by Sheila Gilliam
Once upon a time, oral histories were recorded solely by researchers who tucked them away neatly into archives deemed for academic research; many were never heard from again. However, with the variety of technology available today, many former methods have been called into question so that valuable records may be fully utilized by historians as well as non-historians. Although I recognize the value of traditional platforms for archival storage, I, too, believe that the public, in particular high school students, could benefit from these living testimonies if only these records were given room to breathe outside of the enclosed spaces in which they are buried.
This is the very reason I chose oral history as a second career. After nineteen years as a middle school educator, I discovered by chance a professional development course encouraging educators to apply methods of oral histories within the classroom, an ideal way to link historical fiction, social studies and technology. As a result of the workshop, I came to believe oral histories would offer students an opportunity to view history from a different vantage point as opposed to its more formal lens. Plus, students tend to respond negatively to mundane teaching techniques of the past. In fact, educators are inundated with the need to accommodate varied learning styles and to meet the needs of a more tech savvy generation. In my estimation, the inclusion of digital technologies, oral histories, and project based research in the classroom is a win-win approach as compared to the federally mandated testing frenzy. Last month in the OHMA Workshop Series we learned about a collaborative model of oral history that I believe could be replicated throughout secondary schools in the United States.
Steven High, director of the Center for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, began his presentation by sharing his development as an oral historian, emphasizing the need to close the distance between history and the ones who record it. Over time, his projects have sought to include digital approaches such as sound walks, living archives, oral history performances, and online memoryscapes. Creating these projects requires collaboration between artists and oral historians, narrators and interviewers, and across the disciplines.
What a real way of relinquishing the need to control the creative process and involve members from communities with diverse areas of expertise! This collaborative model would give students an opportunity to develop meaningful ways of engaging historical pasts in the present while establishing cultural tolerance and mutual respect. It is the sense of disconnect among generations that provides an opportunity to find a new way of offering these histories. In High’s case, the goal of shared authority is met by engaging with multiple forms of multimedia projects. For years, he has successfully led an effort in Montreal to implement this vision by focusing on stories of genocide and trauma in the “Montreal Life Stories Project.”
In his presentation, he indicated the project was particularly important because approximately 25% of Montreal’s immigrant population is comprised of citizens who have undergone catastrophic changes; this population includes Cambodians, Rwandans, Haitians, and other French speakers. The uniquely designed project serves as a way to provide collaboration among all parties and eliminate boundaries among local stakeholders. For nearly seven years, Canada’s Community University Research Alliance (CURA) provided funding for this project to address the needs of a growing immigrant population through research and collaboration.
In order to complete these collaborative efforts, researchers must consider ridding themselves of the “my work” philosophy by entertaining the interdisciplinary approach that would also be highly effective in public and private schools. Each working group decides collectively how to build on the strengths of their community. Prior to the interview process, each interviewer completes a series of training modules, developing a shared skill set in oral history methods as well as cultural and historical knowledge.
The implications these collaborations have for public education are countless. A project like this would actively engage students and adults with 21st century skills and global initiatives. Despite their limited skills as “historians,” students doing oral history are involved in work that is relevant and therapeutic. For example, an extension of the project’s work with refugee youths involves a project entitled Roots to Rap With: Expressing Identity through Music. The nature of this collaboration bridges the lives of a group of culturally diverse hip hop artists with their love of music. In my estimation, incorporating music is an effective teaching tool that reflects the distinct cultures of students’ communities. I believe, with the unique and obvious success of the Montreal Life Stories Project, wouldn’t it just make sense to equip students with opportunities to use new technologies, engage with different methodologies, and have a fun way of learning about the diverse world in which they live? What would it take to replicate this project? Who’s listening to the lessons learned through this work?
By Janée A. Moses
My curriculum vitae has become as significant to my success as the actual
professional and academic experiences that fill the two page long document. Many
of these experiences I cherished; however, there were quite a few that I simply
endured. Right after college I agreed to be a researcher for a start-up company that
never quite started and never actually paid me for the days I spent in the office
alone while my boss made up and broke up with her boyfriend. So, in preparation
for OHMA workshop with Abbie Reese, author of Dedicated to God: An Oral History of
Cloistered Nuns, I read her curriculum vitae first. Reese’s accomplishments include
oral historian, writer, lecturer, and photographer. Her curriculum vitae certainly
reveals the extent of her dedication to her work; in addition, the document explains
that Reese employs a hybrid of oral history in her relationship- and research-
based artistic practice.1
Reese acknowledges that the intersections between history, journalism, and
oral history have allowed her to create a hybrid model of oral history that does not
depend upon a removal of any of the three disciplines listed above. Instead, through
a deliberate utilization of the most relevant aspects of each field Reese is able to
craft a model that allows her to benefit from the best characteristics of each.
Our conversation focused primarily on the way in which Reese was able to
form an intimate and longstanding relationship with the Poor Clare Colletine
cloistered nuns who have very little contact each year with individuals outside of
the monastery. It became clear early on that Reese was invested in meeting the
cloistered nuns where they were comfortable and adapted to the unhurried and
unstrained livelihood to which the nuns committed. As an oral historian in
Columbia’s Oral History Master’s Program I have spent too many hours trying to
create a model for how to engage with narrators before even meeting them. Reese,
on the other hand, reveals the importance of allowing breathing room in the
process. After all, oral history relies on interactions with human beings who are fully
capable of pushing back against an imposed method. Reese notes that she was
initially met with hesitation and gentle resistance from the nuns. In order to
complete her interviews Reese recognized that this was a process.
One of the reasons many of us have become dissatisfied with history is
because it denies the flexibility that oral historians are allowed to embrace. Patrick
Hurley stated, “Whereas history can collapse identity, oral history features a
multiplicity of identities.”2 Not only does Reese’s work highlight the multiplicity of
identities amongst the cloistered nuns, it also acknowledges her own plurality as a
researcher. While working on this project, Reese was in an unfortunate car accident
that left her in the hospital for months.
The impassioned tone evoked by Reese when discussing the nuns and the
closeness she feels with them is just one of the many unique possibilities of oral
history. Not only did Reese embrace a fluid methodology that relied heavily on the
comfort of the cloistered nuns and an attempt to carry out their wishes to create a
record of their existence, she also embraced a divine process. Her ability to gain the
trust of the nuns and to successfully complete this project after a car accident that
could have left her paralyzed forces one to acknowledge the possibility of a greater
purpose in the relationship between Reese and the nuns that were willing to share
themselves and their God.
1 Reese, Abbie. Curriculum Vitae.
2 Reese, Abbie. Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns. pp. xiv.
by Maggie Argiro
After reading from Abbie Reese’s book Dedicated to God, I was struck with some vague notion that being an oral historian is not all that different from being a nun. It seems absurd. What insights can a life devoted to God shine on the practice of oral history? Well, I noticed some patterns, mainly revolving around this word: sacrifice. I read about the sacrifices the nuns are required to make, including vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure. A nun makes her vows, including removing herself from the world, in order to pray for humankind, or to put it simply, to help people reach heaven. In the introduction, Reese writes:
“…they believe that in removing themselves from the world and embracing a life of anonymity, unseen and unknown to the world at large, by undertaking lives of self-sacrifice and prayer behind the scenes, they have a greater impact on mankind than in they maintained direct contact with strangers and loved ones,” (5).
In this clip provided by Abbie, we hear Sister Mary Nicolette elaborate on the kinds of sacrifices nuns must take.
What I noticed with this word sacrifice, is that an oral historian also must make vows. The oral historian abides by ethics agreed upon by others in the field. For example there is the oral history version of anonymity in which authority is not held exclusively by the oral historian. She or he may opt for the title of editor or collaborator, instead of author, when creating something with other people’s words and memories. Instead of helping humankind reach heaven, the oral historian may be interested in drawing attention to larger issues and overlooked histories, or for new interpretations of history. The oral historian, then, is a mediator. She or he mediates between two worlds: the narrator’s world, and the rest of the world. The nun mediates too, between heaven and Earth.
