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OHR Readings on Asian American History and Culture

OHR joins our parent organization, the Oral History Association, in condemning anti-Asian violence and in providing resources to educate and inform our community about the experiences of Asian Americans. We much each commit to doing our part to create a welcoming, equitable, and safe environment for all residents of the United States, regardless of race, ethnicity, and immigration status.

By Mark Vallaro

In response to the recent surges in anti-Asian violence and racism, the Oral History Review supports efforts of awareness and anti-racism to counteract these acts of hate. The editorial team also signs on to the statement of our parent organization, the Oral History Association, condemning violence against Asian Americans. Throughout its years of publication, various articles and book/media reviews in OHR have highlighted both the struggle of ethnic minorities and methods to fight against these inequalities in society. In an effort to show our support to the Asian American community, we have compiled a list of OHR publications that have told the stories of Asians and those that wish to end the generations-long systems of discrimination.

Each of these readings offer some takeaway relevant to the call against racism toward Asians. Some are educational, informing readers about the collective experiences of Asians, while others show oral history as a process that can improve public understanding of Asian American experiences. Whether centered around tragedy or healing, we hope our readers will find these selected publications applicable to our shared goals of understanding and progress.

Articles

Kayoko Yoshida, “From Atomic Fragments to Memories of the Trinity Bomb: A Bridge of Oral History over the Pacific, “The Oral History Review, 30.2 (2003).

Yoshida looks at Memories of the Trinity Bomb, a documentary that details the experiences of a Manhattan Project scientist’s daughter. Throughout the article, Yoshida integrates Japanese perspectives on the film which explore the historical significance of the atom bomb. While exploring an immense atrocity committed against Japanese civilians, this project also evaluates the use of trans-media as a genre. 

Betty E. Mitson, “Looking Back in Anguish: Oral History and Japanese-American Evacuation,” The Oral History Review, 2.1 (1974).

Following the events of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans experienced a surge of anti-Japanese sentiments, highlighted by the infamous internment camps. Mitson looks at early oral history efforts to document the injustices from perspectives of both the victims and perpetrators.

Michael Frisch, “Oral History Across Cultural Space: Responses of Chinese Students,” The Oral History Review, 15.2 (1987).

In response to a documentary on sexual politics and culture, some Chinese students in America were appalled by the content and questioned the intentions of the filmmakers. Frisch uses this story to look at how cultural differences result in distinct reactions and the benefits of an open dialogue between the American and Chinese students.

Yong Chen, “Remembering Ah Quin: A Century of Social Memory in a Chinese American Family,” The Oral History Review, 27.1 (2000).

Chen looks at the history and cultural legacy of Ah Quin, whose life as a Chinese American immigrant became an important part of culture for following generations of Chinese Americans. Through the examination of oral histories, the author analyzes the development of social memories, exploring what is remembered and what is forgotten.

Rina Benmayor, “For Every Story there is Another Story Which Stands Before it,” The Oral History Review, 16.2 (1988).

Benmayor analyzes the community of Salinas, California, uncovering conflicting oral histories surrounding its Chinatown. While viewed by some as a hotbed for violence, others see it as a community based around culture and the collective experience of immigrants.

Laurie R. Serikaku, “Oral History in Ethnic Communities: Widening the Focus,” The Oral History Review, 17.1 (1989).

In an effort to support ethnic minority communities which have experienced oppression, oral history can provide a platform to those that otherwise would have no way to be heard. Serikaku uses work from the University of Hawaii-Manoa’s Oral History Project to look at how oral historians can use the field to offset inequities in historical knowledge. 

Trangdai Tranguyen, “From Childhood Storytelling to Oral History Interviews,” The Oral History Review, 29.2 (2002).

By celebrating the theme of oral history, Tranguyen tells her own story as a Vietnamese American immigrant and historian. In her personal and professional lives, Tranguyen shows the ability of oral history to support historical knowledge and understanding, especially in coming to terms with her own ethnic background.

Book/media Reviews

Peta Stephenson, The Outsiders Within: Telling Australia’s Indigenous-Asian Story (University of NSW Press, 2007)

Peta Stephenson uses oral history to detail the story of the Indigenous-Asian community within Australia. The book looks at how during their centuries-long existence, members of these communities have faced dramatic forms of systemic racism and discrimination at the hands of the national government. Read Janis Wilton’s review at OHR.

Wayne Hung Wong, American Paper Son: A Chinese Immigrant In The Midwest (University of Illinois Press, 2006)

As a result of immigration laws targeting Chinese immigrants, many have used falsified legal documents to curb the effects of discrimination and enter the United States. Wayne Hung Wong details the story and oral history of one of these immigrants and their experiences with systemic racism and oppression. Read Colleen Fong’s review at OHR.

Cecelia M. Tsu, Garden of the World: Asian Immigrant and the Making of Agriculture in California’s Santa Clara Valley (Oxford University Press, 2013)

In this book, Cecilia M. Tsu looks at Asian American history through the stories of Asian farmers in California. She explores race relations and class dynamics in this industry in which white farm owners depended on Asian Americans workers, while still celebrating the idea being a self-sufficient family farm. Read Sue Fawn Chung’s review at OHR.

Suzanna Falgout, Lin Poyer, and Laurence M. Carucci, Memories of War: Micronesians in the Pacific War (University of Hawaii Press, 2008)

In order to flesh out a piece of history typically glossed over, Falgout, Poyer, and Carucci detail the cultural history of Micronesians in World War II. By examining personal and communal stories, oral history again allows the experiences of a frequently overlooked community to have voice. Read Cecilia Lizama Salvatore’s review at OHR.

Mary Goldensohn and David Steven Cohen, Coming From India (NJN Radio and the New Jersey Historical Commission, 1998)

This documentary analyzes the third wave of immigration to the United States, which has included mass numbers of Indians. While entering a multicultural American society and widely experiencing economic success, the Indian American community has faced obstacles of cultural and systemic racism. Read Steven Sheehan’s review at OHR.

Teresa Tamura, Minidoka: An American Concentration Camp (Caxton Press, 2013)

In the context of anti-Japanese hysteria during World War II, Teresa Tamura covers the history of the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho. By using stories of the survivors, both before and after being uprooted, Tamura gives a critical look at the effects of systemic discrimination on these communities and individuals. Read Samuel J. Redman’s review at OHR.

Joanna C. Scott, Indochina’s Refugees: Oral Histories From Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam (McFarland and Company, 1989)

John Tenhula, Voices From Southeast Asia: The Refugee Experience in The United States (Holmes and Meier, 1991)

James M. Freeman, Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese-American Lives (Stanford University Press, 1989)

Robert Proudfoot, Even The Birds Don’t Sound The Same Here (Peter Land, 1990)

In an effort to offer a complete view of the relationship between the United States and Asians, Newman reviews four different books on distinct subjects. Each book takes a different approach to this issue, looking at how both domestic and foreign U.S. policy has marginalized Asians. The books are: Indochina’s Refugees: Oral Histories From Load, Cambodia, and Vietnam by Joanna C. Scott, Voices From Southeast Asia: The Refugee Experience in the United States by John Tenhula, Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese-American Lives by James M. Fredman, and Even The Birds Don’t Sound the Same Here by Robert Proudfoot. Read Robert S. Newman’s review at OHR.


Mark Vallaro is a history major at Kean University and is serving as intern for Oral History Review

Featured image by Flickr user Elvert Barnes, licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. “STOP ANTI-ASIAN RACISM & CHINA BASHING RALLY at Chinatown Archway at 7th and H Street, NW, Washington DC on Saturday afternoon, 27 March 2021 by Elvert Barnes Photography.”

Art, Oral History and Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes

In this guest post, Sarah O’Brien reflects on the role of oral history within a culture of storytelling through the lens of Ireland’s difficult past involving pregnancy outside of marriage, showing how oral narratives coupled with artistic practices have returned dignity and voice to those who have been silenced by the state.

By Sarah O’Brien

On 10 February 1946, a young woman named Peggy McCarthy struggled toward the entrance of a hospital in Killarney, Co. Kerry. She had spent the hours before traversing a web of dark, unsurfaced roads in the West of Ireland, in the pangs of childbirth. This long, painful journey through Co. Kerry should not have been necessary. Peggy’s local hospital was less than four miles away from her rural home in Listowel where, with the aid of her mother and a midwife, she had gone into labour. When the birth became complicated, a neighboring hackney driver, John Guerin, rushed Peggy to get medical assistance in Listowel. However, when they arrived, the nun overseeing the premises refused them entrance. Peggy had become pregnant outside of marriage and was not deemed ‘respectable’ enough to give birth alongside married women. Panicked, John Guerin drove Peggy along a further 16 mile stretch of poor roads to the next hospital in Tralee. There, she was once again refused admission. The two continued to Killarney, another 20 miles away, Peggy now writhing in agony in the back of the car. Near the doorway of the third hospital, she finally gave birth to her daughter. Minutes later, Peggy died.

