Menu Sidebar

Listening Beyond the Sound Bites of Guantánamo Bay

Founder of Witness to Guantánamo, Peter Jan Honigsberg shares in this guest post, the origins and significance of this project that documents the experiences of those who have worked, lived, or were detained in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

By Peter Jan Honigsberg

Witness to Guantánamo’s mission is to document on film the stories of people who have lived or worked in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. We have interviewed 158 people in 20 countries, including 52 former detainees.  Others include prison guards, interrogators, interpreters, chaplains, medical personnel, civilian and military lawyers, military prosecutors, high-ranking military officials, high-ranking government officials, and family members of the detainees.

We began our project because we believed that if the stories were not documented now, the memories would fade and the voices would disappear forever.  We launched Witness to Guantánamo in 2008, and are completing our work a decade later in 2018; no one else in the world has done this work. 

With seed money from a local Northern California family foundation, we were able to travel to five countries and interview 16 former detainees during the first summer of our work in 2009. Those interviews gave us credibility. We then applied to larger foundations for continued funding.  We raised more than 1.6 million dollars over the life of the project.  Although we were supported by American foundations, a significantly larger portion of our funding came from foundations in the U.K.

Our powerful video testimonies capture perspectives from different kinds of people on both sides of the wire.  Official U.S. government documents have never reflected many of these perspectives.  

Most of the 780 detainees who were held in Guantánamo were purchased by the U.S. military for bounty from Afghan and Pakistani soldiers.  Former detainees told us that they were sold to the Americans for amounts between $3,000 and $30,000 each.  The men were first brought to Bagram or Kandahar Air Force Base in Afghanistan, where they were brutally tortured.  From there, they were flown to Guantánamo. The first group of twenty men arrived in Guantánamo on January 20, 2002.

The detainees we interviewed described Guantánamo as more of a psychological torture prison, than a physical torture prison – although, of course, physical torture was always present.  The psychological torture included prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, and sensory deprivation.  The detainees described how the psychological effects were more devastating that the physical torture, often continuing after they were released from the prison, sometimes profoundly affecting them for years later. 

Nearly all the men in Guantánamo were held in the prison without charges. Only a handful of men were convicted, and about half of the convictions were overturned on appeal. Although the Bush and Obama Administrations released nearly all of the 780 men, many had spent years—some a decade or longer—in the prison before they were released. 

Forty men remain in the prison today, under the Trump Administration. Of these 40 men, seven are in military commission proceedings. The commission proceedings for these men have been ongoing for more than a decade, with no resolution.

In his second day in office in January 2009, President Obama issued an executive order announcing that he would shut down the prison within one year.  That did not happen. Facing opposition, Obama never succeeded in closing the facility throughout his administration. 

We heard many incredible and surprising stories from the people we interviewed over the decade.  A former prison guard told us that he became Facebook friends with former detainees that he used to guard at the prison. He then flew to London to meet and embrace the men.

A military prosecutor told us that after realizing that the juvenile he was prosecuting in Guantánamo had signed a confession in a language he did not speak and could not read, the prosecutor left the military base in Cuba and entered a monastery. 

A human rights lawyer who had dedicated herself to representing the detainees in Guantánamo became so stressed and traumatized by her work that she quit and moved her family and herself to another country.

The interrogator known as the “King of Torture,” apologized three times for his actions during our filmed interviews with him.

We were not journalists looking for sound bites.  We were filming the stories for history, and to create a public record. We emphasized to all the interviewees that we had no agenda. People were free to tell their stories in their own words for as long or short as they wanted.  One person interviewed for six hours over two days.  Another spoke for 20 minutes. The average was two hours.

At first, we worried that by telling their stories the detainees could be re-traumatized.  Fortunately, the opposite occurred. Many of the former detainees expressed relief at the end of the interviews. They found the interview experience therapeutic. They thanked us for the opportunity. 

The University of Southern California Shoah Foundation was our inspiration. Established in the 1990s, the Shoah Foundation documents the Holocaust, as well as serves as a response to Holocaust deniers. Over the years, the Shoah Foundation has filmed interviews with more than 52,000 survivors.  My father was one of the survivors who told his story on camera to the Shoah Foundation. 

Witness to Guantanamo’s filmed interviews are housed in perpetuity at the Duke University Human Rights Archive. The university will preserve and update the interviews as technology evolves, and post most of them on the Internet. Because of restrictions, a few interviews will only be available on a dedicated computer at Duke.  Excerpts from the interviews are available on our website. 

