Archive for the 'Oral History' Category


Help Wanted

In my (limited) experience, sitting down with perfect strangers and asking them questions about their past is one of the most intimidating things in all of researchdom—and given my line of historical inquiry, I’ve also anxiously awaited the day when someone not-so-subtly hinted that I should give it up. Thankfully that has not happened yet. But despite the downsides, oral history has also proven to be one of the most interesting and rewarding elements of my research. It sounds cliché, but hearing people tell their stories about the past, flawed as they may be, makes what I study seem relevant, and it reminds me that history is not merely an abstraction. Even those long dead were once living, making history in their own place and time.

I’ve conducted several interviews over the past few months. All have been informative, and while I can feel myself getting better with practice, none have been altogether satisfying. Maybe they never will be; there will probably always be that one question I think of after the fact and wish that I had asked. But I just bought myself a new recorder that can transfer the audio files to the computer for long-term preservation, and I plan to conduct several more interviews over the summer, so I’m hoping to learn more about the intricacies of the process. How to make the interviewee feel comfortable, how to ask questions and guide the conversation in a way that yields the desired information, how to handle sensitive subjects like race, politics, and religion, and, of course, how to make sure that you can actually use the material in a publication. Also, I’m hoping to find out how to know when your subject is lying to your face. I’m pretty sure I’ve been lied to, even if I can’t say for certain whodunit.

This is where you come in.

I’m going to be shameless in my quest for knowledge. If you have any experience at all with oral history, or even if you know where I can find some good information, I would be much obliged if you would pass it along. You can either leave a comment on this post, or you can use the contact form. Anything at all—books, articles, links, personal observations, whatever. It’s all useful. Many thanks in advance.


Beating Around the Bush

On Thursday, I interviewed a former headmaster of the all-white private school I’m researching. Although friendly, he seemed somewhat reluctant and told me early in the interview that because of his current position, he wouldn’t discuss anything controversial. He also said several times that he no longer had any connection with the school and knew very little about its history since he left. Needless to say, this made me question how valuable he would be as a source.

Thankfully, however, he did give me some good information, particularly about the organization of the school. For example, I had not realized that—in addition to tuition—parents paid to be voting members of the school’s governing foundation. In one of the poorest counties in the nation, this would seem to a strong commitment to segregated education on the part of the parents.

He, of course, made no mention of segregation. Instead he emphasized that the decision to enroll in a private school was a “choice” made by parents because they wanted control over their children’s educations. When I tried to determine what made the school uniquely attractive to such parents, however, he stated that on a day-to-day basis, the school operated much like any public school. This of course begs the question, “So why did parents feel it necessary to leave the public school system?” When I pressed him on that, he replied that parents “obviously” had concerns about the quality of education in the public school system. “And that’s where I have to be careful what I say to you.”

Given that the school is now integrated, I asked if there had been any black students enrolled during his tenure, and he said there hadn’t. But, he was quick to mention, it wasn’t because the school was in any way discriminatory. In fact, he had on numerous occasions spoken personally with members of other races who were interested in the school, and although everyone went through the same application process, no blacks had ever applied.

Oral history is obviously limited by the interviewee’s personal memory of the past—at several points during this interview, my subject said, “Gosh, I just can’t remember that far back”—but it is also limited by what the subject chooses to remember (or “disremember”). Perhaps there is no way to know for sure which—if any—of my subject’s answers were based on “selective memory,” but obviously some things don’t add up. This, I think, speaks volumes.

Currently Reading

Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain