We ask authors of projects reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their projects. In our latest installment of the series, Vann Newkirk II discusses his podcast Floodlines produced through The Atlantic, which focuses on the the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Sheldon Yeakley’s review of the Floodlines podcast is available online and in OHR issue 49.1.
What’s it about and why does it matter?
Floodlines is a story about what happened to the people of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We follow those who lived through the catastrophe of the levees breaking and, through their lives, look at what a human-created disaster says about America. We believe Floodlines matters because the people who shared their stories with us matter.
How does oral history contribute to your project?
Some of the archives and projects that meant the most to us in our research, such as the Neighborhood Story Project, the House of Dance and Feathers, and the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum are all based on a bed of rigorous and rich oral histories. Our goal was not to replicate those works nor to reinvent the wheel, but to credit them and draw inspiration from them as north stars for our methods. We created a systemic interviewing process that we hoped would be sensitive to traumatic experience, and in the making of the podcast joined those interviews with contemporaneous news footage from Katrina and historical archives to help create the sense that the listener is always inside the moment being described.
What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?
In my opinion, oral history carries so much information that other mediums cannot. Writing conveys a level of factual information and words, but oral histories contain emotion and texture. I’m also just interested in how people talk. I’m interested in why they talk, and in tone and the relationship between them and an interviewer. I think many times, the information encoded there is more useful in understanding the past than information you get from writing or even images.
“Writing conveys a level of factual information and words, but oral histories contain emotion and texture.”
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your project?
I won’t say “fellow” here because I am just an amateur playing at the form, but I hope that oral historians are interested in the podcast because of the richness of information that I think is part of all of our interviews, and because the team really worked hard to get it right. We wanted to do work with both rigor and care for the people who shared with us, and I hope that this community of professionals finds value there—and also lets me know what they think.
What is the one thing that you most want the audience to remember about the project?
I hope that people are able to see themselves and their own circumstances in the stories of other people. I hope that people recall moments like our interview with Michael Brown and listening to Le-Ann think through it, because to me those moments are fundamentally about empathy, and how it—or the lack thereof—shapes our society.
Vann R. Newkirk II is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He has covered the battles for voting rights since the 2013 Shelby County Supreme Court decision, the fate of communities on the front lines of climate change and disasters, the Black vote in the 2018 and 2020 elections, and wrote the September 2019 cover story for the Atlantic on black land loss. He is the host of the Atlantic’s podcast Floodlines, a narrative series about Hurricane Katrina. His forthcoming book, Children of the Flood, a chronicle of Black America’s fight against climate crises, will be published by Random House.