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A few of Andrew’s favorite things

With our time on the Editorial Team quickly winding down, we’re taking turns sharing some of our favorite moments from the last three years at the #OHR. Below Andrew Shaffer, our Social Media manager, shares some of his fondest memories.

The first blog post I worked on was a podcast with the always brilliant Amy Starecheski. I still remember how nervous I was to write it up and hit submit, as evidenced by the title, which I just lifted from Amy’s article. #SoOriginal. https://blog.oup.com/2014/10/power-oral-history-making-practice

I was a little more confident by the time I interviewed Linda Shopes about her #OHR article, but still worried that I was asking all the wrong questions. I still come back to her blog post frequently, as I reflect on the “urge to collect.” 

My interview with Jennifer Helgren about the role nostalgia plays in #OralHistory produced one of my favorite phrases: “oral history as a history of the present,” another one I come back to regularly. 

The most fun I ever had in an interview (and my only time on the podcast!) came when I got to talk to Elspeth Brown about the LGBTQ History Digital Collaboratory. I won’t admit how many times I re-recorded the intro before I was ok with the sound of my own voice 😬. 

In addition to the podcast, I’m proud of the efforts we made to highlight LGBTQ Oral History on the blog, including a short list of some projects documenting queer lives across the U.S. 

By partnering with others, we got even more great content, like a sneak peak at some amazing content that the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program recorded at the Equality March 2017. 

During the #OHMATakeover of 2016, the students and staff of the Oral History MA program at the Columbia Center for Oral History Research took control of the blog and published some really fantastic content. My personal favorite was Audrey Augenbraum’s piece on the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project

I ❤️ their work and had mentioned them on a previous post, along with mapping projects from Youth Radio and the Fiji Time film. Apparently, Maps + #OralHistory = my idea of a good time.

And last, but certainly not least, I still get chills reading our two-part conversation between Henry Greenspan and @timcole_bristol.
Part 1: https://blog.oup.com/2016/01/hank-greenspan-tim-cole-part-1/
Part 2: https://blog.oup.com/2016/02/hank-greenspan-time-cole-part-2/

I am eternally grateful to Troy Reeves for taking a chance on me after I showed up hours late to my first interview, to Kathy Nasstrom for constant encouragement, to Caitlin Tyler-Richards for teaching me how to twitter, and to all the people I’ve been lucky enough to meet in this gig.

A few of Caitlin’s favorite things

Before we sign off for the last time, the outgoing #OHR staff want to toot our own horns one last time. Below Caitlin Tyler-Richards, our first Social Media whiz, relives some of her favorites from her time at the journal.

Obviously, I have to include my first piece for the OHR blog. While I am still proud to have published something on such a public platform, and still believe in the power of #publichistory projects…wow, it has not aged well.

This interview with Jennifer Abraham Cramer, director of Louisiana State University’s T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History, remains one of my favorite pieces. Definitely worth a re-read in the wake of the 2017 summer apocalypse.

In December 2013 I interviewed Claire Payton about conducting #OralHistory in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake & the Haiti Memory Project.

Claire Payton recently returned to Haiti for a DLOC digitization workshop geared towards Haitian librarians and archivists

And last but not least, this post comes the closest to capturing the OHR office’s kind irreverence, and will always hold a special place in my heart.

You can follow Caitlin on Twitter at @ctredits.

Allowing the past to speak

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Beginning in January a new editorial team will take over the OHR, bringing in some fresh voices and new ideas. Before we hand over the reins, we asked the new team, composed of David Caruso, Abigail Perkiss, and Janneken Smucker, to tell us how they came into the world of oral history. Check out their responses below, and make sure to keep an eye on our social media pages in the coming weeks for more.

David Caruso

It’s really hard to get dead people to talk to you. Séances don’t count. For my doctoral degree at Cornell University I researched the history and use of American military medicine from the Spanish-American War through to the First World War. I buried myself in various archives, digging my way through voluminous folders to find answers to a plethora of questions. I read memos and reports, analyzed admission applications and equipment orders, and pulled out as much information as I could from the century-old records, and then coupled all of those with personal memoirs written in the aftermath of war. But there was no one left alive who could answer my questions directly—I had to use my training in historical research to come up with the most likely truths that the archives and books could provide.

I also had the opportunity to work on smaller, contemporary projects that focused on the history of science, involving both archival research and the chance to actually speak to scientists and engineers. The frustrations I felt when researching the history of American military medicine were nowhere to be found when working on these contemporary projects. Near the end of my graduate career there was a job opportunity at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, an independent, history of science-based research library in Philadelphia. The position entailed interviewing biomedical scientists who received an early-career grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts; I saw it as an opportunity to better understand the history of modern biomedical research funding by talking to the individuals whose work benefitted from that financial support.

I came to oral history not through a formal degree program but by realizing the limitations of traditional historical records, and deciding that I needed to talk to people to understand history better. While working on the biomedical scientists’ project, I ensconced myself in the world of oral history, fortuitously meeting Roger Horowitz when he was a fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Roger introduced me to Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region, which led me to the Oral History Association.

Abby Perkiss

As an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College, I studied sociology, history, and creative writing with the intention of carving out a life at the intersection of storytelling and social change. My last year there saw the US invade Iraq, and I undertook an independent senior thesis to examine whether and how Americans were using the memory of Vietnam as a way to understand and engage with the current conflict. My thinking was that I would interview folk singers from the 1960s and contemporary folk singers/singer songwriters, as the creators of collective memory, to see how each cohort was conceiving the situation in Iraq. Over a few months in the spring of 2003, I interviewed more than a dozen musicians, including Pete Seeger, Janis Ian, and Mary Travers. The project was completely flawed, methodologically and conceptually, but I was hooked.

It’s really hard to get dead people to talk to you. Séances don’t count.

From there, I studied documentary writing at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine, and then completed a joint JD/PhD in US history at Temple University. Oral history played a central role in my dissertation research, and continues to define a significant part of my scholarly and pedagogical identity.

Today, I am an Assistant Professor of History at Kean University in New Jersey, where I teach courses in US history, African American history, legal history, and oral and public history. From 2013-2016, I worked with undergrads at Kean to develop a longitudinal oral history project on the relief and recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I will be using those interviews as the backbone of a narrative monograph documenting the uneven recovery of Hurricane Sandy along the New Jersey coastline.

Janneken Smucker

Looking back over the last 20 years, there’s no specific moment when I began to self-identify as an oral historian, but somehow the method has been a reoccurring theme in my academic career. As a college senior, I interviewed individuals for my senior seminar paper at Goshen College about the origins of the college’s Women’s Studies program. When I began studying quilts from an academic perspective, my first paper was based on an oral history interview I conducted with my elderly grandmother about the quilts she and her Amish-Mennonite peers made as young women in the 1920s in eastern Ohio. I then conducted around thirty interviews for my doctoral dissertation research focused on the relationship of Amish quilts to the art market and consumer culture. All of sudden, it felt like I’d become a bit of an oral historian, which made sense since much of my research focused on contemporary history topics from the 1970s and 80s.

I now regularly teach with oral history, working with my students at West Chester University to create digital public history projects, interpreting and providing access to archival oral history interviews, by building classroom/archive partnerships that take advantage of open source technologies. In the spring 2018 semester, I’ll be teaming with WCU colleague Charlie Hardy to teach a new course, Immigration and Digital Storytelling, which will draw on a collection of oral history interviews Charlie conducted in the early 1980s with immigrants who moved to Philadelphia from Europe early in the twentieth century.

Join us in eagerly welcoming the new team in the comments below and on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and Google+.

Featured image credit: Listen by Simon Law. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

Engaging with history at #OHA2017

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By Gabriale Payne

For most Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks for all of the best things in life: family, friends, football, and, of course, heaps of delectable food. Few care to spend any time thinking about the myths that underlie American perceptions of the holiday, and even fewer can appreciate how and why this holiday is frequently observed as a day of mourning among many Native Americans. Protests at Standing Rock and throughout the football world have made it much more difficult to sweep the histories of historically marginalized groups under the rug this holiday season. This year, Thanksgiving and its commonly espoused “theology of divine abundance” will not be enough to obscure the histories of inequality and violence America was founded upon.

Like these protests, the presentations I attended during the Oral History Association’s 2017 annual meeting delivered critical historical narratives and resources that can help us to further challenge some of the nationalist myths that obscure the experiences and perspectives of various marginalized communities in American history. These presentations helped to illuminate important lessons we can learn from an engagement with the histories and contemporary concerns of marginalized peoples in the US. In honor of the holiday season, I have put together a short list of what I was most thankful for during OHA2017.

1. OHA 2017 Keynote Address: Jill Lepore, “Joe Gould, Augusta Savage, and Oral History’s Dark Past”

I think most OHA2017 attendees would agree that the real star of Jill Lepore’s keynote address, in addition to Lepore herself, was Augusta Savage. Though Lepore’s talk (and the book it draws on) focused largely on Joe Gould, the ostensible father of oral history, conversations during the Q&A that followed her lecture focused almost exclusively on Augusta Savage and Lepore’s allusions to the years of physical and sexual violence she suffered at the hands of Joe Gould. And, perhaps even more significant was Lepore’s assertion that there were a number of important men involved in protecting Gould from facing any legal consequences for his violent acts against Savage. This story has begun to ring loudly in my ears as a number of influential men in Hollywood–long protected by their status and associations with other prominent men in the business–tumble down from their pedestals in the face of women who have been inspired to tell their stories by campaigns like #MeToo. Serendipitously timely, Lepore’s, address helps to advance our knowledge on the subject of women, sexism, and (sexual) violence in American history just as we–as a nation–are finally beginning to grapple with the knowledge that women are subjected to wide-spread and largely accepted forms of sexual harassment and sexual violence on a daily basis. As we begin to deal more fully with this reality and all of its (un)intended e/affects, it will be important to earnestly reflect on how race plays a role in shaping women’s (and men’s) experiences with sexism and sexual violence, and stories like Savages’ will provide us with a critical starting place to do this work.