Peter Jan Honigsberg, professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, has written a book about his work as founder, director, and interviewer for Witness to Guantánamo.  The book will be published in fall 2019 by Beacon Press.

Please follow the project on Facebook, YouTube and @WITNESSTOGTMO on Twitter.

5 Questions About: Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling


We’ve asked authors of books that are going to be reviewed in the upcoming edition of the Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read them. In our latest installment of the series, Sujatha Fernandes discusses Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling.

A Review of Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling will be available in 2019 

What’s it about and why does it matter?

In Curated Stories, I examine the contemporary proliferation of storytelling as deployed by governments, nonprofits, and advocacy groups. While stories are often presented as a panacea to myriad social problems, I argue that the conditions under which stories are told and the tropes through which they are narrated may disguise deeper contexts of global inequality. Drawing on theories and methods of oral history, I analyze a range of stories and storytelling practices from the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, the domestic worker and undocumented student legislative campaigns in the United States, and the Misión Cultura project in Venezuela. These curated narratives may move us deeply. But what do they move us to? What are the stakes in the crafting and uses of storytelling? Curated Stories shows how stories have been reconfigured to promote entrepreneurial self-making and restructured as soundbites mobilized toward utilitarian ends. But the book also explores how storytelling might be reclaimed to allow for the complexity of experience to be expressed in pursuit of transformative social change.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling. Sujatha Fernandes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

I found that the work of oral historians such as Alessandro Portelli and Daniel James was very helpful in thinking about how we can understand and analyze stories. It was a useful corrective to much work on storytelling within my discipline of sociology, that tends to celebrate and romanticize storytelling. Stories are especially fetishized when they come from marginalized groups who are constructed as “voiceless” or “silent.” But oral historians have had a more critical view of narratives and stories, questioning the dominant tropes and constructs that may frame stories, even when they come from a marginalized sector of society like migrant workers or undocumented students.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

I didn’t carry out any oral history interviews for this book, although it is a method I have used in the past and am planning to use in the future. Rather, what I used was the theoretical frameworks of oral historians who have offered some of the most cogent ways of analyzing what stories do and how we can interpret them.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

I hope that they will find in my book a way of engaging with the transcripts and narratives that are produced through doing oral history research. My book shows that we cannot take these stories at face-value, in order to construct an unmediated history or narrative. Rather we have to look at the broader social constructs that frame these texts and the conditions under which they are produced. I don’t subscribe to the more radical claims made by literary theorists such as Gayatri Spivak that the subaltern can never speak, but my book cautions oral historians to pay attention to silences, tensions, and contradictions in the voices of our subjects that may offer other kinds of interpretations.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

I would want readers to take away a sense of the power of stories, that despite the neoliberal shift to commodify and soundbite stories, they remain a powerful tool for communicating deep truths about the human condition. When domestic workers from the group Andolan were disturbed by how their stories were framed by the media and in legal campaigns, they responded by setting up an oral history archive where they could tell stories that were honest, potentially contradictory, and showed their complexity.

A few reasons we are thankful

Following  in the large footsteps of our OHR editorial team predecessors, we at the blog are offering a timely reflection on some of the (oral history related) things for which we are grateful. 

From Janneken, digital editor:

I’m thankful that the new OHR editorial team has nearly (knock on wood) survived its first year at the reins. Although we aren’t yet a well-oiled machine, we have figured out some innovative ways to divide up the labor, and hope to keep streamlining our processes, as we continue to maintain high standards for oral history scholarship. And we now need a new team member! Is it you?

Thank you to the many OHR contributing authors who have generously recorded interviews with me, written guest posts, and otherwise helped continue to extend the conversations generated by articles in the journal’s pages.

Thank you to the many OHR contributing authors who have generously recorded interviews with me, written guest posts, and otherwise helped continue to extend the conversations generated by articles in the journal’s pages.

At the risk of sounding like I’m sucking up, I am grateful to the dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at West Chester University for supporting my work as digital editor, as it’s a lot of work, and I don’t know how I could do it without this course release.

Thank you to the Oral History Association for supplying me with a exceptional reason to visit Montreal this past October, for OHA’s annual meeting. Reuniting with friends and colleagues at the conference is always a highlight of my fall, and this time, we got to do it in an amazing, cosmopolitan city, rich with diverse culture, including these steamers full of dumplings. 

