What Use Is Oral History?

posted in: Writing, History | 0

Oral History came of age for the general reader in the United States with Studs Terkel’s various volumes–Working, Hard Times (about the Great Depression) and The Good War (World War II). Published between 1974 and 1985, these works of oral history bought to the page and national sales the voices of common people, whether they be down-and-out (to borrow a phrase from George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933) or wealthy unknowns. Now I’m trying to convince a newer generation of the value in oral history.

We’ve been reading two Native American works–Turning the Feather Around: My Life in Art, the book I wrote with Ojibway artist George Morrison (probably the premier Minnesota Native artist, whose work was accorded one of two solo exhibits when the National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004) and N. Scott Momaday’s The Names. Though they rely heavily on oral history and on memory, these are rather different books. In part because Momaday’s Kiowa, Oklahoma ancestry was made real and vivid to him in his childhood by family storytelling; whereas, George Morrison’s history was slowly eroding, being replaced by the English language and life of Grand Marais, the small Lake Superior town near his childhood home.

Momaday’s lyrical work of memory and coming of age is suffused with family stories which entered his consciousness at so early an age that they became mingled with his own growing perceptions. Several students in my class object to his willingness to report these many-times remembered events, though he certainly indicates the uncertainties that inhere in them. My students consider them “tainted.” I, on the other hand, find these account of frayed remembrances both believable and compelling, like an ancient shield painted with figures which are in some places are worn away. But I have spent years considering how some groups find their way into written and print accounts, while others do not. It is largely a function of power–museums, publishing houses, even the use of a particular favored language, like English, all have to do with power and the control of various destinies.

Let me tack another published work onto these musings: The House on Sugar Beach, Helene Cooper’s lively and vivid account of growing up wealthy on the outskirts of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, not a place many residents of the United States think much about. Cooper, a journalist, draws us back into her childhood in this huge house on the beach. Here, her wealthy parents, one descended from the first free African-Americans who settled in Liberia, have made a leisurely life for themselves. In the process, she relates quite a bit about the 1820 arrival of a shipload of African-Americans from the United States, their decimation by disease, the few remaining leaders’ war against the native inhabitants, and eventual establishment of Monrovia and subjugation of the locals. Over the years I’ve heard about the American Colonization Society’s attempt to solve the U.S. “slavery question” by repatriating freed slaves to Liberia. But until Cooper’s book, I had no idea the process was so filled with drama and strife. Some of the history Cooper relates is no doubt written down, but what she tells, as passed down from her ancient ancestor through other family, has a gritty, believable quality that I suspect most history books avoid.

Not to mention that in her rendition of her own work, she slides delightfully from the native Liberian patois (a lively version of English) into standard English and back again. How much would be lost without the spoken word! How empty and hollow would be our lives without memory and family stories! I think I’ll wait until my unconvinced students spend another decade on the planet before I query them again. As I look back over my own and now my daughter’s life, it seems to me that not until we cross into our late 30s and early 40s do we begin to realize how valuable are these memories and family histories. Then we begin gathering them for ourselves.

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