2018 Virtual Issue: Oral History in Our Challenging Times

By Nicole Strunk and Janneken Smucker        

In her 1987 article, “Oral History in the Study of Discrimination and Cultural Repression,” Victoria Wyatt showed how “oral history interviews provided a type of information unavailable in written sources–a sense of what it had felt like to be the subject of overt discrimination and cultural repression.” Oral history methodology uniquely elevates voices and stories that may otherwise have been absent in traditional historical records, adding a human element to these records that reminds us that history is more than names and dates: history also comprises a collection of moments and experiences that make their mark on the lives of real people.

For this year’s virtual issue, we drew inspiration from the theme of the 2018 Oral History Association annual meeting, Oral History in Our Challenging Times. We have selected articles from the Oral History Review archive that demonstrate ways in which oral historians have approached dark moments within human experience, using oral history not only to document but to also process, analyze, and find meaning in challenging situations, both individually and collectively, and both therapeutically and critically. These articles also present a conversation addressing the benefits and shortcomings of using oral history to approach challenging events and situations. Together, the articles speak to how oral historians and their narrators have grappled with challenges that are still all too familiar to us in 2018. Some of the articles examine precursors to issues that we are collectively living through today, providing a useful reminder that our obstacles are not unique to our present; tragically, school shootings, sexual violence, extreme weather, political oppression, and opioid abuse are not new.

During times of crisis, oral history can serve as a primary means of documenting what may otherwise be lost in the official record, both humanizing historical narratives and filling in factual detail and nuance that might be lost in a more top-down approach. In the case of documenting Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the North American Gulf Coast in 2005, Mark Cave asserts that “top-down methods of documentation do not work,” and that through casting a wide net by interviewing lower-ranking first responders, his team of oral historians could better understand how the crisis unfolded. Stephen Sloan led another oral history project in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina and discusses the challenges and benefits of recording interviews immediately after a crisis, when a historian’s usual emotional distance from a subject is limited. But Sloan argues that “it is necessary for oral historians to do this early work as a foundational record,” in order for subsequent studies with more chronological distance to develop the “larger frameworks and historical analogies.” Even with the benefit of chronological distance, oral history has the ability to contribute documentation missing from existing historical narratives. Melvin Page demonstrates that oral testimony from Malawains remembering World War I filled in the historical record that had been previously dominated by European text-based documents. Similarly, in her article on memories of life under dictatorships in Spain and Argentina, Laura Benadiba shows that there are blank spaces in historical narratives that can only be captured through oral history, which can account for “everyday life: what it was like to go to school, the effect that was felt at the office or in family relations” during times of extreme political repression.

Oral history can also serve as a therapeutic means of processing challenging situations, or, as in the case of Carolyn Lunsford Mears’s research, outright tragedy. From her project interviewing parents of students impacted by the Columbine school shooting, she concluded that “in an oral history interview, the narrator controls the story and, symbolically at least, reclaims a small part of the control that was lost in the victimization,” while others who engage with the interviews later can “observe how people are affected by events and how they reconstruct order out of chaos.” Katherine Angueira describes in her 1988 article how those who experienced sexual violence used oral testimony as a means of liberation from “the oppressive chains of victimization.” Angueira intended for her study to “be a broader analysis of the use of the testimony as the action needed to make political an experience previously hidden in the personal sphere,” in a similar way that those publicly sharing their #metoo accounts are doing in the present.

While oral historians have frequently employed the field’s methods with the intent of democratizing history, Erin Jessee examines the limitations of oral history in the midst of challenging and highly politicized settings. In her article, she recounts wrestling with her obligation to protect the identities of narrators in highly charged situations, her confrontation of narrators’ political agendas, and her personal difficulty in listening closely when confronting emotionally challenging topics. She concludes that sometimes oral history may not be the best method for analyzing mass atrocity and may require careful negotiation of the “distinctive theoretical, ethical, and methodological challenges” that arise. In “Memories from the Street: Oral Histories of Elderly Methadone Patients,” coauthors David T. Courtwright, Herman Joseph, and Don C. Des Jarlais navigated some of these same challenges when interviewing elderly methadone patients engaged in illegal activities, necessitating thoughtful examination of whether or not testimony was reliable and accurate, and the ethical requirement to keep interviews anonymous.

The challenges global society faces today too often seem overwhelming and even insurmountable. Despite these realities, it is an apt moment to examine how oral history methods can respond to these current challenges. How can oral historians apply our methods and theories to present crises? We hope these articles from the OHR archive will inspire readers to draw on the tools of oral history to document, process, and critically examine the complexities of our world today.

Wyatt, Victoria. “Oral History in the Study of Discrimination and Cultural Repression.” The Oral History Review 15, no. 1 (1987): 129–41. 

Cave, Mark. “Through Hell and High Water: New Orleans, August 29-September 15, 2005.” The Oral History Review 35, no. 1 (2008): 1–10.

Sloan, Stephen. “Oral History and Hurricane Katrina: Reflections on Shouts and Silences.” The Oral History Review 35, no. 2 (July 1, 2008): 176–86.

Page, Melvin. “Malawians and the Great War: Oral History in Reconstructing Africa’s Recent Past.” The Oral History Review 8 (1980): 49–61. 

Benadiba, Laura. “The Persistence of Silence after Dictatorships.” The Oral History Review 39, no. 2 (July 1, 2012): 287–97.

Mears, Carolyn Lunsford. “A Columbine Study: Giving Voice, Hearing Meaning.” The Oral History Review 35, no. 2 (July 1, 2008): 159–75. 

Angueira, Katherine. “To Make the Personal Political: The Use of Testimony as a Consciousness-Raising Tool against Sexual Aggression in Puerto Rico.” The Oral History Review 16, no. 2 (1988): 65–93. 

Jessee, Erin. “The Limits of Oral History: Ethics and Methodology Amid Highly Politicized Research Settings.” The Oral History Review 38, no. 2 (September 1, 2011): 287–307. 

Courtwright, David T., Herman Joseph, Des Jarlais, and Don C. “Memories From the Street: Oral Histories of Elderly Methadone Patients.” The Oral History Review 9, no. 1 (January 1, 1981): 47–64.