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Uniqueness lost

A few months ago, we asked you to tell us about the work you’re doing. Many of you responded, so for the last few months, we’ve been publishing reflections, stories, and difficulties faced by fellow oral historians. This week, we bring you another post in this series, focusing on the difficult question of what to do with powerful stories that fall outside of an oral history project’s mission. We encourage you to engage with these posts by leaving comments, reaching out directly to the authors, or chiming in on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and Google Plus . If you’d like to submit your own work, check out the guidelines. Enjoy! – Andrew Shaffer, Oral History Review

“When I went to the Iv’ry Coast, about thirty years ago, I remember coming off the plane and just being assaulted with not only the heat but the color.” These were the first words of the most moving story I have ever heard—but it wasn’t the story I was there to collect. For me, the best oral histories are the ones that sound a human chord, stories that blur the spaces between historically significant narrative and personal development. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been there. You become involved, attached, and sometimes, devastated. Why? Because every once in a while, a story is outside of the scope of historical inquiry. It can’t be included in whatever project you’re working on, and may never see the light of day. This was the unknown fate of Sandi Howell’s particularly moving story, who I was interviewing for By The Work Of Her Hands, a State Department-funded exhibit that was fostering cross-cultural exchange between Moroccan embroiderers and African American quilters. Sandi was very open about what she calls ‘her uniqueness.’ Little did we know how unique our interview would be.

I was aware of African fabric before, but never had I seen it [makes whooshing noise] like that. I find that if African Americans and Latinos have a different sensibility where colors are concerned, as opposed to European. Everything went together. It was just chaotic, but it was gorgeous, and it was comfortable. It felt right.

Sandi and I sat down in a noisy diner across from her apartment, and her many bracelets jangled, just as loud as the fabric she was describing. I was there to discuss the craft of her quilting, but when her trip to the Ivory Coast came up, a new thread began to emerge.

It was very emotional because even having people from Africa [in the United States], it’s nothing like bein’ there live. It’s also a matter of things you’ve been told all your life or that you’ve heard. ‘Black is not beautiful, black is this, black is that.’ Even being proud of who I was, I never had to go through the black power thing. I’m a kid of the ’60s. We always knew who we were. But now you’re getting it reinforced in this light. To go to the country and see these people. All of a sudden, the connection to the Middle Passage made sense. It was very, very, very emotional.

What do we lose when we call powerful stories irrelevant?

What was even more traumatic was to see faces that looked familiar to me that I knew were not. I had one day [where] I stayed in tears for almost twenty-four hours. Because we were goin’ to the villages. We were talking to the elders. It went from English to French to whatever the language, but it always had to be that three-way translation. There was a group of us that was African American. One day, the chief of the village wanted to know from the interpreter, ‘Why would these black people dress like the white people?’ Oh boy.

An intensity descended upon the table, settling amidst our steaming lunch. A certain awe, a holiness, crept into Sandi’s voice. Everyone has experienced being stopped dead by the workings of the world—but it is rare to discuss these experiences with a stranger. Realizing we were about to embark, Sandi took a breath and continued:

They were tryin’ to get the concept. We were all lookin’ at each other, tryin’ to get the concept, to understand, ‘Don’t they know about slavery?’ No, they didn’t. They said, in terms for them, they thought that the ancestors had gone away to learn a new technology. Oh boy.

Now came the explanation about slavery, and they were aghast. Here comes that explanation of what happened. All of a sudden we were getting hugs. We were welcomed home. I was gone again. I stayed in tears.

Sandi and I were also in tears, abuzz in the intensity of our sharing space. I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding, and laughed tentatively. Sandi laughed too, “Don’t tell me anything. It was wonderful.” We slowly gathered ourselves and continued talking for two hours, in a way much smoother than before, almost as if we’d left being strangers behind.

When I got home and reviewed the tape, I realized I couldn’t use it in the exhibition. Her story—so vibrant and heart-wrenching—did not comment upon her quilting craft. I was devastated. A part of me felt certain that its exclusion meant an essence of ‘uniqueness’ was lost, and that this was also true on a larger scale. Didn’t Sandi’s story provide something vital, not just to any narrative understanding of her character, but also to our understanding of the world? Did our project gain value through editing for historical relevance, even when so much was clearly lost?

I am engaged by oral history because of the way it demonstrates the dramatic phenomenon of the human experience within academia, art, and politics. But where our lives involve this spectrum of disciplines without discrimination, these disciplines heavily categorize, thus losing the universal quality of the human voice. Editing for content is a vital process all oral historians experience, but it calls into question the way we dissect our society and history. What do we lose when we call powerful stories irrelevant?

Image Credit: Photo taken by Eliza Lambert as part of By The Work Of Her Hands, a State Department-funded exhibit fostering cross-cultural exchange between Moroccan embroiderers and African American quilters. Used with permission.

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