Nicole, editorial assistant (who is sitting in front of the other steamer full of dumplings, as we conduct official business):

I am thankful for the delightful oral history community that has welcomed me with open arms over the last two years. You all have given me the space to ask questions, present my work and grow as a student of oral history.

I am thankful for good metadata

Abby, managing editor:

I’m thankful for Janneken and Nicole and the super blog they’ve created!  (I know, this looks like bragging, but Abby actually said this)

Of course, the entire editorial team is thankful for you, our readers, who have migrated with us to our new digital home this past year, have read and shared the fascinating things our contributors have posted, and continue to engage with the articles and reviews we publish in the journal. If you haven’t already, follow us on Twitter and subscribe to the blog. And go ahead, what’s stopping you? Submit your article to OHR!


The Oral History Review Seeks a Copy- and Production Editor

The Oral History Review seeks sensitive, smart, and experienced editor, who likes grammar and long walks on the beach.

The Oral History Review, the official journal of the Oral History Association, is accepting applications for an open position on the editorial team, the Copy- and Production Editor. The successful applicant will join OHR’s five-member editorial team and will participate actively in the development of the journal. The editorial team—a creative and dedicated band of editors/oral historians—is committed to the journal and its place in the life of the Oral History Association and the broader oral history community. Together, we seek to make the Review a lively site in which to experience, discuss, and debate oral history.

This position is a wonderful opportunity for national visibility and service to a well-established scholarly journal. It provides a chance to network with well-known and emerging scholars in the field and to stay abreast of the latest oral history scholarship.

Applicants must, first and foremost, have experience as a copy-editor; an understanding of and/or familiarity with journal production would also be an asset. The OHR publishes roughly 500 pages worth of content annually, with our busiest times in December/January and June/July, but material streams in continuously throughout the year. This position provides a modest stipend to support this work. More details about the position can be found after the end of this announcement.

Candidates should also possess:

  • solid organizational abilities to manage the volume of articles and reviews;
  • interpersonal skills to work with authors from many backgrounds and fields;
  • technological flexibility in order to learn and use both computer software applications (such as Word and Excel) and emerging web-based applications.

Deadline for applications is 1 January 2019. We will conduct interviews in mid to late January, with an expectation that the new editor will be selected no later than 1 February 2019, which will be the official start date for the position. Copy for the following issue of the journal will be due in June 2019.

To apply, please provide the following:

  • Letter of application, stating interest in the position and describing relevant experience.
  • C.V. or resume.
  • Optional, but recommended: a short editing sample, roughly 1,000 to 1,500 words in length.

To submit an application or for more information about the editorial board, please contact:

David Caruso
Editor, Oral History Review
Director, Center for Oral History
The Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
(215) 873-8236

The copy- and production editor of the Oral History Review is responsible for ensuring that all of the content for the Review meets the highest editorial standards in matters of technical style (punctuation, capitalization, references, quotations, and such), spelling and grammar, clarity, and readability, prepares journal content documents in final form for the press’s production, and works closely with the managing editor and representatives of the press to convey content to the press through various electronic means. This requires thorough knowledge of the journal’s designated style guides and references (the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate and Unabridged dictionaries, and the OHR/Oxford University Press internal style guide), standard word-processing and data management software (principally Microsoft Word and Excel and Adobe Acrobat), and the tools of scholarly research.

  • Read and correct all work published in the journal, applying all of the applicable rules and improvising where necessary (when, for example, no unambiguous rule applies) to ensure that authors’ intentions are conveyed clearly through appropriate choices of word and format and that citations and other references are correct.
  • Correspond with authors with clarity and tact to effect necessary corrections, and work within stringent deadlines, carefully managing document workflow and version control.
  • Work actively with other members of the editorial team to shepherd all content through the editing process.
    Establish—and revise as necessary—editorial policy, update the OHR style guide, and coordinate editorial processes with the press as necessary.
  • Coordinate the review and correction of first and final proofs the press submits to ensure that all journal content is free of errors, correctly and attractively formatted, and returned to the press for online and print access as deadlines require.

5 Questions About: The Oral History Reader


We’ve asked authors of books that were recently reviewed in the Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read them. In our latest installment of the series, Alistair Thomson discusses The Oral History Reader which he co-edited alongside Robert Perks.

Read the review by Sarah Milligan in OHR.

What’s it about and why does it matter?

The Oral History Reader is the standard international anthology of English-language writings about oral history. Two earlier editions were published in 1998 and 2006, and this third edition in 2016 includes an updated selection of 43 of the best writings from all over the world about oral history theory and practice, arranged in sections about Critical developments, Interviewing, Interpreting memories, Making histories, and Advocacy and empowerment. The book matters because it enables oral history students and practitioners to keep up with cutting edge approaches and debates in oral history. It also matters because it enables oral historians in any one country – such as the United States – to learn from new ideas and best practice in other countries.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

The book is oral history! Every contribution is an article or book chapter about oral history, and many of them include extracts from oral history interviews as well as examples of oral history projects.

The Oral History Reader. 3rd Edition. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (eds.). London: Routledge, 2016. 722 pp.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

I love turning up at a stranger’s door to start an interview, never knowing what it will be like or how they will respond, always having to think on my feet about that person and their life story, almost always discovering extraordinary aspects of so-called ordinary people’s lives. And I love that oral history interviews can often transform historical understanding and can generate engaging, innovative and accessible history in multiple formats.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

Because we all need to keep abreast of developments in our field, and we all need to read and learn from oral history in other parts of the world and from many different oral history contexts (from academic research in many disciplines but also from community work and the media, from museums and activists, professional historians and archivists). Because it’s a great resource for teaching oral history – I have used the Reader for many years, ever since I decided in the early 1990s that I was sick of photocopying articles for students and agreed to work with Rob to make the Reader.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

I hope (and I know) they’ll remember some magical oral history writing, whether it’s Sandro Portelli writing about what makes oral history different, or Katherine Borland writing about how her grandmother challenged Katherine’s interpretation of a story about a horse race, or Erin Jessee writing about when oral history is too dangerous to share, or Janis Wilton showing us how to work with family photos, or Carol Payne explaining how Inuit youth learn from their grandparents’ stories… and so on. Every new edition we keep the best from past editions and add at least as many new pieces, so the selection includes old faithfuls and bright new stars.

Behind the Scenes at OHR: The Book in Book Reviews

In the second installment of our series exploring behind the scenes at OHR, book review editor Nancy MacKay lays out some of the publishing processes for books reviewed in OHR as well as the many ways that books are identified for review.

By Nancy MacKay

As an OHR book reviewer I never gave much thought to how books came to the journal for review.  I vaguely assumed that publishers knew the appropriate publications to send their new titles, and voila, the new books appeared on the book review editor’s doorstep. Indeed, most of the books in our inventory are new publications that come directly from publishers but the path from publisher to the OHR offices is much more complex. In this post I will share a nutshell version of what I have learned about publishing and how I identify books for review.

A Bit about Publishing

The world of monograph publishing is vast, complicated, and in a great deal of flux. OHR is interested in books that will interest our readers, only a small subset of this big world. Most of these books fall within what is generally known as scholarly publishing.  

About scholarly publishing

As the name implies, scholarly publications (as opposed to popular, religious, young adult, etc.) are written for a scholarly audience. Though this designation is fuzzy, Rick Anderson, in his book Scholarly Communication: What Everyone Should Know, notes four components that define the editorial mission of scholarly publishers:

  1. Selectivity in topics covered,
  2. Multi-layered peer review,
  3. Quality control (such as references, fact checks, and statistical tables)
  4. Prestige associated with a scholarly publisher

University presses do most scholarly publishing, but not all. There are more than 100 university presses in the United States (Wikipedia) which vary greatly in size, operational model, and subject specialty. According to the Association of University Presses 2018 directoryAmherst College Press reports three new titles published in 2017, under the imprint of Lever Press, a cooperative publishing model for small universities.  At the other end, Cambridge University Press, a traditional publisher established in 1534, published 1378 titles last year. Of the reviews for the two most recent issues of OHR (45:1 and 45:2), 27 out of 40 books reviewed were published by university presses.

Not all scholarly publishers are university-based. Some publishers practice the editorial mission mentioned but operate as for-profit ventures. Two of them, Palgrave and Routledge, are especially significant for OHR readers, because they support oral history book series.

Other publishing

Scholarly presses are not the only publishers of books of interest to OHR readers. About one-third of the publishers in the OHR database are not considered scholarly presses. These include large trade publishers such as Norton, specialty publishers such as Voice of Witness, museum or historical society publications, or self-published books. Titles from these publishers are hard to identify and vary in content, quality, and format, but I put a great deal of effort into seeking the best oral history titles in out-of-the-way places and offering them for review. 

For example, one of the most satisfying reviews I’ve written was a comparative review on three self-published books by unrelated citizen historians documenting their own communities of Montreal, Quebec; Baltimore, Maryland; and Kalapana, Hawai’i in the path of change. The books were mostly written for their immediate communities and never intended for an audience of professionals, but I believe the OHR audience benefitted by learning about the work of community historians outside the academic world.   

Identifying and Acquiring Books for Review

OHR reviews books that we believe will interest our readers. Though most books explore traditional oral history practice, theory, and pedagogy, we also review of works at the boundaries of the field, such as oral history associated with performance studies, memory studies, community activism, qualitative research, digital humanities, curation, public history, and related literary genres. In addition, books must be 1) written in English, 2) easy to acquire in the United States, and 3) published within the last five years.

So, how do I learn about these books?

About 75% of the books I request for review are recent titles by scholarly presses. The best-case scenario works like this: I learn about books related to oral history through advance book or backlist notifications from publishers, I browse through lists to identify appropriate books for review, I follow the publishers’ instructions for ordering, and the book arrives in the OHR offices. There are small glitches in about a third of these requests that requires follow-up, but generally this process works pretty well. As I submit requests I cultivate relationships with publisher reps, making the process easier as time goes along.

Another way to identify books is through new titles published in oral history series. There are currently three major oral history series: The Palgrave Studies in Oral History, Routledge’s Practicing Oral History series (full disclosure, I am the editor of this series), and the Oxford Oral History Series. Each of these series is “curated” by expert oral historians and inclusion in the series bestows an additional layer of authority. OHR reviews all titles from these series.

Acquiring the remaining 25% of books is where things get interesting. I’m always on the look-out for oral history books to review, whether browsing through a bookstore while on vacation or a chance conversation in a café or reading the New York Times on a Sunday morning. I have no shame when it comes to seeking outstanding books for OHR readers. Here are some fun stories about the paths of books that have come to OHR for review:

Barracoon, by Zora Neale Hurston. (currently out for review.) When a reviewer suggested Zora Neale Hurston’s newly published Barracoon, based on Hurston’s interviews with the last member of the Atlantic slave trade I got excited, but also realized it is a little outside the realm of our conventional books for review.  This is an opportunity to introduce some readers to a classic and for those who know of Hurston’s work, to view it through a lens of a 21st century oral historian. I was delighted to be directed to Barracoon by a reviewer and equally happy when it was quickly picked up for review. To suggest a book for review, just complete the form.

Weaving Chiapas: Maya Women’s Lives in a Changing World, by Yolanda Castro Apreza and Charlene Woodcock (currently out for review). I discovered this book by chance, attending a book launch party in my hometown. Though there is no mention of oral history in the publicity materials, the book consists of interviews of women who participate in a weaving cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico. It will interest scholars of Latin American and women’s studies, and also readers interested in translation issues since interviews are conducted in indigenous languages, translated into Spanish, and eventually into English.   

Capturing our Stories: An Oral History of Librarianship in Transition, by A. Arro Smith. (forthcoming, OHR 46:1) Sometimes I get an email from a reviewer who has a particular book in mind and asks if we’d like it reviewed for OHR.  This sounds like a windfall, saving me a lot of work, and it is but it does require some vetting. I need to decide that the book is appropriate for OHR and that the reviewer suggesting it has no direct connection to the author or book.  Not only did this offer from a reviewer save me time and grief in cutting out a lot of steps, but I also learned about an important book that I wasn’t previously aware of, and you, OHR reader, get the benefit. I always welcome suggestions for books you’d like to review, but be sure to check with me before you start writing.

Stetson Kennedy: Applied Folklore and Cultural Advocacy, by Peggy Bulger. (currently available for review).  I stumbled across this title by accident through an internet search on “oral history books” I do every now and then. Though I hadn’t known about the book I surely know about both the subject of the biography and the author, making it a high priority title for review. I was unable to get in touch with the publisher, Florida Historical Society Press, by any communication means. In desperation, I contacted the author through Facebook. Dr. Bulger replied almost immediately, from vacation in Newfoundland. She gave me the name and email address of the best person to contact. I followed her instructions and from then on everything went smoothly; the book was in the OHR offices within a week. 

The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests, by Chris Smith. (forthcoming OHR 46:1) On my very first week as OHR book review editor, I received an email from a colleague recommending not only this book but also a reviewer. The reviewer happily accepted the assignment, and now I had to get the book to him. How easy my job would be! Not so. The publisher, Grand Central, is a subsidiary of the Hachette publishing conglomerate and, new to the job, I was unsuccessful in sorting through the layers of this behemoth to request a review copy. But the story of my first review assignment has a happy ending: the reviewer offered to check the book out of the library. You can read the review in the forthcoming issue of OHR.

In the next post in this series, I’ll write about the second building block in book reviews, you, the reviewer. Stay tuned.

If you’d like to become a reviewer, browse through the books currently available for review and follow the instructions for selecting one. New reviewers must complete the reviewer profile form.


Nancy MacKay is the book review editor and a reviewer for the Oral History Review; author of Curating Oral Histories (2nd ed., 2016), reviewed 45:1, April 2018); and the co-author with Barb Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, of The Community Oral History Toolkit (2013), reviewed 42:2, September 2015). Current research interests include community oral history, metadata for oral history, and scholarly publishing. Nancy would like to read every book she sends out for review.

You can contact Nancy by emailing

Featured photo by Flickr user Wonderlane shared courtesy of a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

5 Questions About: Strangers in the Wild Place: Refugees, Americans, and a German Town, 1945-1952.


We’ve asked authors of books that were reviewed in the Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read them. In our latest installment of the series, Adam Seipp discusses his Strangers in the Wild Place: Refugees, Americans, and a German Town, 1945-1952.

Read the review by Joyce E Bromley in OHR

What’s it about and why does it matter?

My book is a small and focused study of a very big problem. At its core, the book is a history of small German town, Wildflecken, that became one of the biggest refugee camps in postwar Europe, then spent four decades as a US Army training area. However, my intention was to tell a larger story. Germany after 1945 was flooded with refugees, but each group of refugees ended up the responsibility of different agencies, governments, and organizations, including the US Army. If we study these refugee groups in isolation, using only archival material from different bureaucratic entities charged with refugee management, we get the sense that refugees were living on islands, cut off from others. In fact, the experience on the ground in Germany was very different. Refugees, German communities, and occupiers lived entangled lives. This requires us to write entangled histories.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

Strangers in the Wild Place: Refugees, Americans, and a German Town, 1945-1952. By Adam R. Seipp. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. 231 pp. Hardcover.

Oral history gave me an opportunity to capture voices that simply aren’t represented in the archival record.  I was writing about a small, rural community.  When I got to the town at the center of my book, Wildflecken, I found a community that really wanted to tell its story.  Almost everyone I met had experienced the history that I wanted to write about, either as an eyewitness or through their family. 

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

My interest in oral history connected me to this community and to the global diaspora of individuals and families who passed through Wildflecken.  One of my favorite oral history contributions to the book came entirely serendipitously, when I met the new fiancé (now wife) of one of my best friends from childhood.  When I briefly explained what I did in my professional life, she suddenly said “My grandparents were married in that camp!”  Her grandmother ended up giving me some very powerful material on ordinary life in the camp that helped me to move beyond the camp’s written records.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

I had to learn a great deal about oral history for this project. My previous work focused on the early 20th century, so there was no possibility of conducting interviews. Refugee history has become such an important topic in recent years, and I hope that my work can contribute to that ongoing conversation. I tried, in my own way, to offer a narrative that moves beyond studying refugees as refugees and that examines the many points of connection between refugees, state agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the communities in which refugees found themselves.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

The first sentence of the book is “This is an international history of a very small place.” Many of the reviews and reader responses have keyed in on that line – and I’m glad that they did. It sums up my approach, my goal, and the way that I try to conceptualize the fascinating messiness of post-war German history.

OHR Conversations: Feminist Oral History

In this installment of Oral History Review‘s OHR Conversations, Digital Editor Janneken Smucker joins contributors to the recent special section, “Decentering and Decolonizing Feminist Oral Histories: Reflections on the State of the Field in the Early Twenty-First Century” to discuss how the seminal text, Women’s Words and the ideas explored in their special section have impacted their work. 

This is the second part of a two-part post offering reflections on the Winter/Spring 2018 Oral History Review special section on feminist oral history. Contributors to the conversation include Katrina Srigley, Lorraine Sutherland, Jennifer Brier, Ioana Radu, and former OHR editor-in-chief, Kathryn Nasstrom. Previously, section co-editors Katrina Srigley and Stacey Zembrzycki shared the origin story of both this special section in the OHR and their newly published collection, Beyond Women’s WordsWe also recently heard from co-author Li Huibo about her article, “Hearing Her: Comparing Feminist Oral History int he UK and China.” 