Abbie began to notice these similarities in her work, and was able to explain them herself. In this clip, she talks about her subsequent film project, where cameras were introduced to the monastery, and further elaborates on her role and eventually the camera’s role as mediators.
I have more questions, and maybe you readers can help me think about these ideas and come up with new questions. What are other lessons you learned from the Poor Clare Colettines? What other insights to oral history do the nuns reveal? In what ways are the two worlds different? Is it productive to look for the similarities, or does it only draw attention away from the differences? What are some ways that making sacrifices can be unproductive in oral history?
By Jacob Horton
Perhaps, dear reader, you are a prospective OHMA student, researching the field or oral history, considering that next great leap of faith called graduate school. Or perhaps you have taken that leap, you are an OHMA student, buried in reading, writing, and research with only a vague sense that one day you will be dumped out onto the cold, hard streets of New York with nothing but a shake of the hand and a stroll across the stage. Or perhaps you are an OHMA alum, sitting on your butt in the street, squinting into the future through the bright afterglow of post-graduate bliss. All of you –all of us – know that any gainful employment related to the field of oral history will require more than “MA in Oral History” added to our resumes. Learning about what might come next is part of what makes the OHMA Workshops so great.
Sewon Chung is an OHMA graduate who has worked on an exciting variety of story-oriented projects both professional and personal. Just before her presentation on February 6, 2014, she shared with the OHMA cohort her experiences with a variety of commercial industries (including marketing, consulting, and tech) that are eager to connect with the type of communication that oral history evokes. Many of us are interested in the “voice for the voiceless” ideal but Ms. Chung’s stories encouraged me to think about how I might extract and distill some of the skills that an oral historian is trained to develop and to apply them in marketable ways.
Sewon Chung on the Story-telling job market:
Oral history, as a purely audio format, can seem dated in the context of a multi-media, smart-phone world. But Ms Chung demonstrates how oral history excites despite its retro look. Her work exemplifies how the skills of the oral historian can be translated into a variety of mediums. The presentation touched on two projects that interwove space, story, and history. Ms Chung’s primary work during her time in OHMA drew her into contact with Mabel O Wilson, Associate Professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. Both Ms Wilson and Ms Chung’s work have dealt with ways in which the space around us houses a variety of histories. The favoring of some spaces over others can shape how we think about the past.
One of the products of Sewon’s time in the OHMA program demonstrates this connection between place, history, and story. Her Central Park North Project consisted of a set of short narratives tied to related locations on a map of the region. When the user clicked on each location the screen faded to a set of photographs and an audio track telling a story about the area. This style of presentation is a very contemporary medium with a growing variety of web-based platforms to facilitate such work. Between Ms Chung’s presentation and the OHMA faculty we in the cohort have now been exposed to have a variety of such sites, some of which I’ve assembled here. All of these sites are up and running at the time of my blogging.
Now hold on, luddites! Fear not. While it helps to understand web technology, Sewon’s personal story reminds us that successful realization of our oral history-related projects is not tied solely to our technical skills. Collaboration with others is essential to oral historians be it for archival purposes, production purposes, or even the interview itself. Even though Ms Chung came equipped with some tech skills she did not have the full set. Few do. Her emphasis on collaboration should encourage us to seek out friendly colleagues with complimentary skills. Be willing to learn. And of course, believe in your work.
Sewon Chung on confidence and collaboration:
So fear not, brave oral historians – past present and future. The work that you do in history work, in memory work, in space, time, and location – it is important. And it has application in a variety of fields throughout our economy. The OHMA workshop series is just one of the many resources available through INCITE and Columbia University. Heads up, hearts strong, and ears open! Thanks very much to Amy Starecheski for her perpetual attention to work related to oral history students and grads as well as for hosting these workshop events. And thanks to Ms Wilson and Ms Chung for an evening full of great ideas and inspirational examples.
By Maggies Argiro, Will Chapman, Janée Moses, and Cameron Vanderscoff
Jeff Friedman ran to Knox Hall on Thursday, November 21st, 2013 after a delay from New Jersey Transit almost made him late for our OHMA workshop. It was clear from this determined start that Jeff is an ardent supporter of the Oral History Master of Arts students, faculty, and larger community.
As an oral historian and choreographer, Jeff has devoted his talents to creating a space in oral history that engages with performance and movement. The opportunity to learn from Jeff's personal experience as a narrative of individual liberation and growth was truly educational, and illustrated the subjectivity that makes oral history so fascinating. We have explored several elements of Dr. Friedman's discussion, beginning with his personal path to oral history, leading to his thoughts on physicality in interviews, and ending with what we believe are important considerations for oral historians today that Jeff raised.
Jeff’s Personal Narrative: Dance, and his use of Oral History
Jeff Friedman's subjectivity immediately became apparent in the discussion, led by OHMA students Maggie Argiro, Janée Moses, and Cameron Vanderscoff. This discussion, which preceded the general lecture, featured the four students interviewing Jeff. He candidly shared about his early life, including an explanation about his birth parents. By beginning his narrative in such a forthright and direct manner, Jeff demonstrated his open departure from the norm—as Amy Starecheski highlights, it was a truly fascinating response to an opening question that we routinely ask of all our narrators.
These intimate revelations were presented almost casually, so as to distort the notion of separate public and private spaces; during the interview these spaces were not distinct.
Connecting this sincerity to the motivating force in his life, Jeff went on to explore his introduction to dance. This interest began when his mom took him to dance classes after seeing him do "like thirty cartwheels down the street," knowing that dance would be an outlet for his creative energy. Jeff took to it immediately, and cultivated a love for dance at a young age, despite the social consequences.
Jeff's interest in oral history was fully developed later in his life when he had already spent years as a professional dancer. However, his interest was also personally based in family trauma at a young age, with his mother's diagnosis with cancer when he was fifteen years old. Understanding that his mother was going to die, Jeff began to live toward his own finitude, and he cultivated a sense of temporality. Jeff came to oral history in these years of trying to save his mother’s life, thinking that to save a life is to save a world.
After Jeff stopped dancing temporarily, he eventually went to college at Cornell where, at his father’s insistence, he majored in architecture. During his first semester at Cornell, he was reintroduced to dance.
He eventually left school to dance professionally, and in doing so was forced to think about his “queer body” within the space afforded to him by dance. Dance allowed him to express himself and to be around other queer bodies; he was able to connect his expressivity to his sexuality. This personal revelation was important in Jeff's future involvement in oral history, working to queer the canon of oral history by observing how movement and dance can be utilized to tell subjective and individual stories.
Jeff later returned to continue his education, graduated with a degree in architecture, and continued dancing professionally for 10 years through the 1980s in San Francisco, which was a “ground zero” for the AIDS epidemic. The first person Jeff interviewed was his friend Frank after he noticed many of the people he knew were becoming ill. Being aware of his own finitude, Jeff asked, “How can I save those lives?”
He was introduced to the more formal oral history method, and began interviewing dancers with AIDS. From there he began the Legacy Oral History Project.
This exploration of Jeff's past was not only a frank and intimate foundation to develop an understanding of his personality, but it paved the way for more theoretical discussions of oral history. By having such an engaging narrator build a substantial level of rapport so quickly, the dialogue smoothly led into the deeper recesses of Jeff's understanding of how oral history is constructed, and how the body can be expressed in an interview. The next section attempts to relay these ideas, and interpret them from the perspective of an oral history interviewer.
One of the thought provoking ideas that Jeff shared in his presentation centered around conversation in silence and the physicality of the interview process. Jeff, similar to the OHMA program professors, believes that silence is not only a tool for an interviewer, as “breathing room,” or a time to interject questions, but is actually a continuous part of any narrative, and that the body’s constant role in this silent communication must be considered in any interview setting. This idea is exciting in particular because of the questions on interviewing it raises, but also because it exposes one of the persistent challenges and deficiencies of transcripts as a primary format for archiving in oral history. We asked Jeff if he could discuss this idea further, and he did so gladly.
