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, Karida L. Brown discusses Gone Home: Race and Roots Through Appalachia.
What’s it about and why does it matter?
Gone Home is a book about the emergence and transformation of African American subjectivity. By this I mean the interior and subjective understandings of Self, and in this case, of a people: birthed into freedom out of the battered womb of the Civil War, striving in a dogged pursuit to reach their ideals of freedom and citizenship—those of life, liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness; a claim to the land that generations ago had been forced on them in bondage; and a sense of belonging in the national life of the United States of America. Through this pursuit, collectively, Black Americans continually confront a somewhat peculiar version of the fundamental questions of the human condition: Who am I? What am I? and, as they look to their fellow Americans, Who are “we” as a people? These questions are the primary matter of concern for this book.
How does oral history contribute to your book?
Gone Home is centered on the oral histories of 153 African Americans who share eastern Kentucky roots, between 1927 and 1980. They are the protagonists of the historical epochs that I examine throughout the book; namely life behind the veil of the color line in the Jim Crow South, the boom and bust of the coal mining industry in Central Appalachia, the African American Great Migration, and school desegregation. Instead of listening to interview data and translating what I think the actors in my book were trying to express, I just present the oral history data for the reader to contend with—in other words I just let them say it.
What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?
I have a deep appreciation for using oral history as a methodology for several reasons (1) because it allows you to tap into the inner most parts of the self. As a lifelong student of the human condition, this dimension of the social world is of utmost importance to me as a scholar and a human being in relation with others, (2) as your body of interviews accumulate, you can start to see the structure of memory. Certain events, people, places, and ideas come to take on shared meanings over time, and sometimes that fundamentally changes people. Oral history allows you to trace that in an organic and inductive manner, and (3) because it gives agency and unadulterated voice to the people we study. Maya Angelou hit the nail on the head when she said “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Folks should be able to tell their stories and be heard in their own words.
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?
Because it is a fun journey through one of the most transformational periods in American history. What I love about Gone Home is that it is written in a manner that invites the reader to buckle up, and take the journey with my research participants. It’s a subtle shift in the point of view that I invite the reader to assume—that of an active participant in the story, not a passive consumer of the lives of others.
What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?
We are all matters of consequence to human history.