In Killarney, John attached the coffin containing Peggy’s body to the roof of his car and drove her back to their native village, to be mourned by her community. However, when the mourners arrived at the churchyard, they found that the gates had been locked to the gathered congregation. Even in death, Peggy was denied a place in ‘decent’ society.

Despite the efforts of church authorities to forget that this had happened, Peggy’s local community—many of them rural men and women—found subversive ways to keep her memory alive. Years after the event, Tony Guerin from Listowel, whose father John had driven Peggy from hospital to hospital, wrote a play called Solo Run, in commemoration of what happened to Peggy in 1946. It played in local theaters in Co. Kerry, to audiences that had heard the echoes of Peggy’s name passed down from generation to generation, in the privacy of their homes. In turn, Peggy’s brother, Seán McCarthy, wrote a ballad about his sister’s death, which circulated through the folk-singing circles of Ireland in the 1960s. Growing up near North Kerry, I can remember hearing the haunting harmonies of that tune, sung in our farm-kitchen by visitors in the days after Christmas. The song’s title: “In Shame Love, In Shame”:

Now hush little darling we soon will be there,
A blanket of love will surround you with care,
No vile tongues will whisper you will never feel pain,
Hear the Nightingale crying in shame love, in shame.

The role of art in keeping subaltern stories like Peggy’s alive is not unique to the people of Listowel. Records of the eighteenth-century Irish bardic tradition recall the preservation of historical events from ille tempore through the regenerative rhymes of the community poet.[1] Together with poets, musicians and singers, Irish history-tellers or staireolaigh played a critical role in preserving memories of community happenings.[2] History-telling created an intersection between the individual and society, enabling tellers to hone their orature while fulfilling the obligation to commemorate and preserve their community’s often tragic past. The phrase “ó ghlúin go glúin’ translates from Irish to English as ‘from knee to knee.’ It evokes the intimacy through which such memory-histories were transmitted, from one generation to the next, mouth to ear, body to body.

Famed seanchaí Peig Sayers. Credit: Duchas.ie Photographic collection. M001.18.00299

 

A key feature of Irish oral tradition has been its commitment to truth. Ethnographic studies of the twentieth century show the careful research that Irish staireolaigh undertook when collecting stories. Peig Sayers, a famed seanchaí from Co. Kerry, took pains to particularize her stories of the Irish Famine with the names of people and places, evidencing that these were not simply narratives for entertainment but were “intended to be believed.” Analyzing Peig’s narratives of the Famine, Patricia Lysaght concludes that the forensically researched and detailed Famine stories told by Peig “calls for the suspension of disbelief on the part of the listener, and invites him or her to follow in the mind’s eye, the tragic itinerary of a mother or wife to the cemetery carrying a lifeless human burden strapped to her back.”[3]

In turn, Henry Glassie’s 1970s study of the history-tellers of Ballymenone in Co. Fermanagh uncovered a community of oral history-tellers who refined the accuracy of their community’s history through intense collective debate. By the fireside, Ballymenone’s history-tellers reviewed their trove of historical tales, debated their finer details, analyzed their sources and postulated theories on where the precise events of a story took place in the surrounding landscape. Like professional historians, they triangulated their sources to build a more complete picture of the past. Unlike professional historians, they tolerated variation and change in the life course of a historical narrative. “The responsibility of Ballymenone’s historians,” Glassie wrote, “is to gather the facts on regional events and build them into stories. Too much lies beyond knowing: no single narrative could compass the whole.”[4]

“Star” History-Teller Hugh Nolan. Source: Henry Glassie, The Stars of Ballymenone, Indiana University Press, p.153

Oral history in Ireland was understood as an ethical responsibility, to be completed alongside, and shared with, the surrounding community. The narratives that staireolaigh collected and told reflected the community’s trails and traverses, losses and gains, victories and defeats. Over time, these built to a unifying community history that testified to endurance and survival. By listening to stories of their shared past, local audiences restored their sense of responsibility toward each other. “Agreement is the desired end of the ceili’s conversations”, Glassie concluded, after a decade of oral history recording and analysis in Ballymenone:

Quiet words of affirmation, revolving in repetition, mean there is no dispute among us. The harmony of night talks confirms community; we remain ready to act as one when daylight strikes.[5]

Tellers thus crafted stories to please the ear, rich in rhyme and repetition, narrated and performed to bring comfort and beauty to their listeners. Amidst the magic spark of such fire-lit performance, the role of historian and artist became one.

The oral narration of history was understood, finally, as an artistic performance. Framed by conditions of poverty, marginalization and violence, staireolaigh like those in Ballymenone understood the consoling and redemptive power of art for their demoralized audiences. Tellers thus crafted stories to please the ear, rich in rhyme and repetition, narrated and performed to bring comfort and beauty to their listeners. Amidst the magic spark of such fire-lit performance, the role of historian and artist became one. The teller transcended the deprivation of their surroundings, metamorphizing through the telling of history into the community’s most precious star.[6]

On 12 January 2021, the Irish government published a 3000 page document entitled the “Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.” It was based on 550 oral histories recorded with survivors of a number of institutions that operated in Ireland in the twentieth century.[7] An estimated 56,000 unmarried mothers and 57,000 children were contained in mother and baby institutions in Ireland during the twentieth century: the highest proportion in the world.[8] The report confirmed what Irish society already suspected: that Mother and Baby Homes were sites of coercion, exclusion, shame and death. They were places where unmarried mothers were sent to give birth in secret, often without access to pain-relief. They were sites of forced separation, where babies were given up for adoption under dubious legal circumstances. And, as a consequence of the commission of inquiry’s taciturn attitude to the collection and communication of these oral histories, the Mother and Baby home remains a liuex de mémoire for the dark and unresolved history of twentieth century Ireland.[9]

Concerns about the commission’s ethical stance surfaced early in the collection of survivors’ oral histories. In spite of human rights best practices and many requests from Irish society, the commission refused to allow women’s oral histories to be heard in public. Furthermore, it refused to provide those that testified to their experiences with transcripts of their oral histories.  Finally, following the report’s publication, the commission revealed that all of the audio files containing women’s stories had been destroyed. In the words of activists Maeve O’Rourke and Claire McGettrick, the Mother and Baby Home commission had “denied affected mothers and their children access to the language, personal records and administrative archives required to record and articulate their history.”[10]

Soon after the report’s publication, survivors and members of the public responded in outrage to what they identified as the report’s inaccurate treatment of survivors’ stories. Tony Guerin, now in his elder years, made a call to a popular radio show to decry the report’s mistake-laden references to his deceased neighbor, Peggy McCarthy. The report stated that Peggy had died in childbirth and that she had intellectual difficulties. “Where did they get that from?” Tony demanded, incensed at this false evaluation of her mental health. “They have marched Peggy back up to Calvary, and to a hill beyond Calvary,” Tony cried, his sobs ringing over the static of the radio.

The commission of inquiry did not consider itself an oral history project, and cannot be judged on these terms. However, its reliance on oral histories for the production of their report blurs the lines between legal and oral historiography and casts doubts over the effectiveness of the latter to accurately capture the horrors of the past. As a thought experiment, it is also interesting to compare the treatment of these women’s oral histories by the commission against the traditional methods of staireolaigh. The sterile, detached, and judgmental tone of the report, the commissioners’ refusal to engage the pubic in its telling, its apparent disregard for participants’ wishes to access records of their own stories, and its ultimate destruction of all audio evidence indicates a complete break with oral historiography methods, past and present. The result is an oral-history based state investigation that has done little to heal, unify, or aesthetically rejuvenate the memories of Ireland’s cruel treatment of unmarried mothers and their children during the twentieth century.

Against this tide of detached state inquiry, an appositional undercurrent of commemoration has gained force. Armed with oral histories, Irish artists have stepped out to play leading roles in the re-telling of the nation’s history of abuse against unmarried mothers and their children. In Galway, the Tuam Oral History Project has united artists and historians in a project that embeds survivors’ oral histories into publicly-accessible podcasts. The episodes are rich, immersive audible experiences narrated by actor Cillian Murphy, interspersed with poems by writer Elaine Feeney and led by the voices of those who survived the notorious Tuam Mother and Baby Home. [11]

On 17 March 2021—Ireland’s national feast day—the national theatre of Ireland on Abbey Street broadcast a new production. Entitled Home: Part One, it responds directly to the report on Mother and Baby homes, narrating the oral histories provided by survivors through the voices of some of Ireland’s best known actors. This follows the 2011 production of Laundry, a site-specific play by Louise Rowe in which audiences circulate through Gloucester Street Magdalene Laundry in north inner-city Dublin, encountering at close range its female inmates. Laundry, as noted by reviewer Sara Keating was “not just an act of public disclosure but of social questioning.” Standing feet away from the play’s actors, watching the women genuflect, bathe, and work, the audience was forced to reflect on Irish society’s own complicity in the past:

Should you reach out to comfort the young woman who genuflects in front of you so closely that her head almost touches your knees?  Should you help the fragile young woman out of the bath, bind her breasts for her again when she invites you to? Should you stay to protect her when the supervising nun forces you out?[12]

Actor Sorcha Kenny playing one of the “Maggies” in the 2011 play Laundry. Source: Anuproductions.ie

