Letters to the Editors: Thoughts on Who Speaks for Baltimore

Our Fall 2021 issue (48.2) focuses on ethics and oral history. Not surprisingly, the topic has elicited continuing discussions about how we approach or practices as oral historians. The OHR editors intend for this blog space to be a venue for that dialogue. Here we share a letter to the editors we received from Donald A. Ritchie regarding Mary Rizzo’s contribution to the issue, “Who Speaks for Baltimore: The Invisibility of Whiteness and the Ethics of Oral History Theater.”  We invited Mary to respond to Don’s thoughts, which we also share here. We welcome your thoughts and opinions as well. Please comment below, or contact us to share your own responses.

October 20, 2021

To the Editors,

Mary Rizzo’s article, “Who Speaks for Baltimore: The Invisibility of Whiteness and the Ethics of Oral History Theater” (OHR, September 2021), is puzzling. It would seem reasonable to assert that if the stage production drawn from the Baltimore Voices oral history project was being crafted today it would adopt a different approach. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, oral historians in Baltimore were strongly influenced by progressive theories on class and ethnicity, which scriptwriters wove into the stage adaptation of their interviews. If conducted today the project would most likely be influenced by the theories of race and whiteness that Rizzo cites. But to accuse them of “eliding,” abdicating, fumbling, and ceding authority based on theories that did not develop until decades afterwards is anachronistic.

Theory provides a lens to see things more clearly but can also obscure evidence that does not fit inside its scope. While Baltimore Voices wanted to let the people “speak for themselves,” the scriptwriters edited the interviews for the stage production within the prevailing theoretical framework, fitting African Americans into the same patterns as white ethnic communities. Fortunately for oral historians, Rizzo demonstrates that the interviews conducted in the 1970s also lend themselves to reinterpretation based on current racial theories. This suggests that the more than two hundred interviews that Baltimore Voices recorded and preserved will likely continue to be reread, re-analyzed, and perhaps re-presented whenever the paradigm shifts again.

Donald A. Ritchie

December 14, 2021

To the Editors, 

Donald Ritchie has raised 2 issues in his letter to the editor in response to my article. First, he suggests that it is “anachronistic” to evaluate the play Baltimore Voices through the lens of whiteness studies because that field was developed later. Second, he suggests that it was common sense for the play’s creators to fit the Black experience “into the same patterns as white ethnic communities,” because it was the “prevailing theoretical framework.” I’d like to respond to both points.

First, as I wrote in my blog post, “Is Sharing Authority a Cop Out?” I struggled with the issue of applying ideas from whiteness studies to this case, not because it seemed anachronistic but because I did not want to ungenerously critique people who, I believe, were genuinely trying to wrestle with the complications of race and class in Baltimore. As I wrote, “My goal is not to point fingers at the past, but to use this case study to help those of us today who care about our oral and public history work making a political difference to think through the complexities of sharing authority and community collaboration.” I stand by that point. As scholars, it is important to evaluate past work and learn from it in a spirit of compassion and generosity.

But, as I show in the article, while whiteness studies didn’t exist as a field in 1980 when the play was performed, critiques of whiteness as material privilege did. They just came from African American thinkers, scholars, and activists. From CLR James to Malcolm X, many Black public figures argued that whiteness was a privileged identity that was often utilized to divide working-class people of different races. Issues of whiteness were even raised through theater in this era. Martin Duberman, a white writer, wrote the play In White America, which was performed by the Free Southern Theater, a civil rights group, by using historical documents to show how white privilege—and anti-Black racism—was woven into the fabric of American democracy in 1963, almost twenty years before Baltimore Voices.

Secondly, the choice to frame Baltimore’s African American history through the narrative structure of white ethnic immigration may have been common sense, or, to put it another way, the hegemonic way to think about this issue, but it was not the only option. The story of white ethnic immigration, as scholars like Matthew Frye Jacobson have shown, is a distortion of the past. In this version, white immigrants succeeded in the US solely through hard work and strong communities, ignoring material support gained from access to government programs like subsidized mortgages. Any discrimination they experienced was argued to be the same as that experienced by African Americans, a perspective that ignores systemic racism. Again, local scholars at the time offered a different take. As I note in the article, Roderick Ryon, a history professor at Towson University in Maryland, used the same oral history interviews as the play’s creators to publish an article in Maryland Historical Magazine in 1982 about African American history in Baltimore. Rather than use the immigration narrative, he instead acknowledged that white immigrants were privileged as a group due to their race in employment and housing. Black Baltimoreans fought back by creating their own institutions and vibrant neighborhood in Old West Baltimore.

Finally, I don’t know that I agree that if the play was created today the end result would be different. My goal in writing this article now is to argue that oral and public historians need to think more about whiteness than we often do and use our historical knowledge as scholars to illuminate this complicated past. It’s not a given, but a call to action.

Mary Rizzo

Former Oral History Association President, Donald A. Ritchie, is Historian Emeritus of the United States Senate and is the author of many books, including the influential Doing Oral History (2014). 

Mary Rizzo is associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark. She is the author of Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and The Wire (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020) and Class Acts: Young Men and the Rise of Lifestyle (University of Nevada Press, 2015). She is an advisor for the Queer Newark Oral History Project and founder of the Chicory Revitalization Project.