbled mess? Where does Oral History fit in?
As a child in a Pittsburgh elementary school in the 1980s and early ‘90s, I made small “pilgrim” and “Indian” dolls out of used toilet paper rolls and was taught that Columbus discovered America. The history I learned was certainly not conveyed to me across the years by Native children wrapped in gifted smallpox-infested blankets outside of Fort Pitt. Some 90 to 95 per cent of the population of the Americas died in the years following the European invasion, but last Monday the current U.S. president, the 45th this country has seen, declared a celebration of Columbus Day.
In junior high, I remember clearly copying down in my history notebook that the Civil War was fought over economics not slavery. In film class, we were introduced to slavery through Gone with the Wind; I was never assigned an autobiography written by a slave, not even the most famous, The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglas. In the years immediately following the Civil War, the white men in the North did not want to humiliate the white men in the South—they let them keep their weapons and their statehood and draft their Lost Cause narratives. While it may initially seem the opposite, the dominant historical record of the Civil War is a prime example of the victor reshaping fact to form a history based on their political motivations in the moment (reuniting the States). The proliferation of Confederate statues fifty years later, during the 20th century Civil Rights struggle, is another example of the same.
In her 21 September talk at the Columbia Center for Oral History, Luisa Passerini said: “History exists only if it critiques its sources—otherwise, it is something else.” Professor Passerini has been undertaking a project for the European Research Council entitled “Bodies Across Borders: Oral and visual memory in Europe and beyond”, in which she's worked with refugees and migrants to illuminate the problems of external and internal borders of Europe.
(I can tell you that she said this with as much certainty as possible, given that my prime source is my own memory. Yet, as Alessandro Portelli has said, “Memory [is] itself an event on which we needed to reflect. Memory is not just a mirror of what has happened, it is one of the things that happens, which merits study.” And thus, I must critique my own memory by comparing it to my classmates’ contemporary notes and our audio recording to determine that yes, it is historical fact that she said this.)
In her statement, Luisa is using the word History in its purest sense; not “a” history, but “the” history—the truth. What actually happened—not the narrative that we need to sell to push forward our own political agendas.
People evaluate the past through the same lenses with which they see the present; they too often see only what already fits into their worldview. As oral historians who are creating artifacts for historical record—interviews, drawings to be archived—we must seek out the most marginalized within societies to capture their stories. Only the memories of the marginalized can properly critique dominant political narratives. Without these narratives, history doesn’t exist: propaganda does.
To learn more about Luisa Passerini's project "Bodies Across Borders", visit the official website here: https://babe.eui.eu/
Rachel Unkovic holds a Master of Arts in Conflict Transformation from SIT Graduate Institute, and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Trinity College. She is a current OHMA student. Her study in oral history focuses on humanitarian aid practices.