Call this oral history, call it oral tradition: whatever the label, it indexes the retention, regeneration, and reconstitution of the role of orality in Ireland as a unifying artistic medium.[13] Through local, bottom-up, community collaboration, oral-based history and artistic endeavor have found a way through the horrors of the past to return dignity and voice to those who continue to be silenced by the state. In the words of acclaimed Irish writer and poet, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, oral literature in Ireland has kept stories alive in women’s bodies when all else failed, a glint of the bright through the darkness of the past. Writing for Fallow Media, an Irish artist-led website, Ní Ghríofa reflects:

This is the genre of story told by the firesides of those who survived devastating hunger, by those who saw neighbors die of fever or starvation. The stories are told and told and re-told, passed from mouth to mouth, from the elderly to the young. The old people hear the echoes of their music and laughter. They see their lights, still.[14]

The emergence of Fallow Media is, in itself, a metaphor for the coalescence of artistic and oral history ideals at a time of collective mourning. In the introduction of Fallow’s first print-publication, Fallow’s founder Ian Maleney writes about the necessity of finding new media though which to tell our stories: “It is not just about making pretty things for people to enjoy. It has come to seem like a deeper issue of communication. What do we lose by giving up control of the channels we use to speak with each other?”[15]

The title of Fallow Media’s debut collection strikes a suitably poignant tone: “Some good will come.” Suggesting hope in the midst of despair, it angles our thoughts toward the possibility of a brighter future – a future irrigated, perhaps, by the vernacular traditions of artistic commemoration tenaciously pursued by everyday people in the face of censorship and shaming.

The tragic story of Peggy McCarthy did not end on the night she died in 1946. The baby that she gave birth to survived and was christened Breda. She was brought up by Peggy’s parents, in the family home in Listowel, amidst a loving kinship network. However, when Breda turned 18 year old, a priest arrived at the family home and took her away. She spent the rest of her life enclosed in a series of Magdalene laundries, robbed of a normal womanhood because of her mother’s  ‘sin.’ In 2015, an audio documentary about Peggy and Breda aired on national radio, written and produced once again by Peggy’s old neighbors in Listowel. Listening to it in my car whilst spiraling along dark country roads in the midst of winter, the words of the song that I had heard many years ago in my own kitchen came back to me, with sudden and ferocious intensity. Through melody, the kaleidoscope of memory was turned, releasing an outpour of grief for a young woman rescued from the grip of shame through the redemptive power of art. Seán McCarthy’s song for his sister reached its full crescendo:

How mute are the birds now, my bonny young boy,
How deep is the river, how silent your cry,
Let the water baptise you, then we’ll both hear a name,
Hear the Nightingale sing, there’s no shame, there’s no shame.


[1] Vincent Morley, The Popular Mind in Eighteenth Century Ireland (Cork University Press, 2017); Pádraigín Riggs, ed., Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe: The Poet and his Craft. Irish Texts Society Series 31 (2019); F.J. Byrne, “Senchas: The Nature of Gaelic Historical Tradition,” Historical Studies 9 (1974): 137-59.

[2] Guy Beiner compares staireolaigh to the African griots, both of whom were specifically skilled in narrating history. These Irish history tellers “became informal archivists by assuming the role of custodians of oral communal records. They processed these historical sources for benefit of the community… their work typically took place in specific contexts but was then shared with wider audiences, who participated in its dissemination and reinterpretation.” Guy Beiner, Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2018), 12.

[3] Patricia Lysaght, “Perspectives on Women during the Great Irish Famine from the Oral Tradition,” Béaloideas 64/65 (1996): 128.

[4] Henry Glassie, The Stars of Ballymenone (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006),136.

[5] Glassie, 64.

[6] Glassie continues on pg 64:, “The one who can perform such satisfying and useful verbal feats, the ones who can put an uncommon word on a common thing, who can take a fix on the daily travail and extend it hyperbolically until it wrenches a laugh from the depths, making a joke out of misery – such country cousins, they call stars.” The Stars of Ballymenone.

[7] The CLANN project has played an important role in disseminating information about the Commissioning report on  the Mother and Baby Homes and in supporting oral history participants who provided evidence to the commission.

[8] See the Executive Summary of the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, 2.

[9] Admirable scholarship in Ireland over the last two decades has helped to recover the experiences of survivors of institutional abuse. See Lyndsey Earner-Byrne, Mother and Child: Maternity and Child Welfare in Dublin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007); Emilie Pine, The Politics of Irish Memory: Performing Remembrance in Contemporary Irish Culture (London: Palgrave, 2011); James J. Smith, “The Politics of Sexual Knowledge: The Origins of Ireland’s Containment Culture and the Carrigan Report,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 13. n 2 (2004): 208-33; Maeve O’Rourke, “Ireland’s Magdalene laundries and the State’s Duty to Protect,” Hibernian Law Journal 10 (2011): 200-237; Industrial Memories, UCD Online project.

[10] “Mother and Baby Homes Inquiry’s lack of transparency was damaging,” Irish Times, 25 January 2021.

[11] The Mother and Baby ‘home’ at Tuam, Co. Galway, has become particularly notorious since an investigation of its grounds uncovered a  large number of infant remains on the home’s grounds. An estimated 800 infant bodies along with the remains of a number of women were found on the site, inside of a sewerage repository. See the Fifth Interim Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

[12] Sara Keating, “Laundry,” Irish Theatre Magazine, 29 September 2011.

[13] Guy Beiner, among others, has leveled criticism at the false differentiation that Jan Vansina makes between oral history and oral tradition. For Beiner, “historical traditions appear in Irish folklore in different forms, mainly from storytelling but also in placenames, songs, poems, sayings and proverbs. There is no specific genre designated for the narrating of historical information.” See Beiner, “Richard Hayes, Seanchas-Collector Extraordinaire: First Steps Towards a Folk History of Bliain Na BhFrancach: The Year of the French,” Béaloideas 68 (2000): 16.

[14] Doireann Ní Ghríofa, “Mandible,” Some Good Will Come, Fallow Media (2020), 16.

[15] Ian Maleney, “Introduction,” Some Good Will Come, 4.


Sarah O’Brien is an oral and cultural historian in Mary Immaculate College (MIC), University of Limerick. She completed a PhD in Oral History in 2009 in MIC, supported by a doctoral scholarship from the Irish Research Council. She carried out postdoctoral research in Buenos Aires where she completed an oral history of the Irish descendant community in Argentina.  This research won the Riocht na Midhe historical scholarship award of 2012 and was published as a monograph in 2018 by Palgrave Macmillan.  Subsequent academic appointments included lectureships in Adams State University, USA (2013) and University of Northern New Mexico (2014). From 2015 to 2020 she was Assistant Professor in the School of Linguistics, Speech and Communications Studies, Trinity College Dublin.  She has published widely in the field of oral history. Her latest book, Of Memory and the Misplaced, explores the memories of Irish immigrant women in the United States and is under contract with Indiana University Press.  

Featured image: Grounds of the Good Shepherd Magdalene laundry and orphanage, Sunday’s Well, Cork City. Photo Credit: Mark Davis, reprinted with permission from the photographer

 

Author Interview: Alison Chand on Interviews Done Twice

In our upcoming issue, Alison Chand explores what happens when the same oral history narrator is interviewed on separate occasions by different interviewers. Her findings in “Same Interviewee, Different Interviewer: Researching Intersubjectivity in Studies of the Reserved Occupations in the Second World War” shed light on concepts including memory, composure, and intersubjectivity. In our author interview, Chand tells us about what she discovered and how other oral historians might apply it.

Tell us about the interviews you conducted in this study and its context.

The interviews I discuss in this study were conducted with two men who worked in reserved occupations in the Clydeside region of Scotland during the Second World War. In 2008 and 2009, Arthur McIvor, director of the Scottish Oral History Centre at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and my PhD supervisor between 2009 and 2012, interviewed Henry (Harry) McGregor, born in Glasgow in 1922, who was employed as an engineer during the war for the North British Locomotive Company in Hyde Park Railway Works in the Springburn area of the city, and William (Willie) Dewar, also born in Glasgow but in 1924 and employed as a draughtsman, also for the North British Locomotive Company at Hyde Park Works. As stated in the article, after a short spell in an office job when he left school at sixteen in 1938, Harry McGregor began his apprenticeship at the age of seventeen in 1939 and completed it in 1944 at the age of twenty-two. Willie Dewar left school at fifteen and worked as an office boy for nine months before starting his apprenticeship at North British Locomotive at the age of sixteen in 1940, just as war broke out, and remained there throughout the war. He completed his apprenticeship at the age of twenty-one in 1945. The two men worked together during the war, although McGregor moved to Cowlairs Railway Works for London North Eastern Railway in 1948 for better pay, while Willie Dewar remained at Hyde Park Works. The two men were friends and knew each other well. Both referred in their interviews to attending dances together as young men and engaging in other social activities after the war and they maintained their friendship over the intervening years, through 2010, when the last of the interviews were carried out. Arthur McIvor interviewed these two men at a very early stage of a project examining the experiences of civilian working men in wartime Britain, with a focus on the impact of being unable to join the armed forces on male identities. In 2017, this project culminated in the publication of Men in Reserve: British Civilian Masculinities in the Second World War, written jointly by Juliette Pattinson, McIvor, and Linsey Robb. The book offers an in-depth exploration of these men’s experiences and shifting sense of masculinity.

