My oral history class ended today, with the last batch of final presentations by my classmates.
I want to remember this class forever. It was inspirational to listen to my classmates over the semester, to hear their tales from the field as we each figured out what the heck our projects would be about and how we were going to master (as much as possible) the art of the interview that yields vivid and meaningful stories out of narrators–those we interview–and then compose those somehow into an appropriate historical synthesis.
Not every college class is composed of such a diverse, engaged, and interesting crowd–not even in grad school. We had some of the best discussions in that class that I’ve had in my entire college career (of six years…). Today my friend Seth (an undergrad–the class is cross-listed) remarked that this was his favorite class in all of college.
I am under no illusions that anyone else will care to read about what each of my classmates did for their projects, but I need to write them down so that in a few years I won’t have forgotten this extraordinary body of work that we produced this fall, in a matter of weeks and months, in this year 2011. Listening to the clips in class, of the people we’d been hearing about all semester made for a remarkable week of class presentations. Also stellar to hear about the dirty details of trying to get people (sometimes relatives, sometimes strangers, some in between these) to talk to us, college kids out seeking a good story to contribute to historical narrative.
Jessie: I interviewed two women who are the mothers of girls adopted from China. I explored the notions of family, roots, identity, cross-cultural families, siblings, and the trials of the adoptions process–including public and private perception from family members, friends, and outsiders. I had wonderful experiences and learned so much. I will chronicle some of my own stories and lessons here soon. I will also share some of the most remarkable clips, details, and stories in audio form, so you can hear these women tell their own stories.
Chris: He interviewed three immigrant rights activists (one of them his wife) who had some live-defining experiences during the immigration drama that occurred in Arizona in 2009 and 2010, with SB 1070. Young people, a recent event, and powerful, emotional stories.
Aaron: Interviewed a WWII veteran who hadn’t planned on joining the military, but was drafted in the last month of the war. He wound up being a career soldier, the war truly changing the course of his entire life. He found this guy through another girl in the class, actually, after expressing his interest in doing something relating to WWII. This was an unexpectedly interesting story, because really, what new stories can you tell these days on the second world war?
Joleen: She focused on one elementary school in a county south of Atlanta, and sought the perspectives of teachers at the school who have seen the demographics of the school diversify enormously over the past ten years.
Liz: She delved into some perspectives of residents of her home county on what is considered the last lynching ever to occur in the South, in the 1950s, which happened in that county.
Denise: She interviewed four women who were leaders in the Georgia quilt documentation project that took place from 1989 to 1993 across the state. Her larger goal was to use these interviews to help her design her own documentation project to be expanded for her capstone project for the heritage preservation program (the same program I’m in). She wound up finding some heartfelt stories beyond the cut-and-dry facts of the documentation process itself.
Brooks: He interviewed his grandfather–from Savannah–about his career as a Georgia state legislator during the 1960s. He was elected in 1966, precisely because of the ending of the County Unit System, a unique and stunning old Georgia political structure that ensured that real political power remained with the rural parts of the state, even as larger and larger portions of the population resided in cities.
James: Interviewed three people who know or used to know the author Alice Walker, who is from Eatonton, Georgia–two classmates and her niece. He sought to define the person that is Alice Walker from a number of angles.
Michelle: She focused on her grandmother, a retired educator of more than 35 years, who was a black teacher at risk of losing her job when integration meant fewer teachers were needed.
Classmate X (Can you believe there is one girl whose name I don’t know?): Another school integration story, this time focused on people who went through the Marietta City school system during desegregation and who now teach in the same system. This was my least favorite of them all, just really oft-heard stuff, and I swear it is not because I have somehow predisposed to not like it just because I also cannot recall her name.
Danny: Interviewed three generations of his wife’s family, who own a farm in Yatesville, Georgia (population under 400), on the trials, memories, and questionable and perceived dark future of the farm and farming at large in the state and the United States.
Seth: He interviewed a personal hero and former boss, Anita Beatty, controversial advocate for the homeless and leader of the Atlanta Task Force–on which Seth spent four or five years working towards improving the lives of homeless in the city. He battled with the process, seeking the complicated private view of Anita, rather than the oft-seen and politicized public version she has so perfectly mastered.
Rosemary: Interviewed members of two families that have connection to the land that is now Arabia Mountain Heritage Area, people who were coming of age in the 1960s and ’70s, when the outskirts of the city were becoming part of the burgeoning metropolitan area.
Rebecca: Interviewed her grandmother, matriarch to her enormous North Carolina family, and strong woman head of household who ran a farm and raised dozens of children of the family over the years. Her grandmother is a pistol, for sure.
Laura: Took a journey into the histories of Commercial High School, Girls’ High, and the numerous incarnations the buildings have been since the early twentieth century. Her aunt was a student in Commercial High School, which sparked her interest, among other things–including her decades of work herself in education and as a school principal.
Last and most amazing:
Brenda: Since Brenda is a stage actor and filmmaker by training and profession as well, she used the oral history class for her own skilled perspective, and her final project reflected a creative and talented woman and a powerful story. She used clips of two women, her mother and another old friend, who are both–in different ways–part of a group of Hawaiian immigrants in the Augusta, Georgia and Aiken, South Carolina areas (through their husbands). Her own mother married a Japanese Hawaiian man, and the other woman, Millie, is Hawaiian and married a white man. Their quite distinct perspectives, when played side by side like conversation, brought out the similarities and the “Hawaiian Spirit” and tides of life that both have experienced, with Hawaiian cultural influences and as women in interracial marriages who moved to the South at a time when there were barely any people other than black and white. She made these into a film using footage of herself playing ukulele and photos of the people being mentioned and speaking. It was an apt use of her audio, fitting her own quirky style; and the story came across so powerful in this medium. Her 4-minute piece was inspiring. I was crying at her skills, at the power of these voices, at the potential we each have in us to tell a great story.
Laura also had some excellent summative comments on oral history, when she presented her process and conclusion. One is that humility, and in this, not always knowing what your goal is, can sometimes make for the most effective oral history interviews, because you are truly allowing the narrator to guide the meaning, and where it goes. You, the interviewer, are not trying to make them fit in some construct to fit your own assumptions or research goals.
Indeed, we all learned from our projects that we cannot assume to find anything, and we cannot expect to be able to form the project, the stories, into something we either anticipate or desire. We cannot possibly know the stories in store for us when that recorder starts rolling. I did other oral histories this semester for another class’s research, and so I was doing quite a few of these meetings, every one of them with someone I had either just met or had never met at all. Driving to each one, I felt that jolt, the excitement of not knowing what in the world I would learn in the next ninety minutes.
Who knows, anyone, until we ask to hear?