When learning is a two-way street, oral history stories have the power to change the present.

2. Roundtable 065. Documenting Activism in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter and Standing Rock

Everything about this roundtable was superb, however, what I want to share with readers here are links to some of the oral history focused resources roundtable participants have played key roles in establishing for public consumption. These resources would be great sources of information for teachers and researchers alike:

The Documenting the Now project works to ethically collect and preserve “the public’s use of social media for chronicling historically significant events,” and is supported jointly by the University of Maryland, University of California, Riverside (UCR), and Washington University in St. Louis.

Inside the Activists Studio (IAS) is a web-based series that is easily accessible via YouTube and takes inspiration for the interview-styles of the popular television series “Inside the Actors Studio.” Each episode features an interview with activists about their own “political awakening and biography of activism” and is posted online for free and easy access (at least for those with access to a computer and internet).

Invisible to Invincible: Asian Activism in MN, a short documentary film available on YouTube, works to unpack the model minority stereotype while also exploring the history of Asian activism in Minnesota and the US more broadly.

3. Panel 091. Oral History and Critical Pedagogies

Each of the papers presented during this panel were extremely different in their content and subject matter, some presenters sharing insights from their university based institutional ethnographic work and others discussing the use of family oral histories to destabilize neoliberal pedagogies; however, these presentations were tied together by a few underlying ‘truths’ about the significance of oral history to developing critical pedagogies. First, the theme of lost knowledge and/or obscured stories came through in all three papers, as did the real ways that oral history can be used as a tool to bring light to ‘lost’ knowledge or stories of the past. Perhaps more significant, however, are the ways in which each presenter showed us exactly how and why it is so important for teachers, academics, and activists to learn from the communities they work within. In bringing the methods, theories and tools of oral history research into the classroom and other educational spaces, these presenters were able to show us how giving students and teachers the opportunity to bring parts of themselves into their learning environments can enable them to work together to build solidarity and new forms of identity. Thus, the most important truth to be gleaned from the presenters on this panel: When learning is a two-way street, oral history stories have the power to change the present.

What are you thankful for this year? Chime into the discussion in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: ‘Demilitarize the Police, Black Lives Matter’ by Johnny Silvercloud, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

On burnout, trauma, and self-care with Erin Jessee

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Last week, Erin Jessee gave us a list of critical questions to ask to mitigate risk in oral history fieldwork. Today, we’ve invited Jessee back to the blog to talk more in-depth about her recently published article, “Managing Danger in Oral Historical Fieldwork,” spotting signs of trauma during interviews, and dealing with the sensitive nature of oral history.

You note that discussion of dangerous or distressing research encounters are common in “corridor talks” among oral historians, yet rarely make it into the scholarly literature. What kind of feedback or reactions have you had from colleagues as you make these conversations more public?  

Since the article went online, I’ve had a handful of emails thanking me for taking the time to write it, as it’s helping oral historians think through the dangers they’ve faced in past projects, and begin assessing potential future dangers. I also presented a few key points from the article at the Oral History Association meeting in Minneapolis, and the responses were entirely positive and supportive of the idea that—particularly given the recent deregulation of oral history in the United States—we can and should be doing more to assess danger in our work. Most oral historians seem to at least recognize the need to be more open about the potential for danger or emotional distress resulting either directly from the difficult narratives to which they’re exposed or from the personal wounds that these narratives reopen. The few resistant individuals tend to come from other fields, and object on the grounds that it wrongly detracts attention away from our participants. I understand this concern, but I think we need to find a balance between acknowledging the potentially negative impact our research can have on our mental and physical health—ideally, to create an environment that offers practitioners who are struggling more support—while still privileging participants’ narratives.

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. Many of us are navigating heavy workloads, and it doesn’t seem practical to suggest that we all undertake formal training in counselling. Likewise, we may not all be in positions where we’re able or willing to take on the often-unpaid emotional labor that is demanded of us in helping our colleagues process personal or work-related crises, particularly when it extends beyond a momentary bad mood or emergency. But there are things we can do in our professional lives that can make it easier for us to support our colleagues when they’re in distress or minimize the potential for that distress to occur in the first place. For example, Beth Hudnall Stamm’s tips for self-care are helpful for resilience-planning in advance of fieldwork but also include small acts that people can incorporate into their everyday lives. Over time they can help to make them not only more aware of the sources of stress and harm they navigate in their work, research, and personal lives, but also make us more supportive and empathetic colleagues and coworkers.