As a former professional dancer, movement is at the center of Jeff’s life. This naturally led to our asking Jeff about physicality, and how he views it in the context of oral history. Jeff emphasized early on that there are multiple forms of physicality even while seated and motionless, and that this is truly a fascinating element of the interview process that deserves more thought than it is given now. Jeff later asserted that the body and perception of the body play key roles because of how conscious and subconscious judgments are constantly made about body language (kinesics) and its interaction with speech, and that these judgments can lead to a wide range of positive and negative influences on the resulting interview. These judgments in turn are impossible to totally control for, but Jeff argued that by keeping paralinguistics (communicating through speech without words) and parakinesics (dialogue in gestures and body language) in mind while in an interview, the resulting narrative will inevitably be more complete and engaged. Jeff described this process later in his talk as “contingency,” stating that a dialogue is constructed in a holistic fashion that cannot rely on speech alone.
This study and attention towards non-verbal communication in an interview has many implications. Jeff himself was observant of the effect that non-verbal dialogue can have on those suffering from serious illness or trauma, recounting his own experiences interviewing individuals who because of infirmity were unable to mirror his body posture, thus altering their dialogue. As Jeff stated, there are many variables when considering this sort of non-verbal communication, and therefore it is difficult to openly consider all of them in this context. What is possibly more accessible as a discussion is how silences and kinesics are lost in a written transcript. Jeff himself drew attention to this when commenting in the clip above "unless you have video somewhere." This examination of the non-verbal and silent has definitely stimulated a revitalized interest in how the oral history transcript is in many ways ineffective at representing a narrative. Keeping in mind the aspect of contingency that Jeff mentioned, it follows easily that the written transcript cannot contain the combination of silence, body, and speech in one feasible written document. This opens a discussion that we believe oral history as a discipline needs to pursue further, and reexamine the transcript as a truly viable option weighed against the possible benefits and drawbacks of using video as a primary record.
Another important point Jeff addressed was around how to approach, understand and repurpose oral histories. Jeff, given his interest in embodied knowledge and the physicality of an interview interaction, cited examples of using oral histories as a basis for performance and artistic endeavors. His citation of dance work in particular involved explicitly engaging with the embodied aspect of oral history. In other words, his broadened conception of the oral history interaction has a corresponding expansion in methods of interpretation. Just as textual interpretation in the classic expository mode is particularly well suited for engaging with the spoken aspects of oral history, Jeff’s interest in the unspoken, bodily aspects of interpersonal communication seems to suggest a corresponding call for an expanded interpretative methodology. His work with dance points towards a model where textual interpretation is a part of an interpretative palette where words can be explored through words, and motion through motion. It points out some of the limits of the textual method which is so central to scholarly interpretation, and that there are areas where written forms increasingly become an act of significant—and far from lossless—translation. In Jeff’s rendering, textual interpretation is enriched through physical interpretation; a body can speak to, and of, another body in a way that words cannot.
This approach also opens up a new way of considering, and acknowledging, interpretation as a creative act. Jeff’s discussion of dance works informed by oral history illuminated the imaginative, or artistic, aspects of interpretation as a whole—a certain choreography of interpretation. Throughout his talk was freeing when it came to considering the relationship of art and scholarship, and the process of approaching oral histories as sources.
In summation, Jeff’s talk pointed towards a richly expanded conception of what it means to participate in and interpret the oral history interaction. By reminding us that the interview dynamic is dialogic in not just verbal but physical ways, he underscored the idea that thinking about narrative, without thinking of how it is shaped, nuanced, and transformed by the body in illness and health, is to constrict its capacity for meaning. His talk raised important points about the limitations of different ways of capturing and considering oral history, from audio/video to dancing/writing. Altogether, it was a thought-provoking presentation from one of the most significant thinkers in the field today.
by Phil Sandick, OHMA Alumnus
I recently published an article—available here —in which I argued that the International Criminal Court (ICC) should create a public interviewing guide. The ICC should do so because it has a well-recognized statutory duty to protect those who put themselves at risk on account of the ICC’s work, and ICC interviewers put themselves at risk. My ability to read and understand the legal duty came from my legal education and my work at the ICC in 2012. My ability to understand most of the rest of the equation—the importance and effect of interviewing styles, the effect of trauma on narrative, the moral imperative that attaches to de- and re-narrativizing—came from my OHMA experience.
One of the ingenious aspects of OHMA is its flexibility. It may come as a surprise to learn that OHMA was not, at least primarily, an oral history degree for me. Rather, by learning oral history as I chose to learn it during my two semesters, I sought out a deeper understanding of the relationships between people, how those relationships are negotiated, how groups negotiate the public sphere, and how trauma affects those and other aspects of our individual and collective experiences. I knew I was going in to learn about the first three, but I had no idea I would become so interested in the last one.
As a future litigator, it turns out that understanding trauma—at least better than I did before—might end up being the most beneficial. People will come to me either when they want to sue someone or when they are being sued. Both of those are traumatic experiences. The human rights litigation process broadens the spectrum of trauma to include victims, perpetrators, first responders, activists, investigators, and, among many others, us lawyers. OHMA did not offer up solutions to human rights litigation trauma—that’s therapy’s job. But it did help me notice where and why issues might arise. And because cases often rise or fall based on narratives strung together using witness testimony, understanding trauma in the courtroom has already immeasurably enhanced my ability to advocate for my clients and to protect those at risk on account of my work.
By Will Chapman
I have been interviewing veterans for four and a half years now. I have interviewed members of my family, veterans that are over seventy years older than I, veterans that could have been in my graduating class in undergrad, veterans that have fought in the Middle East, in Europe, and in Southeast Asia. I have interviewed veterans that are physically unscathed, veterans that were grievously wounded, veterans that have never told some things to anyone else and never will, veterans that will answer any question. I have interviewed veterans that joined the Army, the Marines, the Navy and the Air Force, veterans who have fought with their bare hands, and veterans that have played games with foreign children and never fired their weapons. I have interviewed veterans who despise war, veterans who think it can be necessary, veterans who love their country, and veterans who feel it is slipping away from what they know and cherish. I have interviewed veterans that are surrounded by family, veterans who have lived alone for 50 years, veterans who are in college, and veterans who never graduated high school. I have interviewed veterans who were segregated for their race, and veterans who learned that there is no color underneath a uniform. I have interviewed so many different individuals, so many different perspectives, and yet there is one thing that all of them have told me in common, that not one interview has neglected to leave out: they all wanted to try somewhere different, somewhere new and unknown and exciting. After hearing this for four years, I decided that I did as well.
This is the spirit that brought me to the Oral History Masters of Arts program at Columbia University. As a history undergraduate student, I knew that I enjoyed studying history, however I still had that craving to go further, to pursue something that was unknown and exciting. The static world of traditional history was fascinating, yet it still felt too omniscient, too separated from direct human experience through the lens of time and text. I found a desire to pursue history that was not just retelling, commentary, and analysis, but was also memory, emotion, and witness; history that had a human face, and responsibilities to the community it was based on. I know that this desire was rooted in my work with veterans, and what I had contributed to the Central California War Veterans Oral History Project at CSU Fresno, but had grown to include much more. I wanted to go forth and learn more about oral history so that not only could I become a better historian, but that I could give something back to those that I studied as one. With this in mind, I began my search, and found OHMA here at Columbia, and I knew that it was ideal for what I wanted to achieve.
