In a few weeks I am presenting a brief workshop on oral history for a local public library. Via Zoom. I’m going to explain what the field of oral history is about and show them examples of oral histories and their uses. I’ll also provide some worksheets, like a guide for the process of taking oral histories, questionnaire templates, and the all-important gift of deed that states that the person being interviewed (if they signed the document) knows what the stakes are, where their story might just end up. The library program has been entitled,” Sharing Your Stories.” My job is to encourage folks to share their stories, as well as take part in getting others to share theirs.
I got to thinking about these “stories,” as I have so often in the past. Such a benign word, story. We use it a lot in history context these days — alongside the wildly popular narrative. I really want to help people tell their stories, to emphasize the importance of their life narratives. Women especially, Black women mostly.
I applied for a Fulbright, proposing to tell the stories of African women activists. And by tell I really mean to foreground these stories — stories already told, already played out, but often just not known. I really thought I had found my niche, my safe space. I am a white woman in Black worlds: sometimes I peek, sometimes I investigate, and often I participate. All this to ensure that these stories get heard, always mindful of not taking up too much space. But then I started thinking, what does it really mean to tell a story?
“No you tell that story, you tell it so well.” That’s what we say when we know someone’s story and want it to be heard but know we won’t quite do it justice. But why would that matter? It’s the story that counts, not who relates it, right? Nope. Because agency. It’s all about agency. And this is where we white people get into trouble. We walk around with so much of it we don’t even know we have it, like the woman who wears diamond earrings on a jog.
But if someone has literally told their story — or at least one of theirs, or part of theirs — via an oral history interview, then what I am doing when I march it out in front of readers or audience members? I’m certainly not telling their story. But am I inserting myself in that story? Like when our friend is telling their story and we urge them on, “Remember to say the part about the giant red fox in your front yard…” or when we explain, “She is so modest, but she’s the one who climbed the tallest pine tree in the forest first…”
I did a presentation about listening to oral histories at a recent conference. I think I need to do one about shutting up. Like, making sure as a scholar that we present a given oral history with contextualization, but not interruption or explanation or delineation. I don’t need to explain others’ stories. Because stories aren’t little ditties that people drop from their mouths like discarded sunflower seeds. No, they are one’s heart parts, one’s soul voice, molded into a form that an outsider can understand. A slice of one person’s life pie. They know if there was whipped cream on it, not me. A story is a beginning, middle, and end kind of thing that does not need the intervention of an outsider, merely the attention.
I hereby swear to serve as an attendant to the histories I unearth. Signed, Me.