Because of the sensitive nature of your work, some of the life histories you record must ultimately be destroyed. Have you had any difficulty navigating that reality with narrators who want to have their full story told, or institutions and scholars that want access to the primary data?   

Because I’ve incorporated a very thorough informed consent process throughout my fieldwork, and most of the people I’ve interviewed are intimately familiar with the potential risks they face in participating in the research project, I haven’t encountered any resistance from participants to destroying the interviews we’ve conducted in the past. I should note, however, that the destruction of these interviews was a requirement of the ethics committee at the university where I conducted my doctoral studies, the underlying research design for which underwent review in 2007. I haven’t heard of any researchers in recent years being required to destroy their fieldwork data. Indeed, current best practices seem to allow for the anonymization of any materials that contain personally identifying information, and limited archiving—usually closed to the public and future researchers unless permission is given by the original researcher and/or participants.

That said, with the push to demonstrate positive public impact in academic research, I have noticed some tensions between researchers, and university administration and funding agencies. In the UK, universities often maintain online repositories in which oral historians are expected to deposit their interviews, as well as associated publications, to comply with open access requirements. Funding agencies can, as a starting point, require researchers to make use of these repositories as a condition for applying for funding. The tensions emerge around researchers’ concerns that while these repositories include options for closing sensitive materials to the public, they’re still held online and, as such, are hackable. Researchers’ efforts to remove any personally identifying information prior to depositing data in these repositories doesn’t eliminate the possibility of someone’s face or voice being recognized in the event these materials do find their way into the outside world. As such, researchers who are conducting research on potentially sensitive subject matter often feel they are inappropriate for archiving their data, particularly for older projects in which these online repositories were not discussed as a potential means of archiving or dissemination for the interviews entrusted to us.

Is there anything you couldn’t address in the article that you’d like to share here? 

The US Oral History Association (OHA) has formed a Task Force charged with revisiting the organization’s Principles and Best Practices in light of deregulation and the increasingly authoritarian political climate in the US. The Task Force will be presenting the revised best practices for discussion at the OHA meeting in Montréal in October 2018. Meanwhile, in the UK, the Oral History Society and the Oral History Network of Ireland are organizing what will undoubtedly be an important conference in June 2018 on Dangerous Oral Histories: Risks, Responsibilities, and Rewards. This means there will be lots of opportunities for oral historians to publically discuss the challenges they face in their research, as well as strategies for more effectively anticipating and managing danger, regardless of where and with whom they are conducting interviews.

What self-care strategies do you utilize? Chime into the discussion in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: “Exhaustion” by Jessica Cross. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Six questions to ask before you hit record

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By Erin Jessee

Erin Jessee’s article “Managing Danger in Oral Historical Fieldwork” in the most recent issue of the OHR provides a litany of practical advice about mitigating risk and promoting security. The entire article is well worth a read, but for the blog we’ve asked Jessee to provide us a list of some of the most important questions for oral historians to think about in evaluating and limiting exposure to risk. Enjoy the response below, and make sure to check out the complete article, where Jessee dives more deeply into the problem and offers an important perspective on the relationship between danger and oral history fieldwork. And make sure to come back to the blog in a couple of weeks for part two of our conversation with Jessee, where we talk about best practices, spotting signs of trauma, the ethics of open access, and more!

The most important thing that oral historians can do is network to establish a community of scholars/practitioners who have experience working in the communities or areas where you plan to conduct your research and who might be more keenly aware of the potential dangers you’ll need to address. It’s particularly important to speak with people who share at least some facets of your identity in terms of gender identity, class background, ethnic heritage, religious beliefs, sexuality, and so on, to better determine how your identity—as perceived by the people you’ll be working closely with—might shape or limit your research and the kinds of questions you can ask. Similarly, in my experience it’s important to evaluate the information that is freely revealed in the course of conversations with experienced scholars/practitioners, but also to consider the silences that might be emerging. Not all scholars/practitioners are comfortable speaking openly about the problems they’ve encountered in their research—particularly if it stems from some real or perceived error on their part—and so these areas of silence can be crucial for anticipating where you might experience potential pitfalls.

To help oral historians anticipate risk, I’d suggest asking the following:

  1. Who are the ideal people within and beyond academia to speak to about my intended research project? In drawing up your list, be sure to consider not only who might constitute ‘experts’ in terms of their overall publication record in relevant fields, but in terms of recent on-the-ground experience conducting qualitative research within and beyond academia. Additionally, consider what is the most appropriate way to approach them for advice.
  2. How might different facets of my identity be perceived by the people I intend to work with?These can shape how people respond to you in interviews and more generally.
  3. Where am I encountering silences? Listen closely during the background research and early conversations you conduct, and consider the extent to which any emergent silences might indicate additional areas of risk or danger that are important to evaluate further prior to starting my fieldwork.