After applying to the program, and thoroughly convincing myself that my chances were slim, I got accepted and moved to New York, never having lived there or visited for any time in my life. Following this culture shift and resettling in the city, I began to study oral history in earnest. Although I was now across the country, and I had finally gone forth and tested the unknown as so many of my narrators had before me, I still felt a tug back to California. This mental itch became stronger and stronger with time and after weeks of trying to figure out what it was beyond normal homesickness, I realized that it was this drive as a historian to give back, and not just to any population that I could be introduced to, but I knew that I had to give back to Fresno, the city that had gotten me here in the first place. Following this impulse, I began developing the thesis plan that I am currently pursuing today, centered around urban Fresno and narratives describing the effects of suburban expansion. I believe now, with my historical training and my oral historian’s education, that I can finally fulfill the dream that originally grew back in undergraduate in Fresno of reaching out to others with history.
My goal now is to finish my thesis, to study the urban identity of Fresno and to create a work that speaks to not only the objective causes of urban decline in Fresno, but also to the subjective image that this has created in the city and currently is so negatively affecting it. It is my hope, that by eliciting stories of Fresno, grounding them in historical context, and then sharing them with the community as an alternate tale of the city that I can confront this negative urban identity. This may seem intangible and implausible, but I believe that it is fully possible with the use of several oral history tools that OHMA has given me. Foremost amongst these tools is the public interview, a performance that I had no idea was even possible until attending OHMA. In short, a public interview is a chance for others to come and hear an oral history being recorded, to become a part of that narrator’s story first hand, and to even interact with the narrator and ask questions. I have witnessed one of these public interviews as a part of my coursework during this Fall semester at OHMA, and after witnessing it I knew that it would be perfect for my goals. I believe that by interviewing other Fresnans in public about the city’s past, I can display to the public a face and a narrative of the city that is not the self-perpetuating stereotype of a failed city, but is instead a place and rich history of complex issues which is more than simply “bad.” These interviews can not only fulfill an educational role about the city, but also a socializing role, proving that the people who live and work in downtown Fresno are not so easily typed alongside the rest of the area, and that maybe the desertion of downtown by a large number of the city’s residents is something that needs to be reconsidered.
This is why I joined OHMA. Not just to continue studying history, but to study individuals, and by doing so and sharing my research to change the conceptions about the present that are rooted in the past. I am looking forward to exploring this with my thesis work, and I am grateful for this chance that my time at OHMA has given me. Hopefully, when all my work is done, I will have succeeded in changing the minds of a few people, and will have shown them that maybe my home town isn’t so bad, and that the people in it have a history all of their own.
by McKenna Stayner
It’s difficult to write anything unbiased about Audrey because, well, I adore her. She’s a generous and intelligent person, a fierce thinker, and even though I’ve never been in her class, Audrey breathes learning effortlessly into all that she does. I count her as a close friend even though I met her in person only minutes before her November 7th workshop at Columbia. For about a year, we worked together over email and by phone for Voice of Witness, where I was the publicity and outreach manager for the two years before I came to Columbia’s Oral History Masters program this past semester. Voice of Witness, the nonprofit oral history book series and education program, published High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing last September, the eleventh book in the human rights-focused series, and I consider the time I spent working with the book—and Audrey—to be some of the richest and most meaningful of my time in the organization. So, as I mentioned, I’m not exactly a neutral observer.
Being a bit of an insider in this instance, what better to spend this time considering than the insider/outsider dynamic in all interviews and in oral history practice in particular? We discuss it in each of our classes. In our method and fieldwork classes, it comes up explicitly as we question what factors can help or hinder you when working with a narrator; what pressures being an ‘other’ (or not) exerts on the relationship you create when you sit down with the recorder and attempt to bridge a divide? How do these dynamics blind us or do they give us deeper insights? It’s tricky; by contriving and guiding the conversation, the interviewer will always sit in opposition to the narrator, despite any similarities that exist. And, so often, the differences that seem at first like an insurmountable barrier to understanding crumble in the face of informed questions and an honest desire to hear.
In both the early discussion with OHMA and in the public talk, Audrey brings up many of the nuances to this dynamic. She discusses how developing relationships with the narrators transformed her sense of responsibility:
Having grown up in Chicago, having grown up on the South side, and feeling like I had a relationship with these spaces [the high rises], I’ve felt inside that I was getting what I’ve come to describe as the pinpoint perspective of what these communities were, and what happened, how people lived these lives in these communities. And when the buildings started coming down, I felt this urgent need to know more and to be part of something that I didn’t see in other places. I didn’t feel like, the larger story, the wider aperture of stories were widely available—and especially as the buildings were coming down—I felt like I wanted to be a part of documenting those communities and for accounting for those stories that I didn’t see out in the world, or I couldn’t find them…
When I first started, before I first met anyone, I felt like my intended audience was a Chicago audience, and were people like me in the city, who lived in the city, who maybe perceived these places as iconic, but did not have any inside experience of those places. But that was the first group that I had in mind—Chicagoans, people like me. And then as I started working on it, in an odd way—or maybe not so odd—I felt like my narrators were my audience, and the more I got to know them, the more they shared their stories, not only did I feel accountable to them, but I felt like the book needed to be something that they would read and recognize themselves in it, but they might also read it and have access to different accounts themselves. As it was becoming a book, I felt more tuned in to them and their reactions and their responses and how they might receive the book.
Although Audrey is a Chicago native, it’s not until she met the residents of the housing developments and began to build those relationships that she moved beyond an observer and began to participate in the lives of those who truly know the high rises.
For those of us who approach oral history practice as a means of shortening the distance between our own experiences and another’s, Audrey is describing what we hope happens for ourselves and for those who read, listen to, watch, or otherwise engage with oral histories. Not just through the form of a story, which Audrey calls a form of currency (“stories matter”), but also by the power of a first-person narrative. She says, “first-person stories can account for things in ways that others cannot”.
What are some of these “things” to which personal narratives are uniquely able to give meaning? Another discussion we have often in the program is whether oral history is a valid form of historical account. I admit, as someone literary-minded and trained in the Great Western Canon to look at history through an accumulation of first-person accounts of science and literature, philosophy and mathematics, I have no qualms about taking subjective and oral accounts as part of human history. What is the point of history if not to see how our actions impact the lives of those around us, to see how the actions of those who came before us have set the tone for our present? As we are constantly witnessing, the meaning of what has happened before us—no matter how far back we go—is constantly being revised, and there’s no one to call our history the true history but ourselves. Oral history interviews account for the history of our intentions and our actions. The contradictions that arise from those sometimes conflicting accounts adds to the depth and complexity of reality, and hint at the alternate future realities embedded in all our choices.
Say we take this reading of an oral history narrative as historical document as true, at least for the moment. Like Audrey, it might change the way we view the narrators in High Rise Stories, and complicate the responsibility we feel to the residents, too. The divisions of outsider versus insider might break down a little bit, and our perspectives might begin to include more voices from each side.
In the workshop, Audrey described the assumptions that the narrators had of her, coming from a world that so often reduces public housing residents—in Chicago and elsewhere—to statistics and stereotypes:
I did feel like there was this kind of dance, initially, where I felt like narrators expected me to have certain questions and assumptions, and sometimes there would be this initial conversation where I felt like some narrators were looking to me, anticipating that I was coming with broad stereotypes, and so sometimes I wouldn’t even be asking those kind of questions but they would be answering those kind of questions. And I understand it, but it was a strange thing to navigate initially. But I think that was a part of the process. I think there were narrators who were, in explicit and upfront ways, talked about feeling stigmatized, feeling that stigma of “living in the projects” as a lot of them would say. And I think they felt like maybe I just wanted to hear certain kinds of information or certain kinds of stories. Or there might be a kind of push back, if I wasn’t asking that kind of question but they were coming right forward and saying, “it wasn’t like you think it was”. And that was a huge part of the dynamic with some of the early [conversations].
