"Genevieve Willcox Chandler interviews Ben Horry for the WPA Federal Writers Project" Between the Waters. Accessed October 24, 2017. http://betweenthewaters.org/friendfield-village/laura-carrs-house-c-1840/root-doctor-healer-and-conjurer/.
The oral tradition can be a medium of empowerment, used to document the histories of disenfranchised people. However, oral traditions have also been used to erase “undesirable” aspects of a community history, while lionizing (and fictionalizing) others. Leon Fink encounters this conundrum, much like Carolyn Kitch in Pennsylvania in Public Memory. As he describes on page 120 of his article "When Community Comes Home to Roost":
"I witnessed an impressive harnessing of history to community identity ... heightened by the use of oral history in the hands of local 'organic intellectuals.' On the other hand, 'heritage' history here ultimately appeared ... to confirm and disseminate certain conservative and exclusionary political values ... the unhappy outcome, for me at least, forces a critical reckoning with the 'will-to-community' within historical studies as well as contemporary affairs."
Put another way, oral history is both an inclusive and exclusive practice. It remedies gaps in traditional historiographies that rely mostly on documentary evidence produced by the power elites. It also circumscribes communal memory. Sporadic accounts of the past, founded on old animosities or the specter of a foreign Other, are reproduced generationally – like fading carbon copies of an incomplete narrative – and compose inexact stories of exceptionalism.
But perhaps we shouldn’t take such a dim view of oral history. I once claimed oral histories are like hand-me-downs – passing through various people, traveling strange and unexpected routes. They accumulate little details, lose others; they get a bit misshapen along the way, and all the more wonderful. With the advent of recording technologies, they can be frozen in time, rather than transmuted by word of mouth. What were once quotidian anecdotes have become part of a larger-than-life mythos, a constellation of historical half-truths. Too often we question the cognizance, honesty and accuracy of our interviewees (or our narrators as Barbara Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan refer to them in The Oral History Manual). Should we not be equally skeptical of our written sources and their authors? To reference Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, let us be wary of all four stages of historical production: "the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance)" (26). Perhaps history is just a macrocosmic collection of semi-fictions.
We must turn around and problematize the oral historian’s position in this exchange – their "gazing," perhaps better described as their listening, interviewing, or interpretation. As illustrated by the picture for this post, there is something simultaneously perverse and consoling about the white historian's consumption of POC narratives (or materials). We find a vested interest in the preservation of disenfranchised legacies. Or do we? Oral historians steal the words and memories of their subjects, do with them what they will, and get lauded for the work, ultimately profiting off the histories of Others. Sommer and Quinlan identify "good narrators" as those who have firsthand knowledge, who "represent all sides of an issue," "can communicate effectively," and are willing participants (49). How do interviewer biases inform these value judgements? The nonpartisan approach to history does not exist. Firsthand knowledge of an event is inherently one-sided because it comes from an individual account. Effective communication and participant willingness is dependent upon the relationship between the interviewer and the narrator. And how do language barriers play a role in selection?
Community connections are a necessity. I'm wary of white middle-class historians who tour contexts beyond their own and expect willing narrators to surrender their histories for outsider interpretation. Presumption is a common theme. In “When Subjects Don't Come Out," Sherrie Tucker asks, "Where did I get the idea that my sexuality-sensitive intersectional analysis must involve ... clearly delineated, immutable categories of sexual desire? ... While my interviewees don’t come out, they do reveal the power of a structure that conceals, shapes, and imperfectly contains sexual contents ('Don’t write about that')" (298). Historians have a vested interest in imposing their own meanings and understandings onto other people's lives. Unlike dead sources, oral histories are alive, rife with contested memory, fact, identity, interpretation and narrative construction. Respecting the human agency of self-identification and self-disclosure is paramount, regardless of structural forces – or perhaps because of them.