Oral historians should also take the time to consider the various ways that they might be vulnerable within their research projects, and identify the resources available to them in their immediate surroundings aimed at helping them maintain positive mental and physical health. I’d suggest the following questions as starting points:

  1. In what ways might this research project negatively impact my mental and physical health?Think not only about the obvious stressors related to workload and deadlines, but also ways in which your personal experiences and deeply held values might render you vulnerable to transference/countertransference, vicarious trauma, and burn-out, for example, as well as physical danger.
  2. What resources are available to me in my community that I can draw upon to help maintain positive mental and physical health? It’s important to consider not only health services associated with the universities and organizations that you’re working with, but also options external to our places of work, such as 24-hour help lines, community support groups, and so on.
  3. What are some everyday activities that I find enjoyable and relaxing, and that take my mind off my work/research? Focus on arranging your day/week/month to include these activities frequently enough to maximize your potential for resilience throughout the project.

As researchers, it’s important that we incorporate self-care strategies into our everyday lives throughoutresearch projects—not just once we begin to experience poor mental or physical health.

What risks have you encountered in fieldwork, and what strategies have you developed to mitigate them? Chime into the discussion in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: “Risk Word Letters Boggle Game” by Wokandapix. CC0 via Pixabay.

Erin Jessee is a Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Research Fellow in Armed Conflict and Trauma (Modern History) at the University of Glasgow, and a research associate with the Scottish Oral History Centre at the University of Strathclyde.

Beyond the cold fact: The WPA narratives, Brazil’s black peasants, and the conduct of oral history

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By Oscar de la Torre

Last month the latest issue of the OHR hit the streets, bringing a litany of groundbreaking oral history content. Today we hear from Oscar de la Torre, author of a piece in OHR 44.2 that explored the place of narratives of good masters in the oral memories of Afro-Brazilians. Below, he asks what “layers of meaning” emerge through these recordings that perhaps fall outside the bounds of either purely factual information or oral traditions.

When the 1988 Constitution recognized and gave lands to black rural communities descending from slaves, the black peasants of Brazil made a sudden entrance into the country’s political realm. As they began to embrace their African ancestry and made it to the news all over the country, a number of scholars and journalists scrambled for some research funding, grabbed their recorders, and headed to the remotest corners of the country’s gigantic wilderness to interview these apparently unknown black peasants. It was an endeavor comparable to the famous WPA slave narratives from the Great Depression.

The process of recognizing and titling the black communities started in the 1990s with a technical report clarifying the community’s past ties to slavery, so the first wave of scholars that studied them had the goal of unearthing memories about life under this institution, just as in the case of the WPA narratives. Both sets of interviews tried to rescue experiences from a time when most interviewees were only children, and in the case of Brazil, from an era in which most interviewees had not even been born. In fact, a number of anthropologists from the states of Pará, São Paulo, or Rio de Janeiro, often collected “oral traditions,” more than personal experiences or memories. As we know, oral traditions can under certain premises be used to accompany and complement historical studies, but they need to be carefully managed, and cross-examined with other sources. Instead, a number of the early reports on the Brazilian black communities took oral traditions just as factual evidence, dismissing the rich but often ignored symbolic load that they carried. A recent PhD thesis written in Amazonia, for example, took the stories about a well where the former slaves were buried without proper rituals as factual evidence, when it is highly likely that this story symbolizes a shared past marked by collective trauma and abuse, more so than indicating a specific place where this happened.

As we know, oral traditions can under certain premises be used to accompany and complement historical studies, but they need to be carefully managed, and cross-examined with other sources.

The Brazilian scholars who collected oral histories during the 1990s and 2000s also worked under tight schedules, because some black communities started the process of official recognition as a way of stopping the land grabs of landowners and agribusiness during those years. Working to meet tight deadlines meant that some early studies lacked a deeper consideration of the type of evidence they had in their hands. In the Trombetas River (Amazonia), for example, the report published in 1991 relied on a number of oral myths and stories understood as quasi-factual evidence from the time of slavery. For example, an oral narrative about an elderly woman who was also a powerful spiritual leader at the time some maroon communities were created was interpreted as a signpost that this woman was already old during the early 1800s. Shortly afterwards, a historian found a travelogue featuring a photograph of the same woman taken in 1902. The narrative, in other words, had been used as factual evidence in a somewhat careless manner. Like this, other reports written in the provinces of Maranhão, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, or Bahia, gave a somewhat superficial treatment to the oral traditions conveyed by the black peasants, especially at the beginning.