The residents are reacting to a sensationalist and myopic narrative formed about them based on only a component of life in the high rises. As oral historians, we are working not only with the narrator as they see themselves, but the way they see themselves perceived and represented by an outside world in the media, by cops and politicians, by people who do and don’t enter their neighborhoods. We combat these other sets of eyes with open-ended questions, transparency in our process, and by giving the narrator the respect of time and careful listening. And perhaps more important than how we conduct the interview, is what we do with it.
Oral history is a method and a practice; a lens through which to view our work as journalists, social scientists, educators, historians. How we interpret and represent the narrators in the language of our fields must be colored by this responsibility to the narrator. In journalism, for example, as it struggles to redefine itself in the digital age, oral history archiving techniques make sense of infinite sources of information and connect readers to subjects. The interview style counteracts the desire to reduce and simplify, and interviewees are given room to fully voice their experience.
Like Audrey as she collected the narratives for edited High Rise Stories, we are responsible to our narrators—regardless of our chosen field. Not to agree or disagree with them, but to represent them holistically, in their own words and with layers and depth and contradictions. When narrators open up in the interviews, we move in a little from the outside. As Audrey says, “I don’t think of a city block in the same way I used to think of a city block. Everything is different.”
Click here to watch the full video of Audrey's workshop
by Sheila Gilliam and Rachel Smith
For nearly two decades, cities across the United States, like Atlanta, New Orleans, and Chicago, have undergone urban renewal projects, removing high rise public housing to clear the way for new, multimillion dollar developments. The story of public housing in Chicago is one of the most well-known in the nation.
Founded in 1937, the Chicago Housing Authority initially aimed to provide affordable and decent housing accommodations for an influx of African American families during the Great Migration. In one such instance, State Street Corridor spanned a four mile area housing Stateway Gardens and Robert Taylor Homes, the largest housing project in the United States totaling nearly thirty six buildings and housing in excess of four thousand families. In fact, Chicago’s Housing Authority would be responsible for a total of 168 public housing complexes until 1968, when Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority lawsuit was filed forbidding further construction of public housing in predominantly Black communities already overburdened by its dense populations.
Many of these buildings were designed with as many as fifteen to eighteen stories, built of subpar materials. Over time these complexes would deteriorate due to decreased funding, maintenance failures, relaxed admission policies and rampant societal ills. For example, one narrator likened the structures’ interior to that of prisons. Ultimately, they would be deemed unsafe and unmanageable by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Consequently in 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority launched their Plan for Transformation, which removed the remaining complexes and drastically changed the lives of thousands of public housing residents. The destruction of the final structures was marked by local and national news footage as camera crews filmed the buildings coming down. Although they were plagued by violence, drugs and rampant criminal activities, these spaces were home for many of the Windy City’s Southside residents. Author, professor and native Chicagoan, Audrey Petty, indicated she felt a sense of urgency to capture the stories of former residents whose lives and experiences would ordinarily go unnoticed. She gives first person accounts of their lives in her recent book, High Rise Stories.
On November 7, 2013, Petty spoke to students in the Oral History Workshop regarding her decision to write her first oral history nonfiction work. Petty is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois and a writer of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Her work on High Rise Stories represents a different kind of storytelling. She discussed the evolution of the book and the changes in her fieldwork process; the ways in which the project has affected her and continues to impact her personally; and the potential for oral history to create change.
Petty discussed the development of her project over time: how it moved from an idea into a reality, from Petty alone to a full-scale initiative with a publisher and research team, how the interviewing process evolved and how her audience changed. Petty wanted to break apart the dominant narrative of Chicago public housing and dispel some of the social stigmas attached to the marginalized neighborhood and its residents, and decided to use oral history interviews with high rise residents to do so.
While she anticipated that narrators would focus on the system failures of the public housing system and the violence, she found that the stories were also of the strong support networks of neighbors and family within the projects, how they took care of one another. As they spoke of their attachment to their homes and the joy they experienced there, their narratives were inflected by laughter. Coming to the project with this agenda of challenging popular assumptions, Petty found her own assumptions challenged.
It was unexpected turns like this that shifted the idea behind the project, what it would be, and to whom. She talked about how she began the project with the intended audience being people like her and how that shifted to the narrators being the intended audience.
Petty mentions here the desire to make a product which her narrators could see themselves in, and of which they would be proud. In this way, Petty uses oral history as a means of empowerment for her narrators. By publishing this book, she is adding their stories to the historical record of Chicago and bringing their voices into the public discourse on housing.
Petty developed a commitment to her narrators over her initially stated audience, concluding that the book should ultimately be by them and for them. However, juxtaposing this with her goal of breaking down the dominant narrative to challenge the social stigmas of the high rises then requires some reassessment. Why would she need to do so if her main audience is the narrators? Petty’s goals speak to the multileveled appeal and potential of oral history, able to convey different information to different audiences for different goals.
Petty emphasized into the importance of creating a series of questions as a guide through the interview process in order to establish rapport and gain a sense of basic knowledge about each narrator. For example, some of the initial questions included inquiries about their space, their neighbors and more common remembrances. Utilizing this strategy was effective because by the end of the exchanges, she could move away from a prescribed list of questions and rely heavily on her intuition as the interviewees grew more comfortable in recounting their stories. Ultimately, this deepening engagement would yield more meaningful recollections of their lives without probing and allowing them to share their experiences and opinions freely.
Oral history as a field gives special attention to the agency of narrators. As Alessandro Portelli writes, “The documents of oral history are always the result of a relationship, of a shared project in which the interviewer and the interviewee are involved together” (Portelli, 1991: 54). Interviewers ask questions and narrators respond with stories; together, they co-construct oral history narratives. In this way, they are said to hold what Michael Frisch refers to as “shared authority” (Frisch, 1990). Petty moves beyond the conventional conceptions of shared authority, extending this collaboration with her narrators beyond the interview process. Following the completion of High Rise Stories, Petty gives them a platform from which to discuss and promote the book.
This raises interesting questions for us as oral historians: how can we incorporate the narrators in the oral history process beyond narration? How can we engage and empower narrators beyond the finished product? How can we enlarge the scope of the oral history and extend it past the finished product? How can we rethink the process to include the narrators on a deeper level?
One of the more challenging stages for narrator involvement can be the interpretive process, in which oral historians analyze the narratives, sometimes applying an interpretation that may be at odds with the narrators’ views of their own stories. In High Rise Stories, Petty does not engage with the narratives analytically. Had she applied a more rigorous interpretive process, would it be possible to attain the same degree of narrator involvement?
One possibility would be for Petty to engage with her narrators similarly to Daniel Kerr, who conducted oral histories with the homeless of Cleveland and collaborated with them to form an analysis of homelessness (Kerr, 2003). Together they identified societal and economic trends that led to the perpetuation of homelessness. Additionally, this initiative empowered the narrators to take political action and advocate for social change. His involvement of narrators throughout the process stands as a model for engaging narrators in the interpretation and analysis of oral histories.
It is through this discussion with Petty that we witness the evolution of her oral history process. Her reflections reveal how the changes in her project mirrored larger changes in herself as an oral historian and in the empowered narrators. This stands as a reminder to us as oral historians to be mindful of our audiences, our goals, and our methodology, of how they are intertwined, develop, and affect one another. The result of her process, High Rise Stories, demonstrates the myriad potentials of oral history: to capture lost worlds, to question assumptions, to break apart media narratives, to excavate social and economic processes, to empower others, to confront and challenge and create change.
"CNN: Conclusions from Cabrini Green." YouTube. YouTube, 13 Dec. 2010. Web. 14 Dec. 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K64m4wCO9iE>.
"The Plan for Transformation." home. Web. 14 Dec. 2013. <http://www.thecha.org/pages/the_plan_for_transformation/22.php>.
By: Rachel Smith
It’s a sunny day in Hebron. We walk down Shuhada Street, the once-bustling main drag running through the Casbah. The street is deserted, the shops welded shut. Amid the broken windows, olive trees, and piles of debris, soldiers stand in pillboxes on the corners and run group patrols through the streets. Arab children wave down to us from their windows, unable to walk on the restricted streets below.
