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Oral history and childhood memories

During my second semester at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I took an oral history seminar with Dr. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall. It was an eye-opening experience, not only because of what I learned, but how I learned. We had to conduct two interviews, and after spending nearly two months of class time discussing the historiography and methodology of oral history, I thought I was ready to go. My first interview was with civil rights activist Wyatt Tee Walker, and although he agreed to be interviewed, he was not feeling well and had difficulty speaking. Thrown off, my first few questions were poorly constructed, and I sped through his early life hoping he would have more to say about his activist history later in life. Listen as I struggle:

I lost an opportunity during that interview. I could have discovered more about Wyatt Tee Walker based on his early life, but I zoomed ahead. Now, every time I give a workshop on oral history, I hammer home the same message: start with their childhood. What surprises me are the responses from students, who often look incredulous when I tell them. They may think stories about growing up have nothing to do with their project at hand, and they don’t want to waste time talking about childhood memories. They want to cut to the chase and focus on big events later in life. But by leading off your oral history with several questions about what it was like growing up, you will build the foundation for a better interview.

Let’s say you’re interviewing someone for a larger project about an environmental history of Orange County, North Carolina. The long-time director of a local community organization has agreed to talk to you, and from your research, you know this person will have a lot to say about environmentalism in North Carolina over the past twenty years or so. You arrive to interview the person, you chat and get comfortable with one another, and you begin the interview. You may be tempted to launch right in: “Tell me about how you first came to work with ABC Environmental Group…” or “Tell me about how you first became interested in environmentalism.” Resist the temptation, and begin much, much earlier.

Start by asking your interviewee about their childhood. Introduce yourself, the interviewee, mention the date and any other relevant background information, and then ask your first question: “Tell me about your childhood.” Based on how they respond, they will give you the working materials to ask follow-up questions that will give the interview much more substance. Ask about where they grew up, their neighborhood, their family, their education, their religious background, and so on. Ask about individuals in their family: “Tell me about your father/mother/siblings/grandparents or anyone else influential as you were growing up.” (Hint: many people love talking about their grandparents if they knew them well.)

Hopefully by now you’ve forgotten how I opened my interview with Wyatt Tee Walker. Now, consider this example when I interviewed Evelyn Poole-Kober, a local Republican activist in Chapel Hill. How did that one, single question differ from the many incoherent questions I launched at Walker?

Here’s what happened next. Poole-Kober shared stories about her childhood and adolescence for about a third of the total interview, around 45 minutes. Should I consider these stories wasteful because they weren’t directly related to my project at hand? I don’t think so. She opened up, shared intimate details of her life, and led me through her early life to show where she ended up. These memories enhanced the total value of the interview, and they opened the door to more questions, more stories, and a richer interview about her whole life.

Concentrating on childhood questions also helps oral historians move toward curating oral histories rather than just collecting them. As Linda Shopes suggested in a previous blog post, quality and originality should be stressed over quantity when conducting an oral history project. By focusing the beginning of every interview on childhood, no matter the project, you will generate an unpredictable set of stories and information that researchers working on vastly different projects might one day find useful. Curated in a way that crosses projects, time periods, and disciplines, these stories enliven the field of oral history by rooting the past of each person in vivid ways.

Every oral history interview and project is different. You may not have the time, or you might be unable to dedicate an extended period of time to every person’s childhood and adolescence. But if you can, I suggest that you do. The rewards can be great.

Image Credit: “Childhood Pictures” by martinak15. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Katie Turner

    Nice article. I agree and would add that it’s essential to ask about childhood experiences because those shape the perspectives (dare I say world view?) of your interviewees and may uncover their motivation for engaging in activism. When I worked with an evironmental activist group in graduate school I learned through interviews that many of them had experienced sexism and domestic violence that led them to activism through second-wave feminism before deciding to join a group of women environmentalists. Pretty interesting stuff that their early experiences built the leadership and organizational skills for their later in life activism.

  2. Gaya Fernando

    This is what amazes me in oral history: what others write on their experience both resonated and clarifies what you’ve experienced as we are dealing with humans across the planet who are not so different in articulating what is important to them. When I recorded the interview in Jaffna, Sri Lanka with a doctor who had survived the war, intending to record his views on surviving the war, he started with the cameo memories of a childhood lived elsewhere in the island with my community in harmony and this is not what I was expecting at all. But letting the interview roll out naturally you have to grow up as a researcher and coming back to this, I realise that stories have no beginning in what influences later choices and perhaps his childhood is what gave him the strength to survive the war years with fortitude and grace, never losing his sense of humour. Thank you for this.

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