Cases such as these point to the fact that there are still numerous stories and layers of meaning waiting to be probed in studies about black oral traditions in Brazil. The Oral History and Image Laboratory from Rio de Janeiro’s Federal Fluminense University or UFF, or the Federal University of Maranhão, are repositories of a large number of interviews with slave-descendants from the 1980s and beyond waiting to be interrogated with new questions in mind. If researchers can approach them formulating imaginative questions that point not to slavery, but to events experienced after it was abolished, and if they can approach them with new conceptual tools drawn from cultural and media studies, such collections can bear a number of valuable lessons and relate a number of interesting stories. My Oral History Review article, “Sites of Memory and Time Slips,” points to two of these concepts, but there are more. Why are there no literary studies of the figure of the patriarchal slaveowner, for example? Why has no one investigated yet the relationships between discourses about slaveowners and post-emancipation landowners? Why has no one interrogated the gender roles and representations of both black peasant women and affluent white women embedded in these sets of memories? To the best of my knowledge, there is also little to nothing published on the racial categories and representations that rural Brazilians employ in their daily life.

Oral histories about black peasants in Brazil, in sum, are newer than in the U.S. They have not experienced as many waves of scholarship as the WPA narratives, which have been alternatively embraced and rebutted by scholars like Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, Leon Litwack, Eugene Genovese, Ira Berlin, Sharon Musher, or Michael Gomez, ever since they were published in the 1940s. That is why there is still substantial room to tackle them with new questions, new concepts, and new approaches. Our beloved oral histories constitute a kind of evidence that will yield rich and nuanced responses about the history of rural Brazilians–and about the history of American ones as well, once someone starts a comparative study. But in order to do so, they demand to be treated with a sensitive eye, an open-minded ear, and an imaginative tackle.

Featured image: “Vallée de l’Amazone de Faro a Alemquer, Rio Trombetas – Rio Ariramba” by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Listening to ‘all our stories’: An insider’s guide to #OHA2017 in the Twin Cities

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By Gabriale Payne

A few weeks ago we began counting down to the OHA Annual Meeting, which is now just around the corner. Today, as promised, we bring you an insider’s look at Twin Cities from Gabriale Payne, who will be our correspondent on the ground throughout the conference. Enjoy her tips, and add your own suggestions in the comments below or on Twitter using the hashtag #OHA2017.

“Bridging the gulf between us is hard… But what alternative do we have? The demographic makeup of Minnesota, like the rest of the country, is changing rapidly and radically…. If we are to sort ourselves out and make good lives for ourselves in this ever-more-multicultural landscape, we’ve got to start by talking less and listening more.

We can listen—really listen—to one another’s stories and learn from them. Collectively, we can learn to tell a story that includes all our stories… fashion a mosaic-like group portrait from those stories that we all can agree truly does resemble people like us.

–David Lawrence Grant, “People Like Us,” in A Good Time for the Truth: Race in America, edited by Sun Yung Shin

Over the past year, events in Minnesota’s Twin Cities have made national headlines more times than one can count – at least not without the use of fingers and toes. As much as the residents of Minnesota might appreciate gaining some national attention for something other than their state’s 10,000+ lakes, its famous Juicy Lucy burger, or its exceptionally frigid winter weather, recent news has rarely been good. From the death of Prince – beloved son of Minneapolis – in April 2016, to the July 2016 shooting of Philando Castile in the Saint Paul suburb of Falcon Heights, to the more recent August 4th bombing at the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in the city of Bloomington – the states’ fourth largest city – it would seem that Minnesota is in urgent need of some good news. But Minnesota is far from alone in this need. If anything, the Twin Cities, and their suburbs are in good company with many other cities across the nation as Americans everywhere begin to brace themselves in the face of mounting international challenges. Fortunately for those attending OHA2017, the Twin Cities have much more than negative publicity to offer its visitors.

The Twin Cities are home to a variety of institutions which continually illustrate the difference oral history can make in expanding our understanding of the past, particularly with regards to the experiences of marginalized communities in Minnesota and abroad. The Minnesota Historical Society maintains the largest digitized Oral History Collection in the country, with a special focus on Voices of Minnesota, the US Dakota War of 1862, and Immigrant Oral Histories. In addition, in 2013, the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center launched the Immigrant Stories project which works to collect contemporary migration stories through digital storytelling, all preserved in their archives, a well-renowned archive and library for the study of immigration, ethnicity, and race. The Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies, at the University of Minnesota Libraries, maintains over 3,000 linear feet of material which helps to provide a record of GLBT thought, knowledge and culture for current and future generations. Each of these archives are available to students, researchers and members of the public, providing Minnesota’s diverse communities with the opportunity to hear “one another’s stories and learn from them,” to produce stories that truly “resemble people like us,” and to reconstruct our social values in ways that better reflect our states’ and our nation’s multiculturalism. All of these institutions are well worth a visit to anyone attending OHA2017.

