Is Sharing Authority a Cop Out?

OHR‘s Special Issue on Ethics is finally here. We will hear from several of our contributing authors over the next months, as they reflect on aspects of their oral history practice as it relate to ethics. This week, Mary Rizzo, author of “Who Speaks for Baltimore: The Invisibility of Whiteness and the Ethics of Oral History Theater,” discusses how shared authority, a vital practice to oral historians, has the potential to be harmful to progressive, social history without additional expertise and critical thinking.

By Mary Rizzo

Listen to the members of marginalized communities when they talk about their lived experiences. For oral historians, this has been a tenet of the field since the new social history of the 1960s, if not before. It’s become a common idea in progressive public history circles as well. Rather than assuming that knowledge comes only from archives, official records, or outside observation, collaborating with community members recognizes that their lived experience is knowledge and has value. Both oral history and folklore have prioritized the transmission of knowledge from community member to community member. In practice, it’s often referred to as sharing authority, which has become central to oral and public history practices, as textbooks and introductions to public history reflect.

Sounds good, right? In many ways, yes. But I’m concerned that in practice, sharing authority can mean that scholars cede their authority to historically contextualize lived experience. Sharing authority is a two-way street that sees the necessity of both community and scholarly perspectives. By downplaying our expertise, we are abdicating our duty to provide perspective and challenge communities whose worldviews are based on incomplete understandings of the past.

As I demonstrate in my article, “Who Speaks for Baltimore: The Invisibility of Whiteness and the Ethics of Oral History Theater,” in Oral History Review’s Special Issue on Ethics, foregrounding sharing authority without a thorough understanding of how power operates in the community can backfire if our goal is progressive public history.

The article is a case study of Baltimore Voices, a documentary theater play performed in 1980-1981. Written only with words from the more than two hundred interviews collected by the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project in the late 1970s, Voices won substantial national and local funding and was seen by more than 10,000 people in Baltimore and at national events like the Organization of American Historians conference. A filmed version aired on regional PBS affiliates in 1981, adding perhaps several thousand more viewers. For the young oral historians, established social historians, and theater professionals who worked on it, this project was ripe with left-leaning political possibility. Turning thousands of pages of oral histories into a traveling play meant that people across Baltimore and the nation could hear the words of elderly working-class people, people who had been exploited as workers in factories, and then seen those jobs disappear due to deindustrialization.

While class identity disempowered the narrators as a group, race gave white narrators, who were a majority of the interviewees, privilege that was invisible to them. Some white narrators expressed virulently racist beliefs in the interviews. Less explicit but equally insidious, other narrators ignored how their whiteness gave them access to material advantages, like better housing, than Black people. Instead, they remembered how their families and communities simply worked hard to achieve the American dream. Whiteness, as scholars from David Roediger to Peggy McIntosh have shown, works through invisibility. Most white people are unaware that they have a racial identity that privileges them. But today, in a moment when oral and public historians are trying to show the danger of white supremacist ideas and reveal how white privilege works, this case study from five decades ago shows us how smart, liberal people with good intentions made choices that ultimately centered white perspectives.

In the article, I outline several decisions made by the creators. Here, I’ll focus on the one I think is most important and which ties back to the issue of shared authority: the decision to only use the words of the narrators in writing the play.

In a recorded meeting from 1979, project personnel debated how to deal with racism in Baltimore and the interviews. They were ultimately swayed by the suggestion of one person who said (link to full audio):

People tell the truth as they know it. There’s all kinds of truth to be told in this piece . . . The words speak for themselves. That person from Hampden [a white working-class neighborhood known for anti-Black racism] can hear his words and think, gosh those are my words and that’s how I feel and, at the same time, they can see from other parts of the city the results of all different kinds of prejudices coming down. I don’t think we need to make a big thing out of socioeconomic examination of racism. . . . This is personal history and what makes that interesting is putting that in light of truth in other parts of the city and you start to see some very different trends.

On one hand, only using the words of the narrators seems like a radical act of sharing authority. The creators put the lived experiences of working-class people on stage in their own words. However, I argue that this decision ignored how white privilege shaped the narrators’ recollections and hid the fact that the creators edited and curated the interviews to create the show. By refusing to contextualize the narrators’ words, they lost an opportunity to interject material that could illuminate the workings of white privilege.

Other models existed. For example, in Martin Duberman’s In White America, the first play produced by the Free Southern Theater in 1963, actors read texts of speeches and documents to show how American history had been shaped by anti-Black racism. Voices’ creators could have had an actor read the text of a 1911 law defining where Black people could live in Baltimore (the first of its kind in the country) or even included a discussion of blockbusting, which tore the city apart in the 1950s. They did nothing like this. Rather than share authority, they ceded it. They made white privilege the invisible theme through the production.

I see this case study as a warning to those of us who work in oral and public history as an extension of our progressive political values. At the same time, I struggled while writing this article, not wanting to critique people for not talking about whiteness before whiteness studies as a field existed. The creators of Voices thought and cared deeply about their project. Several of them also spoke to me, which I am grateful for. 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. To combat white privilege and white supremacy, we must shine a light on the everyday practices of whiteness which requires that we bring our scholarly expertise.

Featured image: Baltimore Housing Security Map of 1937 showing redlining practices. Johns Hopkins University Sheridan Libraries. 

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.