We’ve asked creators of non-print and media projects reviewed in the pages of Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should explore them. In our latest installment of this series, Jenna Bailey discusses the We Are The Roots documentary, winner of the 2018 OHA Non-Print Format Award.
Read Anna Kaplan’s review of We Are The Roots, published in the Fall 2019 issue of OHR.
What’s it about and why does it matter?
The Shiloh Centre for Multicultural Roots (SCMR) Oral History Project is a research and community engagement project designed to document the historical and contemporary experiences of Alberta and Saskatchewan’s Black settlers who moved to the Canadian Prairies between 1905 and 1912 to escape racism and intense persecution in the United States.
By conducting oral histories with nineteen descendants of the original settlers, our project documented this migration and settlement history with the main focus being to record individuals’ experiences with discrimination and marginalization in Canada. Alongside capturing an important and neglected part of Canadian history, the project created an awareness and understanding of the current systemic discrimination and marginalization against Black people living in Western Canada.
Ultimately, the project matters because it has increased awareness about the significant contributions Alberta’s and Saskatchewan’s Black settlers and their descendants have made to the development of Western Canada and helped to start a dialogue as a catalyst for change in removing barriers and discriminatory practices.
How does oral history contribute to your project?
Oral history was the key component of our project. We wanted this settlement and migration history, as well as the stories of decades of discrimination, to be recorded and told by the individuals who lived these experiences. The oral histories that were collected were then used to create the documentary film, We are the Roots: Black Settlers and their Experiences of Discrimination on the Canadian Prairies. We felt that an oral history based documentary would be the most appropriate vehicle to share this research as we could convey both the historical background and contemporary stories of discrimination in a format that was accessible, engaging, and easily shared online. Most importantly, using oral history interviews in this way allowed the experiences of this community to be shared by the interviewees themselves—both heard and seen by the audience.
What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?
As someone who has worked in the field of oral history for over fifteen years, I am continually surprised when researchers decide not to use oral history as a methodology. Combined with rigorous background research, oral history interviews seem to me to provide the best window into the past, and an opportunity not to be missed when there are living narrators. I am constantly invigorated by hearing individuals recall stories about their lives and honored when they are willing to share their personal thoughts and feelings with me and the wider public. For me, this is the absolute best method a historian can use to learn about people’s lives and important events in the recent past.
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in the project?
I think this project will be of interest to oral historians because of the way it evolved from a traditional oral history project to the production of an award-winning documentary. We began with the intention to video record nineteen oral history interviews, transcribe them, and donate them to an archive. As a part of the grant funding we had also agreed to do an “edited video” but this was an unspecific deliverable that we had not thought too much about. It was only once we had conducted the interviews and realized that they were beautifully filmed and full of important stories of historical and contemporary discrimination that we knew we needed to share them in the format of an oral history documentary. As a team we had almost no experience with documentary filmmaking but learned enough about this medium to produce a film that has become an incredible vehicle for sharing our work and we have been able to reach a much wider audience as a result. This project showcases a way to share oral histories, via a documentary style film, that allows the narrators to speak for themselves and to have their stories shared widely by hosting the film online for free.
What is the one thing that you most want the audience to remember about the project?
The one thing our project team would like the audience to remember about this project is that, despite the fact that Black people have been living in the Canadian Prairies for over one hundred years, they continue to face prejudice, discrimination and marginalization on a daily basis and this needs to be acknowledged and stopped.