There are also several exhibits at the Minnesota History Center that can provide a deeper understanding of our state’s multicultural history. The museum’s Then and Now exhibit provides visitors with a unique perspective on Dakota history and culture through a presentation of Bobby Wilson’s poetry and visual art. The exhibit also provides a concise but detailed glimpse into the history of one of St. Paul’s displaced African American communities, which was once situated close to Rondo Avenue before it was supplanted by Interstate 94 in the 1960s. Moving beyond the borders of Minnesota, the museum’s WWI Americaexhibit provides visitors with the opportunity to explore the histories of both remarkable people and social movements, including mass immigration, women’s suffrage, and racial politics, with the use of a variety of original artifacts. The Minneapolis Institute of Art will also have a number of exhibitions that can help visitors learn more about the histories and experiences of marginalized communities in the Twin Cities and beyond. Their “I Am Somali”: Three Visual Artists from the Twin Cities exhibition celebrates the work of three Somali visual artists from the Twin Cities: Hassan Nor, Aziz Osman, and Ifrah Mansour. These artists’ stories help us to examine and better understand experiences of exile as well as questions of memory and identity from multiple geographical, historical, and contemporary standpoints.

For anyone searching for a safe space to ponder some of the difficult questions that shape our contemporary international circumstances, try a stop in at the Walker Art Center to visit their I am you, you are too exhibition, which brings a diverse international and multi-generational group of artists together for critical reflection on how we memorialize the past and understand the social, geographic, and political structures that shape us. The Guthrie Theater’s production of Watch on the Rhine – a political thriller centered on a German anti-Nazi immigrant living in 1940’s Washington – is another great option here as well, presenting audiences with a timely opportunity to engage with questions of moral duty.

Last but not least, for those looking for a more basic tourists’ view of the Twin Cities, be sure not to miss an opportunity to peruse the shops at the Mall of America. And, though it may be a bit too chilly for most, outdoorsy types will enjoy some time on any one of Minnesota’s scenic byways; the Chain of Lakes is exceptionally picturesque. And, if at the end of the day you still have the energy to burn, visit a few well-known food spots on Eat Street for dinner, followed by drinks and live music at one of Minneapolis-Saint Paul’s hottest spots.

Whatever you decide to do while you are here, make sure to “listen—really listen” to the stories you hear so that when you return to your own communities, you can help us to spread “all our stories” in ways that “truly…resemble people like us.” Do this, and I can assure you that your time here will be more than just memorable…it will be worth remembering, too.

What are you most excited to see during #OHA2017 in the Twin Cities? Let us know in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: We can fall in love with this city together by JFXie. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr

Diving into the OHR Archive

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By Andrew Shaffer

One of my favorite tasks as the OHR’s Social Media Coordinator is interviewing people for the blog. I get to talk to authors of recent articles from the OHR, oral historians using the power of conversation to create change, and a whole lot more. As a narcissistic millennial, however, I am now turning the spotlight inward, interviewing myself about the OHR’s latest virtual issue, released this week, on Oral History and Public History.

What can readers expect to find in this virtual issue?

This issue has everything: short articles about the professionalization of oral history; longer articles about memory in Saskatoon and public attention to Mashapaug; representations of the past in museums and public space; and journeys of communal discovery through Spanish-language music and intergenerational housing activism. The introduction is pretty neat, too. The threads that connect these articles together explore the interactions between oral historians, oral histories, and the public – whether that public be the residents of an ethnic enclave, visitors to a museum, or the people whose lives are recorded through a particular project.

Why should people look through a virtual issue, when a brand new issue of the OHR just came out?

In one of the first email interviews I conducted for the OHR blog, Linda Shopes encouraged oral historians to “slow down a bit and consider the urge to collect.” She was making a case about the direction of the field, but her concern about work simply gathering dust on archival shelves has stuck with me. In a world where new scholarship is continually being produced, older work can easily be ignored and fall by the wayside. But these articles are often immensely valuable in prompting questions for current research, and for thinking through the ways the field has changed or shifted. These virtual issues are a chance to slow down a bit, to dive deeply into the journal’s archive, and to see what conversations emerge over time.

You did this all by yourself, right?

Wow, such astute questions! As much as I would like to claim I did this all single-handedly, much of the credit (and none of the blame) goes to the OHR’s Editor in Chief Kathy Nasstrom and Managing Editor Troy Reeves. Troy and I worked through decades of scholarship to select a handful articles that could reflect, as accurately as possible, the major themes and concerns raised in the journal around the interactions between oral history and public history. We both fell in love with articles that didn’t make the final cut, and together we killed each other’s darlings. Kathy’s keen editing eye guided our selection process throughout and turned a rambling introduction into a polished piece of writing that makes it much clearer how each article adds to the issue. Troy and Kathy have graciously allowed me to take credit for the virtual issue (and I agreed, see: narcissism, above), but their fingerprints are all over it. The issue’s copyeditor, Elinor Maze, and our friends at Oxford University Press – especially marketing whiz Alex Fulton – helped to turn this virtual issue into a reality.