Listen to audio only.

Featured image: Cedar-Eve Peters, an Anishinaabae Kwe artist, painted this mural over the course of the Oral History Association annual meeting, as part of the Decolonizing Street Art programming, which included a mural tour. Cedar-Eve says that her art is one way to remember her ancestors. Image shared by Steven High of Concordia University’s Center for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, the hosts of the recent Oral History Association annual meeting.

5 Questions About: Misconception: Social Class and Infertility in America


We’ve asked authors of books that were reviewed in the Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read them. In our latest installment of the series, Ann Bell discusses her Misconception: Social Class and Infertility in America.

Read the review by Winnie Titchener-Coyle in OHR. 

What’s it about and why does it matter?

My book, Misconception: Social class and Infertility in America, is largely about the presence of stratified reproduction in the United States. What I mean by that is how groups are differentially prioritized when it comes to reproduction and parenting. These ideas play out in experiences of infertility (e.g., white wealthy women are considered infertile, while poor women of color are thought to be hyper-fertile, having too many children). The book explores how diverse women of various socio-demographics grapple with such ideologies across the spectrum of their infertility experience, including why they want to mother, how they live with infertility, and ultimately how they resolve and cope with their childbearing struggles.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

Misconception: Social Class and Infertility in America. By Ann V. Bell. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014. 192 pp.

Tremendously! I could not have written this book or answered my research question without the data provided to me by in-depth interviews. Trying to explore how and why social class shapes experiences of infertility is not amenable to a quantitative survey. Moreover, the personal, intimate topic of infertility does not lend itself to a focus group setting. Indeed, many of my participants confided to me that I was one of the only individuals they talked with about their infertility. Thus, my in-person conversations with the women were the ideal way to understand their experiences. The interviews yielded hundreds of pages of text, which I then had the privilege of reading and wading through in order to discover their stories.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

Oral history and the interviews contained within serve as an incredible research tool. The depth, nuance, and breadth of understanding one gains from this method is incomparable. It is an honor and privilege to hear someone’s story and then be trusted to reflect it honestly.  Life is an exciting adventure, so hearing about others’ experiences is truly eye-opening and thrilling.  This method allows you to meet interesting and wonderful people and learn about yourself along the way. Certainly not all methodologies allow for that.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

I hope for all of the reasons I state above. But also for the fact that while this is a book about infertility, its themes and conclusions inform a much broader understanding of motherhood, family, medicine, and social policy. It speaks to inequality, how and why it is present, and how individuals grapple with such disparity in their everyday lives.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

This is a difficult, but important, question. I can’t think of just one thing, but a few of the many things include: the presence of inequality in the U.S., how that inequality shapes our lived experiences, the potency of motherhood in the U.S. regardless of social status, the power of the medical institution, and ultimately the fortitude, agency, and power of women to persevere and make it through life’s challenges.

5 Questions About: Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination


We’ve asked authors of books that were recently reviewed in the Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read them. In our latest installment of the series, Melissa Cooper discusses her Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination

Read the review by Robin M. Morris in OHR

What’s it about and why does it matter?

Making Gullah is a history that uncovers and follows the intellectual and cultural trends that inspired, and continue to inspire, fascination with low country blacks and the African roots of their culture. Using Sapelo Island, Georgia, as a case study, and examining the production of foundational published works featuring coastal Georgia blacks, Making Gullah turns the observational lens from low country blacks and fixes it on the researchers, writers and collectors who studied and imagined them. Making Gullah situates Gullah folks’ allure within historical context—from the re-introduction and explosion of interest in Gullah folk during the 1920s and 1930s, to the Gullah revival of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. I used a wide variety of sources to unmask the connections among modernist thought, the rise of the social sciences, the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Migration, the voodoo craze, Jim Crow, the Black Studies Movement, land struggles, evolving theories about race, and various ideas about Gullah people’s heritage. Ultimately, Making Gullah unveils the complexity of an identity famous for its simplicity and timelessness.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

Oral history interviews helped me unearth dimensions of black life on Sapelo Island that are absent from interwar era researchers’ writings. Much of what was written about Sapelo Islanders—and other low country blacks—during the 1930s focused on their dialect, cultural traditions, crafts, and folklore. The researchers and writers who wrote about black low country communities during these years often proclaimed that they were documenting their subjects’ “way of life,” but their emphasis on “culture” and folk traditions obscured and overshadowed the impact of Jim Crow racism and economic oppression in the Islanders’ daily lives. I collected oral history interviews from Sapelo Islanders who were featured in, or whose parents were featured in interwar era studies, in order to help fill in this gap.

Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination by Melissa L Cooper. The University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

The Islanders’ accounts paint a picture of life on Sapelo that made the island seem less like an isolated oasis where time stood still, and more like a community in the Jim Crow South. The Islanders I interviewed talked about racism and the succession of powerful and wealthy white men (automobile tycoon Howard Coffin and tobacco heir “R.J.” Reynolds) who ruled the island like it was their own private paradise and regarded the Islanders as their subjects. They described tensions between Coffin, Reynolds, their white workers, and the black community on the island. They talked about Jim Crow and revealed strategies that blacks used to navigate oppression. They also explained why their family members and friends joined the sea of black rural migrants who left the island and took refuge in cities in the North and South. Their memories provide a stark contrast to the stories that researchers told about them. For example, the Islanders’ generations old fight for land entered a new phase at the very moment when researchers began visiting their communities and asking questions about African survivals and folk traditions. Reynolds had begun his notorious land swap campaign—which ultimately forced all of the Islanders into one section of the island during the years when Sapelo Islanders began to appear in published works. But land swaps and the closing of black settlements do not appear in the publications that featured the Islanders during the interwar years.

Talking to the Islanders was the only way that I could learn how they navigated these realities and contended with outsiders whose curiosities and fantasies about their culture and heritage determined how they were presented to the world in the pages of books and periodicals. The time that the Islanders were featured in National Geographic Magazine is a good example of the tension between how the Islanders’ saw themselves and how outsiders imagined them. Recently, National Geographic Magazine acknowledged its racist history—a legacy that includes W. Robert Moore’s depiction of Sapelo Islanders in an article published in 1934. Moore, a photographer and writer who regularly went on assignment for the magazine, visited coastal Georgia, researched the region’s history, toured its sites, visited its communities, took photographs, and published an article on the region titled “The Golden Isles of Guale.”  Moore’s descriptions of the Islanders in the article’s narrative, and in the captions that accompanied their pictures, depicted the Islanders in terms that reduced them to relics of the past and caricatures who add a distinct quality to a bucolic landscape. Moore featured the Johnson family of Sapelo, including photographs of the family and his brief description of his encounter with them.  I interviewed two of the Johnson children who appeared in the article. I also interviewed Cornelia Walker Bailey, author of God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man (2000) and daughter of a Sapelo woman whose photo appears in the article. Together, these conversations exposed instances in which Moore staged photographs and misrepresented the Islanders in the text to enhance the perception of the region’s uniqueness by presenting them as oddities and relics of long gone plantation days. My discussion of the National Geographic Magazine article in the book was largely shaped by the oral history interviews that I collected from Sapelo Islanders

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

Oral history is a powerful tool that historians can use to make the voices of marginalized peoples—groups who tend to be silenced in “traditional” archival texts and collections—audible. For all that had been written and recorded about Sapelo Islanders’ culture, these written records exclude many of the realities that significantly impacted their lives. The memories that Sapelo Islanders’ shared with me during interviews broke through this silence. And, even though I have familial connections to several of the people I interviewed, oral history methodology encouraged me to conduct each interview employing strategies and techniques that elicited biographical details and perspectives that revealed so much more than I previously knew about them.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

There are two reasons why oral historians will be interested in Making Gullah. The most obvious reason is that the interviews I collected provide an important counter-narrative that is the basis of a rich history which includes a serious treatment of how Sapelo Islanders understand their past, their heritage, and the challenges that they face—including the survival of their community. Oral historians will also find my book useful because most of the publications that feature Sapelo Islanders’ interviews that I investigate serve as warnings against the pitfalls and problems derived from poorly conceived and deeply biased efforts to collect people’s memories. 

What is the one thing you most want people to remember about the book?

The history of Sapelo Islanders and the construction of the Gullah identity is not simply a regional history, it is a case study on race in America. This history exemplifies the complexity of our nation’s struggles with questions of race and identity. By detailing how competing stories about “Africa” became enmeshed in battles among white and black scholars, writers, and activists with wildly differing political agendas, Making Gullah shows the creation of American ideas about “race.” 

Older Posts

Oral History Review

OHR on Twitter