In 2010, I reinterviewed McGregor and Dewar as part of my PhD project, which McIvor and Juliette Pattinson supervised at the University of Strathclyde, exploring the wartime experiences of men in reserved occupations in the Clydeside area. Like McIvor, I was looking to explore the impact on the masculinities of such men as a result of being unable to join the armed forces, but my work examined this issue in a specific geographical area of Britain. As part of this process, I read through the transcripts of McIvor’s interviews with McGregor and Dewar. I therefore found myself in a position to compare my interviews to his, even though, as I indicated, the interviews were guided by different research interests. Booth McIvor’s questioning and mine covered overlapping subject areas of interest—for example, the impact of being in reserved occupations on masculinities, men’s reactions to the process of reservation, and how they constructed their masculinities. McIvor’s questioning often focused on health and safety in the workplace and men’s physical experiences of their work, both of which reflect a key concern in Men in Reserve about how reservation affected the male body, as well as his broader research interests in the male body at work. My questioning frequently focused on regional experiences of work and life, specifically in Clydeside, with some questions aimed at unpacking issues related to wider subjectivities, social relationships, and everyday life; I was also interested in the intersections between cultural influences on men working in reserved occupations and the everyday lives they led in their specific local communities. These differences between my work and McIvor’s prompted my decision to reinterview McGregor and Dewar; our common focus on the impact on masculinity of working in a reserved occupation meant that a number of the questions I asked and topics I explored were similar to McIvor’s, offering a rare opportunity for comparison.

What was the most striking part of your findings?

Particularly interesting for me was that the two interviewees constructed their responses to questions Arthur McIvor and I asked them in the context of the different intersubjective relationships in the interviews but these were also influenced by a range of factors involving the cultural circuit in relation to the reserved occupations and civilian men in Second World War Britain. The interplay of these factors meant that the two interviewees also, to an extent, felt prepared for their interviews with me following their interviews with Arthur McIvor. The cultural circuit and factors such as public and collective memory, the passage of time since the end of the war and the general absence of men in reserved occupations from official and cultural discourses since then interplayed with their experiences in their interviews with Arthur McIvor and the intersubjective relationship between interviewer and interviewee to affect their responses in their subsequent interviews with me. Both interviewees still felt the need to compose their memories of wartime to take account of a lack of recognition and understanding of their reserved roles, and I felt that preparation and composure therefore had more influence on their testimonies than factors relating to intersubjectivity between interviewer and interviewee. 

Should oral historians make an active effort to revisit the subjects of different interviews?

For me, there is definite value in repeat interviews and revisiting the subjects of previous interviews. Joanna Bornat has written in detail about some of the advantages and pitfalls of revisiting oral history interviews with secondary analysis in mind, and I think that her observation that fresh readings of documents help us to consider different interpretations, connections, and perspectives remain relevant. I also think that repeated interviews have the potential to yield more developed and in-depth testimony from interviewees, particularly where public perceptions of events and cultural memory change over time, as Alessandro Portelli has noted, so this approach could certainly be used more often in future historical research. Indeed, it is an approach that has been taken in recent oral history research such as the September 11, 2001, Oral History Narrative and Memory Project, created by the Columbia Center for Oral History. As part of my own current research project, ‘Rainbows in the Windows: An Oral History of Young Families in Britain in the COVID-19 Pandemic,’ for which I am currently collecting remote interviews, I also plan to carry out repeat interviews to consider the effects of the passage of time on narrative construction and oral testimony.

How might collaborative oral history projects benefit from multiple sessions with different interviewers?

A particularly interesting aspect to my findings was that the two different intersubjective relationships in the two sets of interviews discussed were intricately intertwined with a range of other factors, including the cultural circuit, preparation for their interviews, and composure. Interviews carried out by different interviewers with the same interviewees on the same or similar subject areas, particularly with interviewers from different backgrounds and disciplines, have huge potential to explore new complexities and nuances. Different interviewers might be able to discuss distinct areas of an interviewee’s past and prompt an interviewee in different ways. Projects may be able to consider a wider range of meanings than with the involvement of only one interviewer. Multiple sessions with different interviewers will also shed more light on oral history practice itself, particularly on the nature of intersubjectivity.  

How should oral historians apply your findings to their work?

I hope that the findings revealed in the article develop and enhance understandings of oral history methodology beyond awareness of the intersubjective relationship that exists between interviewer and interviewee during an oral history interview. Oral historians can take these ideas forward by exploring the notion that intersubjective relationships play out in a variety of ways in different interviews, particularly when a different interviewer talks to the same interviewee on the same subject area, and also considering the impact of the interplay between different intersubjective relationships and other factors involved, such as the cultural circuit. I think that understanding and development of these ideas can ultimately lead to more in-depth exploration of themes within oral history interviews and projects.

Can your conclusions be applied to other research approaches?

I certainly think that there is scope for more in-depth exploration of the meanings of events for individuals and communities, and indeed of issues arising in other kinds of interviews, via the involvement of different interviewers in talking to the same interviewees. Oral history and the techniques involved already intersect with methodologies in a range of different fields of study, including anthropology, psychology, family history, reminiscence, family history, law, tourism, creative performance and journalism. All of these areas might make use of an interviewing methodology for different reasons and with varying agendas, but the intersubjective relationship between interviewer and interviewee lies at the heart of any interview and incorporating multiple sessions with different interviewers into any of these areas has potential to substantially extend the scope of what can be explored and revealed, extending the limits and possibilities of what we can glean from an interview.


Alison Chand is a tutor at the Scottish Oral History Centre (SOHC) at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and a lecturer in history at the University of the Highlands and Islands. She also works as a freelance oral historian in various interviewing, transcribing, and advisory capacities. She completed her PhD, focusing on the experiences of men working in reserved occupations in Clydeside during the Second World War, at the SOHC in 2012; she has published a monograph based on her PhD thesis, entitled Masculinities on Clydeside: Men in Reserved Occupations During the Second World War (Edinburgh, SL: Edinburgh University Press, 2018). She is currently undertaking research funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme into how parents with young children are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Featured Image: detail of “Join the British Legion Now,” by Clive Upton, Imperial War Museum collection. 

self care

Tanya Finchum on Oral History and Self Care

During these strange, difficult times, it’s an apt opportunity to reflect on how conducting oral history interviews can trigger our own memories and emotions. In this second installment of our conversation on self care and oral history, seasoned interviewer Tanya Finchum of the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at Oklahoma State University shares some of her practices and strategies for self-care while preparing for and processing her interview experiences, inspired by her 2020 presentation on the subject at the OHA annual meeting.

By Tanya Finchum

I have been presenting at the annual Oral History Association meeting since 2007 and I will say that my 2020 presentation was the most challenging. I shared parts of my personal story, including raw emotions, to strangers over Zoom. How could I not do this when I often ask narrators to share their stories with me? By nature I am not a talkative person, being more comfortable in the asking and listening role of an interviewer. As I prepared to give the talk, I recalled many examples of emotionally-laden experiences, including a fairly recent one that had to do with a six-year-old ‘harvesting’ his first deer. I was totally unprepared for this story as it had little to do with the main topic of the interview. In that moment, to use an analogy, I had a “deer in the headlight” experience. Memories of Bambi came rushing back and my internal voice was screaming “Don’t shoot the innocent doe!” I have no idea what my facial expression or body language was saying, but I was aware I needed to stay in the moment yet separate myself somehow. Self-care. I was thankful for a drive home, a four-hour drive with the radio on while trying to file the memory where it would have the least impact.

As part of my library science degree program I took a children’s literature class. The Giver by Lois Lowry was one of the required readings, a dystopian story in which one of the main characters trains to take over “The Receiver of Memory” role. The Receiver of Memory stored all the past memories of the people in the community. Having been the lead interviewer in over 450 oral history interviews I have so many stories stored in my memory, not to mention stories from my own life, that at any given time something can trigger a challenging emotion. So in those moments, and after, how does one self-care?

For me it starts with acknowledging the feeling internally and making a split second decision as to how to respond in order to keep the interview on track. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to maintain the balance of being emotionally attuned to both the narrator and myself. I have tried to train myself to take care of the person in front of me first, but not to forget to take care of me once the interview is complete. I don’t always succeed, and that’s okay. I’m human and our work revolves around humans and being human. I listen to the radio and certain lyrics resonate and help me through some difficult experiences. I also regularly and faithfully take long and unplugged walks, what I call “turtle trots.” I listen to nature and let my mind meander along or think deeply, whatever happens to feel right at the time.