Shuhada Street, with sealed stores and caged windows, to prevent settlers from throwing stones and garbage at the windows of Arab houses.
I walk through the streets of Hebron on a tour with Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization of former IDF soldiers who served in the West Bank since the Second Intifada. Through oral histories, Breaking the Silence reveals the realities of the military occupation of the territories to open up public debate. In addition to publishing books of testimonies, they incorporate their oral histories into walking tours of Hebron, in which they share their personal experiences to illustrate Israel’s military policies.
In a country where outsiders constantly come in fiercely advocating for change on one side or the other, Israelis often brush aside criticism. What makes Breaking the Silence so unique for Israel is that its oral histories are self-generated. As Avner Gvaryahu prefaced his talk at Columbia University, his engagement with Breaking the Silence stems from a love of his country and community. Such a controversial organization demands this disclaimer. In a country where the military as an institution is so highly esteemed and plays such a critical foundational and socializing role, these testimonies are truly groundbreaking. The military has ensured Israel’s continuity almost every decade since its establishment. Almost everyone knows someone who has died in the army, and almost everyone has served in the army. Much of the power of these oral histories comes from their being told by soldiers who served—not by the settlers, Palestinians, peacekeeping forces, or activists. The Israeli army has never seen such systematic and large-scale criticism from Israelis. And as more soldiers come forward to share their testimonies, their experiences become less isolated incidents and more reflective of a norm, making them harder to ignore.
The success of Breaking the Silence has laid the groundwork for others to share their stories. This past year saw the release of Gatekeepers, a documentary film of oral histories with the former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. In this Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary Feature, their testimonies recount and analyze their leadership of the Shin Bet, leading them to reevaluate their strict policies and actions to advocate a conciliatory two-state solution. Those featured are the ultimate insiders; their success in speaking through their own experiences demonstrates the power of insider advocacy in oral history.
What becomes apparent in these testimonies is the highly political use of language in war. Throughout Avner’s talk at Columbia and the testimonies, the processes of war are obscured with language: “Prevention” or targeted assassinations, “Straw widows” or takeovers of homes and public buildings, the “Civil Administration” or the body charged with controlling the residents living in Area C regions, a “bee nest” or a Palestinian home, a “security barrier” or a fence, a “crossing” or a checkpoint. The language teems with euphemisms, statistics and dates, maps and army divisions, permits and zones. This terminology covers the realities of the occupation. Juxtaposed with the passionate testimonies of Palestinians and settlers, it feels disconnected and objective, a stance needed for soldiers to continue functioning as a part of the system.
The oral histories of Breaking the Silence leave behind much of this obscuring language as former soldiers bring themselves back into their narratives and critically reevaluate their role. This process is mirrored by the larger Israeli society as it begins to question the toll the occupation is taking on their society and their children, subjectively relocating themselves in The Conflict. Thus, beyond providing first-hand accounts of the realities of the occupation, these oral histories allow for a broader analysis of the power of language in shaping perceptions of war, of The Other, and our implication in The Conflict.
by Carolyn Brave Heart
To watch a full video of the workshop click here.
On October 24, 2013, Muriel Miguel presented a talk with a slide/video accompaniment on her life work. I felt quite honored to meet, sit and listen to Muriel speak.
Muriel Miguel has spent her life working in the performance arts. She is an actress, dancer, choreographer, educator, playwright and director. Muriel began her work in the Arts, in New York City, dancing at pow-wows with her family. She was a Fancy Dancer. She co-founded (with Louis Mofsie) a Native dance group, at the age of twelve, named the Little Eagles; and, also studied dance with Alwin Nickolais, Erick Hawkins and Jean Erdman. Eventually, she went into theater work. She worked in open theater, but felt misunderstood. No one made the connection, she said, that she was Native and liked to tell stories.
When Muriel first spoke, at the beginning of the presentation, she began with telling the group who she was. She explained the importance of identity.
She calls herself a “city Indian”. She is Kuna on her dad’s side and Rappahannock on her mom’s side. She is from the Star Family, she said. It is precisely this voicing of identity that reverberates in Muriel’s Spiderwoman Theater group. It took her time to understand how to bring together her identity as a Native woman, the theater and dance together.
Muriel and two sisters Gloria Miguel and Lisa Mayo
Muriel describes Spiderwoman Theater as the “oldest, ongoing feminist theater group in the United States”. She formed the group with her two sisters and a select group of talented women in 1976. It is the combination of music, dance, power of voice, artwork backdrops, physical objects (props) and the expression of spirit through body movement that create a powerful testimony. It is a conscious, layered weaving of story. Over the years, Spiderwoman Theater has sought to tackle issues that are not always easy to talk about. They knew that audiences might be shocked and view their theater group as radical. But, they also realized the importance of what they were doing. Some topics were:
Cultural Theft: Winnetou’s Snake Oil Show From Wigwam City
Misuse of Native Spirituality: Power Pipes
Taboo subjects: Hot N’ Soft
Failed Noble Mothers: Red Mother
Violence: Violence-the Next Generation.
The productions are about cultural understanding, remembrance, persistence and resistance. They are filled with powerful expressions of human emotion and identity.
Muriel shared a moment when she presented a part from her Winnetou’s Snake Oil Show From Wigwam City production with Native young people in Washington State:
Muriel works with Native/First Nations young people to encourage them and teach them about the performance arts. Muriel has taught at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto
In my interviewing fieldwork experience, for the Oral History Program at Columbia, I have acknowledged and explained my reasons for doing the work I have dedicated myself to do, in recording collective memories of Native peoples. I always have the young ones-the next generation in my mind. I want to leave something for them. Muriel voiced this, too, at her talk in reflecting what she would like to leave as her imprint for the future generations. It is really important for her too. It is the next generation, who will carry on the traditions, along with recognition of who they are. Thus, generation-to-generation, the people will live on.
It is in our identity as individuals that we find our place in the Universe, how we live our lives on this Turtle Island and accumulate that knowing of who we are. We hear and understand our responsibilities to our communities and share the knowledge we have learned with those “coming up”. Muriel has done this in her life work. She knows and understands who she is. And, she doesn’t intend to stop or ever give up weaving stories of importance to present to the world.
Tell me a story Muriel, I’m just waiting to hear.
By Joyce Farley and Jacob Horton
It is rare to witness dissenting voices from within an active military. The public in the United States is encouraged to honor our soldiers but seldom to question them. It is equally as rare to hear American soldiers publicly questioning their military superiors regarding an ongoing operation. In the October 7th Oral History Workshop at Butler Library Avner Gvaryahu, a member of Breaking the Silence (BTS), presented a book of collected oral histories from soldiers doing just that; questioning the ongoing military strategy of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) as it continues to occupy the contested zones that tie Israel and Palestine together.
Gvaryahu is a former Israeli combat soldier and special operations paratrooper of three years. In fact all of the BTS members, male and female, are military veterans who have committed to expressing their combat experiences in order to affect change in the greater Israeli system. Breaking the Silence began in July 2004 as a photo exhibit built around the schism the soldiers felt between the idealism of their mission and the reality of what they did. The project continued to grow, expanding into recorded accounts from the soldiers, online videos and publications. After collecting more than 900 testimonies of soldiers, officers and even sergeants, BTS has published a book entitled Our Harsh Logic. Gvaryahu is touring North America in support of the book throughout November.
In Our Harsh Logic BTS outlines patterns that they have come to recognize over the course of their decade long oral history project. The stories in the book describe a ground-level occupation that is very different from the official mission. BTS claims that after such a quantity of soldier accounts they are no longer seeing aberrant or even normative soldier behavior, but are describing IDF policy on a large scale.
