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Engaging with history at #OHA2017

For most Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks for all of the best things in life: family, friends, football, and, of course, heaps of delectable food. Few care to spend any time thinking about the myths that underlie American perceptions of the holiday, and even fewer can appreciate how and why this holiday is frequently observed as a day of mourning among many Native Americans. Protests at Standing Rock and throughout the football world have made it much more difficult to sweep the histories of historically marginalized groups under the rug this holiday season. This year, Thanksgiving and its commonly espoused “theology of divine abundance” will not be enough to obscure the histories of inequality and violence America was founded upon.

Like these protests, the presentations I attended during the Oral History Association’s 2017 annual meeting delivered critical historical narratives and resources that can help us to further challenge some of the nationalist myths that obscure the experiences and perspectives of various marginalized communities in American history. These presentations helped to illuminate important lessons we can learn from an engagement with the histories and contemporary concerns of marginalized peoples in the US. In honor of the holiday season, I have put together a short list of what I was most thankful for during OHA2017.

1. OHA 2017 Keynote Address: Jill Lepore, “Joe Gould, Augusta Savage, and Oral History’s Dark Past”

I think most OHA2017 attendees would agree that the real star of Jill Lepore’s keynote address, in addition to Lepore herself, was Augusta Savage. Though Lepore’s talk (and the book it draws on) focused largely on Joe Gould, the ostensible father of oral history, conversations during the Q&A that followed her lecture focused almost exclusively on Augusta Savage and Lepore’s allusions to the years of physical and sexual violence she suffered at the hands of Joe Gould. And, perhaps even more significant was Lepore’s assertion that there were a number of important men involved in protecting Gould from facing any legal consequences for his violent acts against Savage. This story has begun to ring loudly in my ears as a number of influential men in Hollywood–long protected by their status and associations with other prominent men in the business–tumble down from their pedestals in the face of women who have been inspired to tell their stories by campaigns like #MeToo. Serendipitously timely, Lepore’s, address helps to advance our knowledge on the subject of women, sexism, and (sexual) violence in American history just as we–as a nation–are finally beginning to grapple with the knowledge that women are subjected to wide-spread and largely accepted forms of sexual harassment and sexual violence on a daily basis. As we begin to deal more fully with this reality and all of its (un)intended e/affects, it will be important to earnestly reflect on how race plays a role in shaping women’s (and men’s) experiences with sexism and sexual violence, and stories like Savages’ will provide us with a critical starting place to do this work.

When learning is a two-way street, oral history stories have the power to change the present.

2. Roundtable 065. Documenting Activism in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter and Standing Rock

Everything about this roundtable was superb, however, what I want to share with readers here are links to some of the oral history focused resources roundtable participants have played key roles in establishing for public consumption. These resources would be great sources of information for teachers and researchers alike:

The Documenting the Now project works to ethically collect and preserve “the public’s use of social media for chronicling historically significant events,” and is supported jointly by the University of Maryland, University of California, Riverside (UCR), and Washington University in St. Louis.

Inside the Activists Studio (IAS) is a web-based series that is easily accessible via YouTube and takes inspiration for the interview-styles of the popular television series “Inside the Actors Studio.” Each episode features an interview with activists about their own “political awakening and biography of activism” and is posted online for free and easy access (at least for those with access to a computer and internet).

Invisible to Invincible: Asian Activism in MN, a short documentary film available on YouTube, works to unpack the model minority stereotype while also exploring the history of Asian activism in Minnesota and the US more broadly.

3. Panel 091. Oral History and Critical Pedagogies

Each of the papers presented during this panel were extremely different in their content and subject matter, some presenters sharing insights from their university based institutional ethnographic work and others discussing the use of family oral histories to destabilize neoliberal pedagogies; however, these presentations were tied together by a few underlying ‘truths’ about the significance of oral history to developing critical pedagogies. First, the theme of lost knowledge and/or obscured stories came through in all three papers, as did the real ways that oral history can be used as a tool to bring light to ‘lost’ knowledge or stories of the past. Perhaps more significant, however, are the ways in which each presenter showed us exactly how and why it is so important for teachers, academics, and activists to learn from the communities they work within. In bringing the methods, theories and tools of oral history research into the classroom and other educational spaces, these presenters were able to show us how giving students and teachers the opportunity to bring parts of themselves into their learning environments can enable them to work together to build solidarity and new forms of identity. Thus, the most important truth to be gleaned from the presenters on this panel: When learning is a two-way street, oral history stories have the power to change the present.

What are you thankful for this year? Chime into the discussion in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: ‘Demilitarize the Police, Black Lives Matter’ by Johnny Silvercloud, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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