Having been a social worker for ten years I am aware of burnout and compassion fatigue. And in my oral history work I am also aware of curiosity fatigue. I have incorporated a step in my pre-interview routine to manage both of these. I take a few minutes before getting out of the car or before entering the room to remind myself why I am there and that the next few hours are about the narrator, not me. I also think of the Golden Rule instilled in my youth and hum some of the lyrics from the musical Oklahoma, “Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day. I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything’s going my way.” My mother sang these lines each school morning as she walked down the hall to wake us up and it has a way of putting me in a positive frame of mind. I also don’t forget that it is a privilege to be invited into a home to share a slice-of-life with an oral history narrator.

To conclude, as I am writing this I recall the words a centenarian said to me as she walked me to the door, “Thank you for your kindness. I am so glad you weren’t like the news people.” That definitely helps with self-care.


Dr. Tanya Finchum is a Professor with the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program and has been a member of the Edmon Low Library faculty since 1999. She has conducted over 450 oral history interviews, beginning in 2006, and has been the leader on projects featuring various narrators such as women legislators, cooperative extension educators, and Oklahomans working to sustain the Monarch butterfly population and other conservation efforts, just to name a few. She also contributes to the production workflow and discoverability efforts. Finchum, along with Dr. Alex Bishop, received the 2017 Elizabeth B. Mason Large Project Award from the Oral History Association for the Oklahoma 100 Year Life project that includes interviews with 111 centenarians. Additionally, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress awarded Finchum and her colleague, Juliana Nykolaiszyn, a 2011 Archie Green Fellowship to document circus related occupations. The project, The “Big Top” Show Goes On, won the 2013 Elizabeth B. Mason Small Project Award from the Oral History Association. Finchum is a 2017 Columbia Center for Oral History Summer Institute Fellow. She holds a doctorate in Family Relations and Child Development with an emphasis in gerontology from Oklahoma State University, a M.S. in Library Science from The University of Tennessee, a M.A. in Rehabilitation Counseling from the University of Cincinnati and a Bachelor of Social Work from East Tennessee State University.

5 Questions About NOT Talking Union

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Janis Thiessen discusses her book NOT Talking Union.

See Leyla Vural’s review of Janis Thiessen’s book online now and in the upcoming Spring 2021 48.1 Issue. 

What’s it about and why does it matter?

NOT Talking Union is a labour history of a people—North American Mennonites—who have not been involved in the labour movement in significant numbers and, historically, have opposed union membership. This is an incredibly important history, because the majority of workers in Canada and (even more so) in the United States are not unionized, and this book helps us understand why. At the same time, the book reveals the utility—indeed, the necessity—of oral history for understanding late-twentieth-century religious history.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

The book is rooted in 115 oral histories that I conducted while traveling through Manitoba, Ontario, British Columbia, Ohio, Indiana, and California. These are now archived at the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

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

Listening to and learning from people’s stories can be life-changing! Some of my own religious understandings and practices were transformed as a result of conducting these oral histories. As I write in the book, “oral history has the potential to bring about reconciliation for both individuals and communities by providing opportunities for people to be heard at length without judgment—a prospect that is all too rare outside the oral history interview context—and by bringing individuals into conversation with each other through books like this one.”

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

Fellow oral historians will appreciate its transparency and self-reflection on oral history methodology, as well as its discussion of reticence and collective memory. They’ll also be captivated, as I was, by the stories of American Mennonites and the the United Farm Workers’ strikes in California led by Cesar Chavez in the 1960s, and by the stories of Canadian Mennonites and conscientious objection to unions in the 1970s.

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

Reading/hearing uncomfortable stories is not the same thing as acting on those stories; I hope readers are inspired to seek justice. To quote the Almanac Singers (as I do in the book), “take it easy, but take it.”

 

StoryCorps and Crowdsourcing in the World of Digital Humanities

StoryCorps may perhaps be the United States’ most familiar and largest oral history project, yet many oral historians have trouble knowing whether to embrace it as such. Guest contributor Aubrey Parke suggests that another lens through which to consider StoryCorps is digital humanities, with its ethos of crowdsourcing and collaborative forms of publication. What can StoryCorps’ digital app for recording interviews suggest for the field and our methodologies?

By Aubrey Parke

Several months ago, I sat with my grandparents on their sunny screened-in porch and asked them how they fell in love. They told their story like a patchwork quilt, stringing together dozens of memories about Winstead’s drive-in and wringer-washer laundry on Saturday mornings. Behind all these anecdotes lay a background of economic and cultural forces that shaped their daily lives: a series of massive railroad mergers, anti-Catholic sentiment in the American Midwest, and shifting gender politics in the 1950s, to name a few. While we chatted, I recorded our conversation on the StoryCorps app. Forty-five minutes in, the recording automatically shut off. I snapped a picture of my grandparents, tagged our location, and uploaded the interview to the StoryCorps online archive.

Since the advent of StoryCorps as an independent non-profit in 2003, historians have debated whether recorded conversations like these qualify as “oral history.” The 2008 Oral History Association annual meeting even erupted into a contentious debate about the status and purpose of StoryCorps.  Many historians have questioned whether the project would produce a useful historical record or just a random, nostalgic mass of individual memories. According to the Oral History Association (OHA), the discipline of oral history underwent a “paradigm shift” in the 80s and 90s as practitioners began to not just gather interviews as primary source materials, but to actively construct historical narratives from oral sources. StoryCorps corresponds to the earlier form of oral history, which sought to create a popular record, not to analyze or construct narratives.

Oral historians have also criticized StoryCorps for creating an inaccessible archive. The nonprofit started with physical listening booths where anyone could record a 40-minute interview with an acquaintance or loved one in the presence of a moderator. Since its founding, StoryCorps has yielded approximately 75,000 interviews. Staff have edited a small fraction of the recordings into animated short films and weekly NPR audio features; the American Folklife Center section of the Library of Congress is the project’s official archive, but potential users must make a special request to access full interviews. 

Access to interviews suddenly expanded in 2015, when StoryCorps launched its app. People who record interviews on the app can choose to upload them directly to the StoryCorps online archive, a publicly searchable website. Copies of these interviews also go to the closed archive at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps and the Library of Congress have encouraged app users to tag their uploads with thoughtful keywords, such as “immigration” or “First Nations,” so that archivists and researchers can locate them. Currently, StoryCorps is in the process of making some interviews recorded in physical listening booths available online as well. Once published to the online archive, interviews can be heard in their entirety, not just as radio-length soundbites. 

With a searchable online archive, StoryCorps has gained new potential to claim scholarly space in the field of Digital Humanities (DH). Although DH is famously difficult to define, “The Short Guide to the Digital Humanities,” describes it as “new modes of scholarship and institutional units for collaborative, trans-disciplinary, and computationally engaged research, teaching and publication…in which print is no longer the primary medium.” Lacking a specific research objective, perhaps StoryCorps is not in and of itself a DH project, but the app and online archive belong in the world of DH as tools for crowdsourcing a diverse oral record of U.S. history. The StoryCorps app has great potential to facilitate new, collaborative modes of teaching and publication.

The application is intuitive and easy to use. After making an account, users can prepare an interview by entering their name, date, and location, and by customizing a list of questions. Users can swipe through their questions on the app while recording. When the interview stops, the device automatically saves the recording. The app then prompts users to fill out fields such as summary and keywords and, if  they wish to make the interview public, upload it to the StoryCorps website. Perhaps most importantly, the app allows people to store and share large audio files. For the average smartphone user, storing multiple hour-long .WAV or .MP3 files is unrealistic and sharing those files with other people is clunky at best. StoryCorps allows people to store their interviews online for free and share them by simply copy-pasting a link into a text or email.

The StoryCorps app enables crowdsourcing, a key tool of the digital humanities. A study presented at the 2013 Museums and the Web conference defines “crowdsourcing” in the digital age as “online projects entailing the active contribution of an undefined public.” The StoryCorps app has great potential to become a tool of generative crowdsourcing. For example, StoryCorps launched the Stonewall OutLoud project and asked people to use the app to “interview an elder and/or another remember of the LGBTQ community.” StoryCorps provided comprehensive guidelines to help participating individuals and organizations build organize and archive their interviews with relevant tags so future researchers could locate the records.

Any third-party organization can use the app and online archive as tools to create a searchable collection, such as the Labor Stories project launched by StoryCorps employees to demand better working conditions. In a 2015 article for the Oral History ReviewAlexander Freund argued that StoryCorps is antithetical to social history because it promotes individual storytelling rather than the systematic study of social groups. Crowdsourced projects like Stonewall OutLoud or Labor Stories could void Freund’s critique by using a targeted initiative to solicit stories from defined groups.

Scholars who want to incorporate oral history into their research can search the StoryCorps online archive and even create their own communities, circulating calls for digital contributions via social media. StoryCorps could better accommodate scholars by including more detailed instructions in the app about keywords and tagging. If interviews are well-coded, scholars and archivists will be able to locate them in the online repository. Public interviews can be downloaded, allowing researchers to use these digital texts in multimedia projects like documentaries, websites, and podcasts (pending, of course, permission from the original interviewer).

