Today we return to our ongoing series in which we ask a variety of oral history professionals and practitioners how they ended up in the audio world and why they love oral history. Below, Jessica Taylor explains the power of oral history in her own work, and why she believes it offers endless possibilities for history teachers. Previous installments can be found here and here. To share your own story, contact our social media coordinator, Andrew Shaffer, at ohreview[at]gmail[dot]com.
We all have that one teacher who inspired us, guided us to our calling in our formative years, whose lectures and project assignments become a piece of our professional identities. So, here it comes: one of my history teachers was singularly, as my teenage self might put it, the pits. Just the worst. Entertainingly selfish, loud, manipulative, and borderline unethical, his was the perspective through which I learned about the humanities broadly defined. I cared a great deal about the subject matter (also, grades) and sought his approval. I learned how to form an argument and say it out loud and that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but most of what I remember is my teacher’s sheer force of personality. I swore one day I would do better. When I bought graduation robes and started applying to scholarships for future North Carolina public school teachers, I felt the same anger I felt in class.
As unaware as any self-absorbed teenager, I didn’t notice the broader social processes that kept my butt nailed to the chair and kept a clearly incapable teacher at the podium. I had never heard of the idea of “privilege” even as it snuck in under the classroom door, and I had never considered how my own experience might even be more positive than that of the person next to me—maybe someone who couldn’t pay attention to the rattle of statistics in lecture after lecture, whose history wasn’t represented, or who had more reason to feel intimidated by our teacher or our classroom than me.
I would do better as a teacher for students like me, the subtext ran, until I stumbled upon oral history as an undergraduate. I signed up as an intern at an archaeology nonprofit called the Fairfield Foundation in Gloucester County, Virginia and proposed interviewing residents living within the former bounds of an enormous seventeenth-century plantation. Descendants of royal grantees and enslaved workers alike, living sometimes in the literal shadows of a manor house ruin, cared deeply about how their history was told. That was the first time I saw more than one version of history operating at the same time, serving the people who retold their own version of the story. Black residents of the small community of White Marsh offered their church, founded in the post-emancipatory period, as a central place with histories important to them and their extended families. White residents nearby turned to their own colonial-era churches and the plantation homes as the drivers of economic progress and cultural achievement. By that logic, the latter sites were also hubs of greater historical and archaeological inquiry, made possible by finite amounts of money and effort that privileged some stories over others. Oral history dumped me out of the world of memorization and linear narratives and into politics and contingency, where history really matters.
Oral history dumped me out of the world of memorization and linear narratives and into politics and contingency, where history really matters.
During my first year in graduate school at the University of Florida (UF), a professor leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said, “You seem like you don’t know what you want to do.” I wanted to keep up with my oral history fieldwork in Virginia, but I wanted to write my dissertation about Virginia in the seventeenth century. Oral history taught me that our contemporary storytellers accentuate the continuity between those two contexts and their efforts to preserve those places gave earlier history meaning. But perhaps more importantly I wanted to spread the word. At the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program on UF’s campus, undergrad students grab recorders with alarming ease of access and head to places that interest them. It’s an undertaking that has at its core the idea the historical narrative is incomplete and could be bettered with new research; students and scholars together create what narrative does not already exist, acknowledging and rectifying earlier silences. I learned from Muslim students about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and from student activists about the Civil Rights Movement veterans they met. I had very little to do with it, only to teach them how to ask questions and to cheer them on. Oral history, with its accessible archives and methodologies, is how teaching history should be done: encouraging students to find meaningful, diverse, personal connections that give their own lives context.
My time at SPOHP came full circle when I loaded a bunch of students into a van and drove them to White Marsh. I learned so much more about Virginia alongside student interns, who, in fieldwork, grew confident in their own talents and formed bonds with the people and places I already loved. Jennifer, a student of Florida’s civil rights history, bonded with women who fight today to rehabilitate the segregated school they attended. Patrick found a new best friend in grumpy old fisherman AJ, and together they played guitar and sang classic country music—a skill and experience I could never replicate. Jes’s excellent photographs of crabbing methods were archived alongside of our interviews at SPOHP. The mission, putting these people on the record, made possible the teaching that I wanted to realize: selfless and rooted in love and reverence for place.
Featured image: Tea by Monoar, Public Domain via Pixabay.