May 31st PSN – What Are The Radical Roots of Your Oral History Practice?

By Patricia Silver, Cultural Anthropologist

On May 31st, a group of six joined PSN moderators Fernanda Espinosa and Amy Starecheski to share ideas about the radical roots of our oral history practices. The topic is part of a larger project on the radical roots of public history. Amy and Fernanda are working to collect projects with a radical perspective to include in a future publication.

Our conversation centered on these questions about oral history generally and about our specific projects:

  1. Who are your oral history ancestors?
  2. What kinds of traditions, networks, practices are you drawing on?
  3. How did you learn to do the work that you’re doing?
  4. What’s behind you when you’re doing oral history?
  5. Why did you decide to use that method for the work that you’re doing?
  6. How does your familiarity (or your interviewees’ familiarity) with these traditions shape your work?

Participants’ current projects included: resistance to state-sponsored censorship in immigrant detention centers, “Bridging Kingsbridge” for local consciousness-raising around neighborhood history and contemporary gentrification, multi-lingual movement building, and collective bargaining and policy formation against workplace harassment for marginalized workers. It became clear that each of these projects included building a collective and raising consciousness, practices beyond collection of narratives for archiving.

 Detail of the History of Mexico mural painted by  Diego Rivera  at the  Palacio Nacional  in Mexico City. This close up details Mexico's history of conflict, rebellions, revolution against oppression. 

Detail of the History of Mexico mural painted by Diego Rivera at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City. This close up details Mexico's history of conflict, rebellions, revolution against oppression. 

We identified practices beyond and before the university that are not necessarily called “oral history” but that are grounded in the fundamentals of listening, sharing, and transmitting knowledge as transformative practices. Participants pointed to family stories, popular education, resistance-movement building, and the Latin American practice of testimonio. Orality, versus academic writing, is key to all of these practices. University training in oral history is very Europe-centered and current times and other places need attention to other spaces – for example, urban settings, immigrant detention centers.

This took us also to thinking about decolonizing storytelling. The English language dominates much of the academic oral history world. Writing in English is translated into other languages but writing in other languages does not often find its way into English. Creating spaces where no one language is dominant is an example of decolonizing storytelling.

We also talked about alternative forms of presenting oral history that make it accessible. Public art performances, websites, and social media offer vehicles for people to take and make their own histories and representations. A challenge is to present oral history narratives in a manner and setting that maintains the energy and transactional form of the interviewing process. Once removed from the setting of the interviews, these dynamics can be lost.

The intersection of oral history and digital storytelling took us to the Bay area Story Center. Across the conversation, the following resources were mentioned for further investigation of the ideas and topics we discussed:

The related work of Paulo Freire in Latin America and Myles Horton at the Highlander Center in Tennessee. Below is a list of the works discussed:

  1. Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
  2. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change by Miles Horton and Paulo Freire
  3. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala by Rigoberta Menchú
  4. Memory, Subjectivities, and Representation: Approaches to Oral History in Latin America, Portugal, and Spain edited by Rina Benmayor, Maria Eugenia Cardenal de la Nuez, and Pilar Dominguez Prats (2015)
  5. “Under Storytelling’s Spell? Oral History in a Neoliberal Age” by Alexander Freund in Oral History Review (2015) 42 (1): 96-132.
  6. “Allan Nevins Is Not My Grandfather: The Roots of Radical Oral History Practice in the United States,” by Daniel R. Kerr in Oral History Review (2016) 43 (2): 367-391.

Patricia Silver received her Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from American University in Washington, D.C. As a faculty member at University of Central Florida, she co-directed the oral history project, “Puerto Ricans in Central Florida from 1940s to 1980s: A History.” She also consulted on the oral history projects, “Cultural Foundations of Puerto Rican Orlando,” and “Puerto Rican Political Participation and Civic Engagement.” She served as co-editor of the spring 2010 special issue on Puerto Ricans in Central Florida in CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Her publications have appeared in American Ethnologist, Identities, CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Southern Cultures, Latino Studiesand Memory Studies