Oral historians who resist embracing StoryCorps as a product of their field could view it as a useful interdisciplinary tool from the Digital Humanities, one that enables researchers, teachers, and students to engage with oral sources as an important part of the historical record. One Chicago educator uses the StoryCorps app in her African-America history courses because she wants her students to “become creators of information…preparing narratives that will be archived in the American Folklife Center.” I struggle to think of something more synchronous with the spirit of Digital Humanities than a decentralized network of young people using cell phones and family histories to consciously build an archive. At the time of writing, StoryCorps users have already uploaded OVER 1300 interviews tagged as “COVID-19,” many of them recorded by students for online school projects. While some were obviously made with little effort and preparation, others offer insights into how the pandemic has affected working-class families, college students, and healthcare workers. Such crowdsourced collections would be a goldmine for future historians. And perhaps if somewhere, someday, a researcher wants to write about U.S. Catholicism or railroads in the 1950s, they will come across the conversation I recorded with my grandparents on September 19, 2020.


Aubrey Parke is an M.A. Public History student and Graduate Assistant at Duquesne University. In the past, she has worked as an oral historian, community archivist, and consulting firm analyst. She is from San Antonio, Texas, where she dedicates her spare time to work surrounding immigration and refugee issues.

5 Questions About They Call Me George: The Untold Story of The Black Train Porters

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Cecil Foster discusses his book They Call Me George: The Untold Story of the Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada.

Read Gordon Alley-Young’s review of Cecil Foster’s book in the Spring 2021 48.1 issue. 

What’s it about and why does it matter?

I address the important work by people of African descent to transform the conditions under which they lived in the Americas. Particularly, the book concentrates on the efforts by Black Sleeping Car Porters—mainly men from across the Americas—to fight for civil rights and equity.  It is the story of the struggle since the 1950s that transformed Canada, in particular, from the epitomized White Man’s country—or a northern archetypal version of the U.S. Confederate States—to become the current officially multicultural society where people of all races and ethnicities are officially recognized as full citizens.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

I had to rely on interviews of retired sleeping car porters, many of whom are now in their declining ages. It was an attempt to preserve their memories and to tell their stories. I wanted to capture how they felt in the moment of the struggle and how they viewed and organized their resistance to international white supremacy. For their struggle was at a time when for most Black men in North America a job as a sleeping car porter was the only real opportunity for employment. Black men across North America simply went on “the roads” regardless of national borders to make a living and to maintain their communities back home. It was also a time when North American railroads—especially those in Canada, where they are called railways—routinely recruited Black men from the West indies to work as Pullman porters, jobs that for all practical purpose turned them into good housekeepers in antebellum parlors/suites on wheels. The porters relied on Black women to keep the homes and communities safe and thriving while they were gone—often for weeks, often working as many as 18 hours a day traveling across the continent, and getting paid primarily in tips. In their organizations in the work place and in society, generally, they broke down hemispheric barriers to full citizenship for all Black people and at the same time universally for all Peoples of Color, whether this translated into desegregation in employment, housing, education, and politics. The porters imagined and fought for a different future than hemispheric segregated Jim Crowism for the Americas, and for a time with Black people as full citizens, living the good life and occupying the highest offices. It is for this reason that on the day of his swearing in as President of the United States of America, Barack Obama symbolically arrived in Washington in a retrofitted car of a train served by Black Sleeping Car Porters in their traditional uniforms.
 
In addition to the interviews, I relied heavily on the personal papers of sleeping car porters in various archives, especially those of the Canadian pioneering activist, Stanley Grizzle, in the Canadian Archives in Ottawa. Much of the information came from letters exchanged among these activists and allied politicians. Among them are the letters and speeches of Asa Philip Randolph as the universal president of initially the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids. This was a common struggle in North America.

I am very pleased with the cooperation I received from these porters, and with the reception They Call me George has received from their families, including so many of them in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean—from people who claim the book as the story of their fathers, uncles, brothers, lovers, fellow community activists, and of the women who loved and allied with them in the early days of the common movement in Blackness for Civil Rights and political independence in the Americas. With an international television series in the works, the story of the times and the Black men and women as inspired by They Call Me George will become more fully recognized and celebrated across North America, particularly in Black homes and neighborhoods.

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

The oral tradition is personal and cultural. It allowed me to easily mix the abstract theorizing with the very real lived experiences. To this end, theory and praxis are on the same methodological footing, and I am not always sure if theory explains praxis or if praxis is the grounding for theory. But out of this mixing is a conversation on several levels, one of which is the production of a kind of historicism—as social evolution—that allows for the preservation of memories and the hopes for a better future as a continuum on its own. This way it is a narrative without the limitations of forcing specific agents and times into a particular national arc. Indeed, this approach allows for the very decentering of history as officially a modernist nationalist project. In so doing, it provides the means to excavate narratives and peoples that are usually excluded from the “official” historical narratives. Very appealing to me is that this methodology fairly well captures the transnationalism that is at the heart of the Black experiences both universally and in the particular.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

It would be akin to hearing stories of how the Black experience came into being and is still becoming something more concrete and desirable. For me this is no different from common practices in Black communities, with, in an ancestral spirt and out of the need to know themselves, younger generations asking their grandparent and parents what life was like in this past—what contributed to the creation of the current social and familial conditions. From these stories the current generation can devise strategies for the present and also plan for the future—strategies and plans that would be handed off to each subsequent generation to be modified in their times, perhaps idealistically until the day that all Black people are truly and fully citizens. Hopefully, They Called Me George helps to fill in some gaps in the story of this social evolution into full human dignity.

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

That in some of the toughest and most dehumanizing times, Black people universally did not stop dreaming and fighting for a better world—not only immediately for themselves and their kids and their future generations, but for everybody in all times. They truly believed that to be fully human was to live in social fraternity in the traditional sense so long associated with a common citizenship that we think of as a passport to social justice for all. It is why in the first place they formed, given the times, the appropriately named Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids. Fraternity mattered. And carried along by this idealism, they helped to change the world in their time while inspiring future generations to continue as agents of social change in subsequent times, until the symbolic train journey of freedom for all peoples—but primarily Black people and their legacy of historical enslavement and neo-enslavement through segregation—arrive at the final destination that is freedom and justice.

Preserving Yiddish Language & Culture through Bilingual Oral History Access

The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project recently completed an NEH-funded project to transform its oral history collection through the use of cutting edge oral history technologies that allow exploration of interviews through bilingual indexes. Here, Wexler Oral History staff members share their process and innovative results. 

By Christa Whitney and Carole Renard

The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project recently completed a project that can serve as a model for enhanced access to oral history interviews, especially for multilingual collections. The project is an exciting use of the open-source Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) software to allow for search and browsing within interviews through timecoded transcripts and indices.

Since the establishment of the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project in 2010, creating access to interviews has been a priority. For a variety of linguistic, ideological, and political reasons, Yiddish resources have not always been accessible. Given this, the over 1,000 video interviews in the Wexler Oral History Project collection are of particular value to scholars, museum curators, documentary filmmakers, and the general public interested in learning about the history, legacy, and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture in the 20th and 21st centuries. Furthermore, the Yiddish Book Center has a history of making primary source materials accessible—our digitized Yiddish book collection includes over 11,000 titles, most of which are now searchable with Optical Character Recognition (OCR)—and our oral history project follows that model. A majority of the interviews we’ve collected are available in full on our website, something that puts these new primary sources out there for researchers and the public. This latest project allowed us to go beyond basic access to allow for viewers to really dig into the interviews with search features at the individual interview level. It’s our hope that these new features will increase the utility of the collection. 

Thanks to a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)’s Division of Preservation and Access and additional donors, we worked from 2017 to 2020 to enhance access to a large portion of the Wexler Oral History Project’s interview collection. As part of this project, we transcribed 400 interviews, created timecoded indices of over 650 interviews (including bilingual indices for over 150 Yiddish-language interviews), and created a thesaurus of keywords, gathering alternate spellings from widely used encyclopedic sources. We worked with the Audio Transcription Center to create the transcripts and a wonderfully talented team of staff, interns, and contractors to edit the transcripts and index the interviews. All the timecoding of transcripts and indexing was done with the open-source OHMS software. As of October 2020, you can now access the interviews with enhanced access on many of the interview pages within the Wexler Oral History Project digital collection.

The multilingual nature of the collection—which includes interviews in English, Yiddish, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Hebrew, and a smattering of other languages—created particular challenges in terms of transcription and standardization of the project-specific subject terms and non-English words used in the interviews. Though we had collected keywords about each interview over the years, we did not have a central location to track and standardize spellings prior to this project. The organization had a limited style sheet, but that didn’t scratch the surface of the ultimately thousands of Yiddish words, geographical locations, and proper nouns used throughout the interviews. Therefore, we created a master thesaurus gathering all these terms, privileged spellings selected, and documented alternate spellings. We referenced dictionaries and central naming authorities such as the Library of Congress and the Getty Thesaurus of Geographical Terms as well as field-specific authorities such as the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and JewishGen. Names of geographic locations in Eastern and Central Europe created a special challenge since many towns and cities have multiple names depending on the language and historical period. Creating the thesaurus of privileged and alternative spellings allows us to both use consistent spellings across the entire collection for transcripts and index segment titles, and list alternate spellings as keywords so that any user searching an alternative spelling of a keyword would still find the relevant interview segments in an indexed interview. Beyond the immediate uses within the oral history collection, we look forward to how these vocabulary lists will be of use across the organization and even beyond.

Another challenge arose along the way: Though we selected only English-language interviews to transcribe, many interviews contain segments in another language (most often Yiddish) when a narrator might have recited a poem, sung a song, or recalled a proverb from the family. We transcribed all of these interview segments in-house with our multilingual team of staff and part-time workers. Though Yiddish is written in the Hebrew alphabet, we transcribed Yiddish segments transliterated in Latin characters for ease of formatting within the OHMS editor and viewer, to enhance access to viewers who cannot read Yiddish in its original alphabet, and to better reflect the nuances of the narrator’s personal Yiddish dialect. Including translations of all non-English terms in the transcript serves as an additional in-line guide for any viewers unfamiliar with the terms narrators use.

Indices can serve as both alternatives and compliments to transcripts. The segment titles function as a table of contents, allowing for visitors to the website to do a quick browse of an interview to see if there are segments of particular interest. OHMS includes various fields, giving options to include detailed summaries, transcript segments, and more at each segment. For this project, especially given that many interviews indexed would also be transcribed, we decided to use simply segment titles and keywords. Since it is hidden in the main view of the index, the keyword field was a wonderful place to include alternative spellings that enhance search.

The project also allowed us to take full advantage of the bilingual indexing feature in OHMS. A major portion of our work was to index over 150 of our Yiddish language interviews, creating access and search in both Yiddish and English. Viewers can toggle between the two languages to search and find interview segments of interest through segment titles and keywords. We also bilingually indexed several interviews in Polish, Spanish, and Russian to create segment-level access in both the original language and English.

The custom viewer we built is an example of how OHMS can be integrated into a website’s look and feel for a streamlined experience for viewers. Working with our web development company CogApp, we built a custom module in Drupal to be able to display and search the transcripts and indices alongside the video interviews. Since the oral history collection is accessed within the organization’s website, it was important to integrate the viewer into the existing color scheme and style. For those interviews that are both transcribed and indexed, viewers have the option of toggling back and forth between its transcript and its index; this way, the interviews can be viewed either alongside a word-by-word transcript or by skipping thematically through indices. Though this approach may not work for oral history collections that use library or archival content management systems that include discovery features, it does offer an approach for non-profits, businesses, or other oral history projects working within a branded environment.

The final component of this grant-funded project was to surface the family photographs, historical documents, and other artifacts we’ve collected as digital objects along with many of the oral history interviews over the years. These in and of themselves comprise a fascinating and valuable collection. Paired with the oral history interviews, they add another layer of visual interest. For those interviews that have associated artifacts, they are now viewable on the interview pages. Along with the interview highlights, they can serve as entry points to the collection for those who may not want to watch the entire one- to two-hour interview recordings.

The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project is a collection of video interviews about Yiddish language and culture recorded on six continents in eight languages. As interviews are structured in a focused life-history format, the collection includes stories and personal accounts about a broad range of Jewish identities and human experience. Since 2010, we’ve collected over 1,000 interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds. We are excited to share these new features of our digital collection with the world and hope it will help people learn about the culture represented by the collection as well as serve as a useful model to the oral history field for the possibilities to enhance access to oral histories. To learn more about the ways to browse and search our collection, check out our user guide. We invite you to explore the growing collection.


Christa P. Whitney is the director of the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project, a growing collection of more than 1,000 in-depth video interviews about Yiddish language and culture with people of all ages and backgrounds. Originally from Northern California, she became interested in Yiddish while studying comparative literature at Smith College. For the past ten years, she has traveled near and far in search of Yiddish stories, gaining skills in filmmaking, video production, and archival preservation along the way.

Carole Renard is the Wexler Oral History Project’s Coordinator. She began working with the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project in 2016 as an intern processing interviews, and joined the full-time team in 2017 as the NEH Project Coordinator. She also conducts oral history interviews for the project. Carole holds a BA from Smith College in Anthropology and Jewish Studies and a MA from University College London in Jewish Studies.

self care

Troy Reeves on Building Our Practices of Self Care

Inspired by a session at the recent Oral History Association annual meeting, which occurred virtually in October, oral historian Troy Reeves reflects on a particular peril of the profession: interviews can be emotional and traumatic, and interviewers may not be as versed in self-care as we are in asking good questions. Troy invites us to participate in a conversation that considers the importance of self-care and oral history.

Since 1999, I have earned a living as an oral historian. In that time I have seen myriad changes in my chosen career, and I would say all of them have bettered the profession, particularly if we continue to push forward with individual and structural changes to overcome four centuries of racism in our country.

While I try daily to listen and learn, to become a better person and to lead a program that becomes more inclusive of our campus story, I struggle. While my struggle—as a person who checks off just about all the privilege boxes possible—pales in comparison with others, I still find it hard, particularly in the last eight months with COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic, to be the best oral historian possible.

Two events last month brought all this to a personal boil. First, I attended the 54th Oral History Association Annual Meeting. This virtual event offered scores of sessions, as usual, so many quality ones during each time slot, that I had to make tough decisions. During Friday morning, for example, one could choose from 10 concurrent sessions. I chose number #082: This is How We Grieve: A Self-Reflexive Conversation on Emotionally Charged Interviews and Their Effect on the Oral History Interviewer. As the ancient Grail Knight said in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—RIP Sean Connery—I “chose wisely.”

While I won’t try to summarize this session in detail here, I will say it consisted of four women from Oklahoma State University, discussing how their work effects them. I was particularly impressed with the two people on that panel I knew best–Julianna Nykolaiszyn & Tanya Finchum–one formerly and the other currently with the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program. Their two presentations struck me in how they laid bare examples of their work and the toil it can take.  It reminded me of the power of oral history, and of how I can do it better. I left so impressed with all 4 presenters and their willingness to discuss their work through the lens of emotion & grief. 

Second, I conducted an interview for our Documenting COVID-19 Oral History Project with a person who donated material to the University Archives’ Documenting COVID-19 Archives and agreed to sit for an oral history. This narrator never stepped foot on our campus in March and April but enrolled and took an online grief course through our medical school. This New Yorker then told me about his hospital work during those weeks while still taking the UW course, testing cultures for the coronavirus. After we said our good-byes, I sat there silent for at least 15 minutes, unable to really deal with what I just recorded. 

So, those two events combined to bring me here: to sit down and write out my thoughts on oral history and self-care and see if others might want to join me. 

Truthfully, the two things above are not the only reasons I decided to write this piece. The 2013 book, Oral History Off the Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice, also started my thinking on self-reflection and writing about it. When I reviewed it for the Public Historian, I didn’t specifically mention self-care, but I did applaud the editors and contributors for in their words: “embrac[ing] the messiness of human experience and interaction, and treating speaking and listening as profound and imperfect processes” (7). I then followed and ended my review with: “If we do, we will go as a profession and individually as human beings. Both worthy goals.”

Along with that book, a 2017 OHR blog post by Erin Jessee helped inspire this post. Jessee has become one of the most influential oral historians regarding interviewing people on traumatic and/or sensitive topics. Andrew Shaffer, OHR’s then social media coordinator, asked Erin several questions that allowed her to expand on her OHR piece, “Managing Danger in Oral Historical Fieldwork.” One question and answer stood out to me. “How can oral historians do a better job of spotting signs of trauma in each other, and responding positively?  

This is important, because I get the impression that many oral historians feel embarrassed or ashamed to admit when their physical and mental health has been negatively impacted by their research.”

***

Along with October’s OHA meeting, Off the Record, and Jessee’s blog post, I need to discuss my own interviewing history. So, I have conducted hundreds of oral history interviews, either life histories or topical interviews on one of the dozens of projects I’ve overseen since 1999. I have avoided, however, interviews and projects on “Emotionally Charged” topics. Why? Well, I never felt I had the training needed. 

Let me tell you a story. When I worked in Idaho, I collaborated with a high school teacher. She wanted her students to interview veterans. Actually, she brought me in because she had been doing projects with her classes, and she wanted me to speak to them as an “expert.” For most of my adult life, I have felt about the word, expert, Barkley has said basically that only the only expert is God. (Now, as an uncloseted atheist, I feel no one is.) 

I have digressed. One year, the teacher and I came up with a bolder project. We’d work with the state veterans’ agency during an event they hold once a year, to which they invite veterans who had fallen on hard times to come and seek help. Our plan was to see if any of those veterans would consider being interviewed by one of our students. That was the plan.

It ended up turning out okay, in spite of me. Fortunately, a couple of social workers took it upon themselves to monitor, along with me, the room where the students and veterans met. They helped mitigate issues almost before they arose. But some issues did arise, mainly when students trained in oral history but not in sensitive topics struggled to deal with what they heard. I did not give them the tools to help them process and deal with them, because I didn’t have those tools myself. 