The IDF’s self-described mission is to maintain peace through four methods: (1) Prevention is the means to deter terrorism; shoot the suicide bomber before he or she can detonate. (2) Separation is the means of reducing tensions by separating the populations. (3) Maintaining the fabric of life is the means to avoid human rights violations by allowing Palestinians to live an undisturbed life. (4) Finally, daily peace is maintained by Israeli law enforcement.
The editors use the interviews to demonstrate how these four methods do not maintain a neutral coexistence, but in fact represent an ongoing means of occupation, control and even expansion of Israeli territory. Gvaryahu outlines them accordingly: (1) Prevention does more than deter, it allows room for targeted killings, revenge killings and creates a perpetual oppressive gaze. (2) Separation primarily serves to restrict Palestinian mobility and freedom via checkpoints and permits. (3) Because of the constant presence, the fabric of life policy means that Palestinians are not free to live their lives unhindered, but become dependent on the IDF for how their lives can safely be led. (4) Finally, the law enforcement is not an equal policy. It is governed by Israeli law, is designed by Israeli citizens with Israeli interests, thus any law is exclusive and one-sided instead of even-handed and fair.
“The problem is not in the soldiers, but the system,” says Gvaryahu.
Many that attended the lecture were struck by the bravery that it took Gvaryahu and his fellows at Breaking the Silence took to continue this project. While the audience was largely respectful during his presentation, the question and answer session began to mirror the combat zone he left years ago and escalated into camps of intense opposition. But, Gvaryahu’s relaxed attitude coupled with the neutral space of the Columbia University environment kept the exchanges from escalating into full-scale verbal war. Audience members lingered for over an hour after the event concluded, debating and discussing this difficult topic.
This is the type of emotion and power that oral history can evoke. It takes one from their comfort zone and places them in fatigues. Some truths are hidden from the media and outside of the history books. These are the truths that drive people within their individual lives to seek out the hidden stories and agendas. These are the truths that shape one person's understanding of the world that they live in—the "real" world. These truths can drive us to do terrible things, but can also compel us to do amazing things. It is those truths, the secret ones, the personal ones that we can uncover using the oral history method, which is go to with an open mind, ask all of the questions and leave nothing to presumption. The world of the individual is always uncharted until someone begins to ask questions. BTS and other presenters in the Oral History Master of Arts Workshop series are already busy mapping those seas. It is a call for us to remember the power and potential of our field. Seek! Ask! Know! Inform!
Our thanks to Breaking The Silence for continuing in their work and for sharing it with us.
Sarah Dziedzic (OHMA 2011), who has been a grant-funded Project Coordinator for CCOH’s Carnegie Corporation Oral History Project since 2011, recently transitioned to a new permanent Project Coordinator position at CCOH. Starting this fall, Sarah will be working on the two most recent CCOH projects. One began this summer on the life and work of the artist Robert Rauschenberg, which CCOH is conducting with assistance from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Another project, on the 25-year history of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender here at Columbia, is just getting underway and will involve collaboration with the Center for the Study of Social Difference and the OHMA program. For these projects Sarah will be serving as lead researcher, developing project designs, facilitating training, conducting interviews, and overseeing the post-interview processing.
OHMA is excited to share the successes of its graduates and we will be posting announcements about all of the exciting things our alums are up to in the coming days and weeks!
Erica Fugger [OHMA 2014] was recently hired for the full-time position of Administrative Assistant at the Columbia Center for Oral History (CCOH). As a work-study editorial assistant at CCOH during the 2012-2013 academic year, Erica gained experience in the archives by aiding researchers utilizing the collections, audit editing transcripts, and serving as a staff member of the 2013 Oral History Summer Institute. In her new role, Erica directs the work of the graduate assistants, offers consultations to individuals and organizations on implementing oral history projects, and develops projects to expand access to the archive. Erica is currently completing her thesis project, which will include an audio documentary based on narratives of practitioners in the tradition of Vietnamese Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh and a guide to oral history interviewing through Buddhist practice.
by Shannon Geis and Laura Barnett
On September 26th, Daniel Wolff, author of The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back and executive producer of the documentary “I’m Carolyn Parker,” both about the rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina, spoke to the OMHA students about the differences between using life histories in book form versus documentary film. Both were released in 2012.
Daniel Wolff is the author of How Lincoln Learned to Read, a Chicago Tribune Editor's Choice pick; 4th of July, Asbury Park, a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice pick; You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke, a national bestseller; and two volumes of poetry, among other books. His writing has appeared in publications ranging from Vogue to Wooden Boat to Education Weekly.
Wolff also served as executive producer of The Agronomist, a 2003 documentary directed by Jonathan Demme following the life of Jean Dominique, who ran Haiti’s first independent radio station, Radio Haiti-Inter, during multiple repressive regimes.
Although Wolff doesn’t necessarily consider himself an oral historian, much of his work as a non-fiction writer has depended on the oral histories of people involved with the subjects he writes about.
Wolff began the process of documenting New Orleans when he accompanied Jonathan Demme about five months after Hurricane Katrina. As he helped with the filming, he started learning more and more about the people trying to rebuild. But it was Demme who convinced him to write the book.
Writing a book also allowed him to focus on many more of the people he encountered through the time he spent in New Orleans than are included in the film, as well as provide background and context to what he was witnessing.
The role of providing background was one of the most important ways he felt his book differed from the film. As an example, he showed the same scene in three different formats.
First he played the opening scene of the documentary, narrated by Jonathan Demme: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdShyOYVx_M
Then he read the section of the book where he introduces readers to Carolyn Parker:
The light’s starting to orange toward sunset. It strikes the panes of the twin fanlights. Out one door comes a broad woman with a yellow kerchief covering her hair. “I’m Carolyn…That’s Father Joe Champion, our parish priest.”
Carolyn’s wide short frame nearly fills the door. She’s brown-skinned with a broad nose, almond-shaped eyes, and a welcoming smile. There’s a touch of the troublemaker in the way she turns the priest’s name into Champion. She’s wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt with SAVE THE TIGER printed on the front. When she walks, it’s with an awkward roll, as if something hurts. But the smile is overwhelming. She invites the little crowd on the street to come in.
It’s dark in her house, and there are few walls. The rooms are separated by blue tarp. “This is my brother Raymond. Who’s enjoying himself.” A gray-haired black man is sitting on the edge of a cot, watching TV and eating. Later, Carolyn will explain how she hadn’t seen her brother for ten years when she found him in the crowds of the Superdome. “He’s eating my famous fired fish. And that’s my daughter, Kyrah.”
Kyrah is sitting on a bed in the other half of the double shotgun. She’s watching her own TV. Kyrah looks to be in her late teens with pulled-back short hair, her mother’s almond eyes, and a bright smile. Father Joe givers her a hug and asks when she got in. “Last week,” she says. Her freshman year at New York’s Syracuse University has just ended.
A neighbor appears from down the block. It’s becoming a small, noisy party.
“Come see,” she says, inviting her guests to tour her home.
A shotgun is typically one room wide and two or three deep: a long, narrow rectangle you could supposedly fire a shotgun straight through. Carolyn’s double is two of these under one peaked roof, with a wall down the middle. She thinks it was built in the mid-nineteenth century; it’s on an 1875 map as part of a truck farm.
And then finally, he played the raw footage from the moment that he and Jonathan Demme met Carolyn Parker. Through showing these different versions of the same moment, Wolff was able to make apparent some of the key differences between documentary film and documentary writing, particularly the ability to include background.
For Wolff, being able to provide context to his readers is an important part of the writing process. He is able to shape how the readers view certain moments and events. However, he acknowledges the challenges of objectivity that this can create:
This was also the first time Wolff was writing a book where he had video footage to reference, which meant he could go back and see how a person told the story not just listen to it and try to remember.
Wolff also discussed the politics of editing people’s voices for film and writing and how those editorial choices affect the final product whether he means for them to or not.