Do you have plans to do similar projects in the future?

I don’t, but the OHR does! Virtual issues are a great way to highlight older content, and the journal is eager to hear what other ideas for themes you, the readers, have. If you’d like to pitch a virtual issue, reach out at ohreview[at]gmail[dot]com.

You can explore the virtual issue here, and let us know what you think in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Working class narratives in the twenty first century

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By Virginia Espino

With school getting back in session, today on the blog we are exploring how instructors are using oral history in the classroom. The piece below, from filmmaker and UCLA Lecturer Virginia Espino explores the power of oral history to connect students to their campus community, and to help them collaboratively rethink what working class identity means in the modern era.

What does it mean to be a member of the working class in the twenty first century? I posed this question to my students earlier this year when I taught a class in oral history methods for the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCLA. I focused the course on the study and collection of working class stories as a way to uplift voices not often heard in an academic setting and to develop an archive of interviews that broadens our understanding of the working class as a diverse and multifaceted cross-section of our society.

Erin Min: An Oral History from Maya Tripathi on Vimeo.

On the first day of class I handed out index cards to each student and asked them to define working class in three words or statements. How we define terms such as “working class,” “middle class” and “upper class” exposes our belief system as well as how successful the media has been in constructing meanings for us. In order to teach working class history, I wanted to understand what the term meant to modern college students in one of the most ethnically and economically diverse cities in the country.

The responses were what I might have predicted because they were views that I shared myself:  Living paycheck-to-paycheck; struggling to survive; exploited. But as I re-read through my student’s definitions, I was reminded of my own oral history interviews with the Chicana activist, Lilia Aceves. She recalled that poverty meant something different to her growing up in 1940s East Los Angeles. She had a roof over her head and food on the table and imagined herself as well to do. “I didn’t know we were poor…I thought we had everything,” she recalled. Only as an adult did she understand that her family lacked the kind of material wealth one saw in popular magazines or on the big screen. “We always had a home, but in terms of the physical aspect of it you could see that we were the working poor.”

After the first session of class my primary teaching goal for the quarter evolved into using oral history methods to document the meaning working class individuals gave to their lives. I directed my students to enter the interviews with an open mind and to expect to have their assumptions challenged. In addition to capturing the life-history narrative I wanted them to focus on questions that explored how members of the working class understood their social and economic position. Did they view themselves as we did: poor, unskilled, and uneducated? What would they tell us about their lives if we took the time to listen? The results of their interviews were stunning, and several narratives stand out for how they help us to amplify our perception of U.S. “workers.”

Three students in the class chose to work together on an interview project that would explore the lives of three janitors in the University of California system. They developed an interview outline that would focus on the following research questions:

  • What is class-consciousness?
  • How is class structured in the United States?
  • What are the intersections between class and ethnic identity, and do these intersections influence narrators’ lived experiences?
  • What are the opportunities for, and barriers to, upward mobility?
  • What role does unionism and labor organizing take among UC janitors?

Each student was required to interview the same person twice in order to gain an authentic experience of the work oral historians do when approaching the life history. Returning to an interviewee for follow-up questions is the crux of a quality interview and often leads to a deeper dig into meaning and personal agency.  And for the student interviewers, it proved essential in providing them with ample time to develop trust as well as time to step back from the process for self-reflection and self-critique. The students identified as members of the working class, but soon realized they were bringing their own biases to the interview process – specifically, the assumptions they had about the people who maintain the infrastructure of UC campuses. As stated in their project evaluation, they began their project with the belief that “janitors are poor and their job has low value…” They ended their project with a new awareness that janitors take pride in their work and want to be seen and appreciated by the students, faculty and staff who work alongside them.

As a class we learned the varied meanings of working class through the projects students executed. In a surprising revelation, the students learned that one of the janitors they interviewed held a college degree: Unable to find a job in her field she was forced to take a position cleaning the UCLA campus to support her young family. Over the course of the quarter we were introduced to an Asian American student struggling to balance work and school. Her narrative forced us to reject the “model minority” stereotype that presumes Asian Americans float easily through school; her identification with the working class stemmed from her need to support herself through school, while many of her classmates receive unlimited parental support. And through an interview with a white male, we learned that the absence of jobs in the humanities has forced white college educated men to seek jobs in restaurants and department stores while struggling to maintain the lifestyle they desire. Taken together, these important narratives help us complicate what it means to be working class in the twenty first century.

Virginia Espino is a historian turned filmmaker who currently teaches oral history, Chicanx history, and Labor history at UCLA. She is a co-producer of the film No Más Bebés that examines the history of forced sterilizations at a large public hospital. Her current project is an investigation into the foster care system through the voices of those who encounter it on a daily basis.

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