So, that ill-conceived and implemented project made me hesitant here in Wisconsin to pursue similar topics. And while I feel I’ve grown in my 13 years here, specifically learning about meditation and trying to implement it into my daily life, I still hesitate when students come to me and want to embark on oral history projects that seem from the onset to be fraught with possible stories and anecdotes difficult for anyone to hear, let alone teenagers and young adults.

So, this anecdote stands as another reason I hope this post ends up having a life beyond itself: our students. I shouldn’t speak for my fellow campus oral history leaders, but I will. Many, maybe all, of us end up working with classes or hiring students who then conduct oral history interviews for themselves, for us, or both. Many of those students, at least in my experience, want to interview people involved in emotionally-deep topics. While we can hope that during their time on our campus they have learned the skills necessary to properly process the difficult stories they hear from their narrators, we shouldn’t leave it to chance.

***

I grew up in rural Idaho, and in a world where boys shouldn’t cry. While never called a “cry baby”—and I would have remembered if it happened, I certainly rarely contained my emotions. Still can’t. When my father passed away in the summer of 2016, I volunteered to be one of the speakers at his Celebration of Life. My father and I had grown apart over my years in Wisconsin, but yet l made it only eight words into my talk before breaking down.

Also, I only participated in traditional therapy once in college. For me, and my tightest OHA colleagues can attest, I refill my bucket by meeting with and talking to them. So, if anyone who did anything to make OHA’s recent virtual conference happen reads this, you all offered up a great event. The world gave you lemons, and you made some swell-tasting lemonade.

So, why lay all this bare? After leaving the OHA Annual Meeting session referenced above, I wanted to see if anyone would consider discussing and enacting ways I which we oral historians might learn from others and build our practices of self-care. Maybe, it becomes like-minded folks meeting virtually to talk through their work and how they handle or don’t handle it. Others might want to write about their work and its related challenges of self-care, as I am doing here. Perhaps what starts with meetings & blog posts could end up being more.

Listen, I agree 100% that we should make sure we support our narrators first and foremost, particularly those who we ask to discuss highly charged topics or events. When I co-led the 2018 update to the OHA’s Principles and Best Practices, our group created the “For Participants …” document as one way to focus on their needs. But, if we don’t take care of ourselves, we don’t give our narrators the time and focus they deserve. 

***

I started writing this essay on November 1st, two days before Election Day. Between that, a global pandemic, and my mother’s and a good friend’s passing, it’s been a year. But, as of now, I haven’t lost anyone to COVID-19. And, let me be honest here: I’m a white male. When my world seems rough, I still have layers and layers of privilege–including a good job with health care–that make my bad days pale in comparison to many others.

Now, I’m working on a piece on self-care as I watch the news, on the days after the election, and I finalized it on Veterans’ Day, which brought back into focus the veterans I’ve interviewed and the projects, including the aforementioned one, that included interviewing them. It all propounded my thoughts about how vital it is to be a well-rounded oral historian. To me, that means not only doing the things I and others talk about in workshops: researching your topic or person, crafting good, open-ended questions, listening well, etc, but also figuring out how to take care of ourselves before, during, and after our interviews and projects. And I’d like it to be a collective thing. I’ve directly quoted or paraphrased the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” a few times during my career to make a point. It applies here too. We do things better when we do them together.


Since June 2007 Troy Reeves has led the oral history program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives. From 1999-2006 he directed the Idaho Oral History Center in Boise. In both of those positions, Reeves has overseen the key components of managing an oral history program—collecting and curating oral history recordings, as well as communicating and collaborating with interested individuals about the art and science of oral history.

Along with these program leadership tasks, he has managed or facilitated dozens and dozens of oral history projects in Wisconsin and Idaho on cultural, political, and environmental history. Along with these projects, Reeves has held leadership roles in the Oral History Association, including six years as the Oral History Review’s managing editor and co-chairing two taskforces during the 2010s—including one that updated the Principles & Best Practices.   

Featured image by Mark Doliner, used with a Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Say and Seal: Lives at Yale during COVID-19

Across the world, university students’ lives were upended by the coronavirus pandemic, with the essential community structures enabled by face-to-face interaction no longer possible. Yale senior Henry Jacob and his co-producers launched a podcast to help keep the community connected, with a built in archival structure that preserves the podcast as a primary source, documenting Yale students’ lives during this tumultuous time.

By Henry Jacob

On March 6, 2020, I left my dorm unaware that I would not return for months. Because I needed to leave at 4 AM to catch a flight that morning, I gave an inadequate goodbye to J12A, my former room. But COVID-19 separated me not only from the courtyards, but also from the community of Saybrook, my residential college. I, like countless other students, soon discovered the difficulties of maintaining relationships on Zoom. 

Just as I could not return to Yale, I never traveled to the libraries I planned to visit this past summer. Unable to access undigitized archives from across the U.S. and in Canada, I needed to reengineer my history senior thesis around a different topic and sources. Upon recognizing the obstacles of conducting remote research, I also recognized the importance of using the spoken word, rather than the written word, to record this unique moment.

For this reason, my former suite mate Micah Young, Graduate Fellow Adam Haliburton, and I created a podcast that will unite Yalies today and serve future historians. This monthly show, titled Say and Seal, includes news reports, interviews, and other content on and for the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.  This podcast also serves as a form of oral history because it collects and preserves the experiences of members from the community today in a single source for posterity. Indeed, every episode will be housed in the Yale Library Manuscripts and Archives. We hope that in 50 years historians can utilize these audio recordings to understand and analyze this unique age.  

The title Say and Seal captures our two primary goals:  we encapsulate our objective to speak with and listen to the stories of Yalies today and preserve them for posterity. In equal measure, this name acknowledges our parallel desire to connect members from Saybrook. The title also serves as a pun and reference the Right Honorable Viscount Saye and Sele, a step-founder of the college. 

I conceived of Say and Seal while revising the transcript of my interview with Adam Haliburton, Graduate Fellow of Saybrook. In June 2020, I spoke to Adam as part of an interview series for The Yale Historical Review, an undergraduate journal. While reading through our conversation, I realized that Adam and I went completely off-script from our original plan to discuss race relations at Yale in history and today. Instead, our two-hour chat primarily revolved around Saybrook. Even though Adam and I first met a few years ago, our shared love for Saybrook made us fast friends. After a few more days of discussions, we decided to start the venture that has become Say and Seal. But before moving ahead, we added two more members to our team. My former suite mate and close friend of Adam, Micah Young, joined as a co-host. In addition, University Archivist and Saybrook Fellow Michael Lotstein joined as a mentor to this project. As a group, we united under a common mission to use oral history as a tool for socially distanced community building and structuring the archive directly into a podcast.

Say and Seal Episode 0

Over the past months, we have refined the scope and content of Say and Seal. First and foremost, we seek to reconstruct the collegiate atmosphere that our listeners would enjoy in a regular semester. We even include soundscapes to connect students to spaces of New Haven they cannot explore this year. In addition to providing news on the global, national, and local developments of COVID-19, we interview members from the Yale community. Through these conversations, we provide a space for a diverse array of students, faculty, staff, and administrators to express themselves. While we seek to reach listeners today, these interviews double as oral history, creating a record of this unprecedented university experience.

This fall, we have started to release our first episodes. In our introductory, 10-minute pilot, we outlined these objectives and established the framework for our project. In Episode 1: The Gap Year, we speak with three students who decided to take a leave of absence, as well as the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions. In Episode 2, we will combine pre and post-election reactions from a variety of students and faculty.

Say and Seal Episode 1

Over the academic year, we will continue to expand the podcast to include as many perspectives as possible. For example, we lament how this emergency limits participation in many academic and extracurricular opportunities that enliven campus. For this reason, we will also invite organizations—such as an a cappella group—to showcase their work in future installments.

Say and Seal will also benefit coming generations of Yalies. Inspired by Yale Library’s Help Us Make History project, we will archive these recordings for future historians through Aviary, a platform connected to the Yale University Library Manuscripts and Archives Audiovisual Collections. By storing these audio recordings, we will document the contours of this exceptional period in Yale’s history. Aviary, a cloud-based audiovisual platform, will keep the individual episodes as well as stand-alone, unedited, full interviews to provide a balanced array of accounts of this time. Our Aviary site exists under the aegis of the Yale Library Manuscripts and Archives and will remain there, accessible online for coming decades.

The pandemic has created a crisis for academic exploration and personal relationships. But physical distance need not inhibit intellectual conversation nor separate Saybrugians from each other. Indeed, even though I am living at home instead of at J12A this year, I feel even more enmeshed within Saybrook than I did in March. Through Say and Seal, we hope to respond to this period of isolation by providing a platform for human connection in the present and future.


Henry Jacob is a senior at Yale majoring in History and pursuing a Certificate in Spanish. His scholarly interest lies in Panama. When not in the archives or the classroom, Henry spends his time with undergraduate journals, serving as Editor in Chief of The Yale Historical Review. After graduating this coming May, Henry hopes to continue his research on Panama’s role as a cynosure of imperial designs and desires across centuries and empires.

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