Overall, the role of context and background have played largest role in the Wolff’s choice to write a book based on his observations and experiences surrounding the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and why he says he will probably continue to write books rather than delve into other formats. Though, if Jonathan Demme asks him to make a movie again, he certainly wouldn’t refuse.
Ellen Brooks [OHMA graduate 2013] was recently hired as the Oral History Archivist and Curator at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison, WI. Aside from coursework and fieldwork experiences, her position as Education Intern at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum this past summer helped prepare her for the role of integrating oral history into public programming. She also has considerable experience archiving and analyzing oral history through her work as research assistant to Professor Amy Starecheski, whose work utilizes oral history to explore the experiences of squatters on the Lower East Side. In her role at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, Ellen will be splitting her time between organizing the extensive current collection of oral histories, collecting additional interviews, training volunteers and designing exhibits and programming that feature the Museum’s oral history collection. Ellen’s primary objective at the Veterans Museum will be to promote oral history as an essential facet of museum education and public history.
by Jacob Horton
On Tuesday October 1st I attended a lecture at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute titled “Stormy Seas: Japan’s Disputes Over History and Territory and the US-Japan Alliance”. Thomas Berger, the guest speaker, is a Columbia alumnus and professor of International Relations at Boston University. Berger argued that any solution to these disputes will involve direct confrontation with differing historical pasts and he laid out three ways in which historical memory can be addressed. In a lecture that was largely about political alliances and war scenarios I was struck by how important oral history interventions might be.
Briefly: The Empire of Japan began expanding in the late 19th century. By the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese war in 1937 Japan fully occupied the Korean peninsula, many areas in Southeast Asia, and large sections of what is now Eastern China. Today's territorial disputes between Japan, China and Taiwan revolve around (in English) the Pinnacle islands in the East China Sea and between Japan and South Korea, the Liancourt islands in the Sea of Japan. Japan often claims that governance was settled through various treaties over the last 150 years. Japan's neighbors argue that these agreements have been rendered void by history. But how can 8 uninhabited islands and some 38 rocks spark large-scale, popular riots and protests? Berger argues correctly that these disruptions pour from a fount of popular memory; from suppressed and unaddressed grievances. Beneath these disputes lie the deeper concerns of how Japan addresses or ignores its past as an imperial power that exploited the populations of its now sovereign neighbors.
Berger spoke about the construction of historical memory in three ways. The first was through political power. Polities make claims on history in order to legitimize their existence. The governed come to know the world because they are told stories about it. These stories are shaped by political interests. A senior resident of Nanjing in Eastern China, for example, might know Japan as the occupying empire that invaded their city and tormented their neighbors. From this person’s point of view Japan was only ejected by and is only held at bay by the liberating army of the Communist revolution. A young Japanese person, however, may know Japan primarily as a small but wealthy pacifist nation that is struggling to recover from a recession and a series of national disasters. History is instrumental in defining a sovereign state and allowing the population to interconnect, to be sympathetic toward itself and develop a relationship toward outsiders. National stories map the world through prefabricated narratives with a political core. This can be tracked in textbooks. The shape of an individual's world is mapped through personal experience. The oral history method can open this map.
Berger also described how wildly different historical memories can coexist within a political polity. One American may understand the Florida trial of George Zimmerman to be an example of how the American legal system systematically decides cases based on a skin or race bias. Another American may see the trial as another example of the world's most fair and deliberative justice system. Both of these people are Americans and yet they understand the history of their nation in almost contradictory ways. For a government to address conflicts that have roots in historical memory it must address how internal histories have come to be radically different. Historical narratives become impressed on individual lives and they also emerge from individual experience. Oral history interviews can demonstrate the emergence of differing histories within complex, intertwined nations of people.
Lastly Berger identified the history of experience. This is the most obvious home for oral history as he meant exactly the stories that people recall from their own lives. While large identity histories are documented through collective means, personal histories always start with a single person. Berger noted that one of the ways Japan might address grievances with South Korea would be to address the lives of individuals, in particular the so-called “comfort women”. This term refers to Korean woman, now grandmothers, that were requisitioned during the wars to service the desires of Japanese occupiers. Reaching out to these individuals, Berger argued, is an acknowledgment South Korea's historical memory. As these women pass away the issue will not pass with them – the opportunity to address historical damage will. Oral history is exceptionally well suited for documenting such stories, those that will soon pass beyond our reach. The formal documentation of these individual stories would be a suitable core for a reconciliation action as suggested by Berger.
Berger discussed historical memory because he rightly believes it to be central this dangerous set of tensions in our world today. He identified broad actions that might be taken to avoid the worst outcomes. But what I saw was the paths that oral historians should walk. It is into these dens of past hurt and conflict that we must venture. The past is not always so distant. It shapes today. As oral historians we can be actors on this level. It is our responsibility to consider context, method, bias, and modes of analysis not only for the sake of accurately representing our narrators but in order to make clear to our audience the ways that these histories, personal and small, are essential components in the larger, shared histories that change our world. Next time a lecture or an event piques your interest, make time for it. It may be more important to your work than you first think.
To watch the full video, click here
In Croatia, oral history is being used to build sustainable peace after decades of conflict. On September 12, at a public workshop co-sponsored by the Columbia Center for Oral History and Columbia’s Center for the Study of Human Rights, Darija Maric, a fellow at Columbia this year, shared the work of Documenta, Centre for Dealing With the Past, a Zaghreb-based NGO that has done over 400 oral history interviews in an attempt to end a culture of silence about the wars in the countries that were formerly Yugoslavia.
The interviews are the first stage of a project titled “Unveiling Personal Memories on War and Detention.”
Documenta was founded in 2004 in order to both establish the truth about what happened during wars, and to create a shift in the public dialogue about the wars -- from arguing over the facts of what happened, to sharing individual and subjective experiences of what happened. You can explore Documenta’s work through their website: http://www.documenta.hr/en/home.html
In 2006, Documenta began using oral history with some audio recordings made in Slavonia. The recordings offered a surprising revelation: that people connected the events of the 1990s with the Second World War, explaining how the old violence had been used to justify a fresh cycle of violence. Documenta saw that by uncovering and sharing the wide variety of war experiences, oral history could help people to develop a nuanced understanding of what leads to war.
“Individual voices show us collectively what factors lead to the collapse of civil society,” Maric explained.
For “Unveiling Personal Memories on War and Detention,” Documenta used an extensive NGO network and previous field experience to identify interviewees. “We looked for people who were absent from the dominant or official narrative. We wanted to hear the experience of minorities and of ordinary civilians, not just veterans; we wanted to give power to people who didn’t cause the events,” Maric said.
Look at some interview clips here: http://www.osobnasjecanja.hr/en/video-search/
Maric described the interviews as personally and socially empowering. “After the interview, some people began speaking out publicly after a lifetime of silence,” she said. The interviews can have a community-building impact, as some communities have been holding events at which interview clips are shown.
“It’s amazing how revealing the suffering of your neighbor, or the suffering of someone from a different ethnic group, can start dialogue, which leads to understanding. And that understanding creates empathy,” Maric said.
One audience member observed that human rights advocates always seek big changes. But this oral history project is leading to small changes, imperceptible at first, as shifts occur within individuals, families and communities as a result of telling and hearing stories.
Four hundred video-taped interviews, from all over Croatia, creates an enormous archive. Documenta has transcribed each interview, translated it, gone through a scrupulous informed consent process (including erasing portions of interviews at the narrator’s request), and archived it with impressive security. The first interview clips have just been made available to the public on the Internet, with many more to follow.
“We thought our work was done,” Maric said, laughing. “But now we realize that just putting it up on the Web is not enough. What do you do with such rich material, how do you spread it around? That’s why I’m here.” Maric will be spending this year, she said, exploring artistic and innovative ways to use the “Unveiling Personal Memories” interviews to help heal Croatia’s past and build a lasting peace.