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“Joe Gould, Augusta Savage, and Oral History’s Dark Past” — Annual Meeting keynote by Jill Lepore

OHA welcomes Jill Lepore, the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University, as the keynote speaker at the 2017 annual meeting. Lepore is also a staff writer at The New Yorker. A prize-winning professor, she teaches classes in evidence, historical methods, humanistic inquiry, and American history. Much of her scholarship explores absences and asymmetries in the historical record, with a particular emphasis on the histories and technologies of evidence and of privacy. As a wide-ranging and prolific essayist, Lepore writes about American history, law, literature, and politics. She is the author of many award-winning books and is currently writing a history of the United States.

Lepore has been in the news this summer with the debut of the new Wonder Woman movie. Her book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Knopf, 2014) was a New York Times bestseller and winner of the 2015 American History Book Prize. Learn more and listen to an interview at NPR.

Lepore’s lecture at OHA will focus on research for Joe Gould’s Teeth, published by Knopf in 2016. In the nineteen-teens, Joe Gould, a bohemian from Greenwich Village, began writing down anything that anyone ever said to him, especially in Harlem. Gould, who coined the term “oral history,” founded an Oral History Association in the nineteen-twenties. He wrote an extraordinarily long book called “The Oral History of Our Time,” said to be the longest book ever written. In 1931, Gould wrote to leading American historians, very likely including Allan Nevins at Columbia, explaining what he was doing. “My book is very voluminous,” he wrote. “It will have future value as a storehouse of information. I imagine that the most valuable sections will be those which deal with groups that are inarticulate such as the Negro, the reservation Indian, and the immigrant. It seems to me that the average person is just as much history as the ruler or celebrity.” When Gould died in 1957, no one could find the manuscript and in 1964, Joseph Mitchell, a New Yorker writer, argued, in a beautiful story called “Joe Gould’s Secret” that “The Oral History of Our Time” never existed: Gould had made it up. Curious, and unpersuaded, Jill Lepore, Harvard historian and New Yorker writer, went to look for it, and found that Joe Gould had a very different secret, involving a woman who was the most important artist of the Harlem Renaissance, the sculptor Augusta Savage. The story Lepore tells in her latest book, Joe Gould’s Teeth, unravels a mystery, but also raises the deep ethical questions that lie at the heart of oral history. Gould is the founder of oral history. He also haunts it.

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OHA international scholarship recipients announced

This year the International Committee received 14 International Scholarship Applications. Awards have been made to:

Lorna Barton, Scotland
Sophia Isajiw, Canada
Hong Jiang, China
Riikka Taavetti, Finland
Cheryl Ware, Australia

This month we will feature abstracts from Lorna Barton, Sophia Isjiw and Hong Jiang. Next month we will feature abstracts by Riikka Taavetti and Cheryl Ware.

Lorna Barton, Scotland

The importance of gathering transgender (trans) narratives seems more crucial than ever with the dawning of the Trump administration’s power in the United States, but this process is not without its challenges.  Oral historians believe that oral sources have credibility, recognising that it is their departure from ‘fact’ that makes them equally significant to what are perceived as factually accurate accounts, mainly because of what these departures can tell us about the meaning that the past holds for people in the present.  However, there is often an additional emphasis among oral historians—particularly when engaging audiences who might not share their interest in privileging what is psychologically true for interviewees—on the importance of triangulating oral sources to ascertain their factual accuracy. This desire for triangulation can pose key methodological challenges when working with the life histories of minority groups such as trans Americans—people who are non-conforming to American gender norms and are in some instances taking steps to physically transition from one gender binary to another to reflect the person they are on the inside—who are typically misrepresented and even actively silenced in the historical record.

This paper, based on analysis of 22 life history interviews with trans individuals who live in Denver Colorado, will examine the issues around negotiating the accuracy of these narratives when intimate details cannot be verified against other sources.  Is establishing accuracy important when gathering life histories from trans individuals who do not belong to the hegemonic class and about whom there is a dearth of reliable information?  Does it make their oral testimony any less historically or politically important, or less necessary to record?  And how might oral histories of trans individuals and communities then perform against the usual markers of academic rigour, such as peer review, and increasingly, public impact?

 

Sophia Isajiw, Canada

Oral history has played a crucial role in elaborating the history of the Holodomor, the famine-genocide in Ukraine of 1932-33, perpetrated by Soviet authorities in the USSR. ‘Holodomor’ means murder by starvation; it resulted in the deaths of some four million Ukrainians. For much of the twentieth century, interviews with survivors and witnesses who had managed to escape comprised most of the evidence of this genocide since Soviet authorities denied it had taken place and restricted access to archives that would later corroborate witnesses accounts.

Working independently of each other and at different points in time, scholars and individuals from various disciplines have conducted oral history projects to record and understand the consequences of the Holodomor on survivors and descendant generations. These projects have served to bear witness, preserve truth, give voice to family histories that had been suppressed for decades, reveal the scope of the tragedy, dispel survivor guilt, share commonalities – as catharsis, validation and empowerment. As a starting point of the roundtable discussion, presenters will trace the arc of trauma from the Soviet collectivization of farmers through the Holodomor to the legacy of genocide on the children and grandchildren of survivors, exploring the role of oral history in shaping a narrative of the historical tragedy itself as well as implications for the long-term, intergenerational transmission of collective trauma.

 

Hong Jiang, China

Although teaching has had a long history in China, formal and modernised teacher education, which was largely recognised as a Western educational construct, has only been in existence for the past 120 years. This oral history project was driven by a desire to reconsider how teacher education should be positioned in relation to the teaching profession, higher education, the state and teachers in the Chinese context through a past-present construction. Three types of qualitative sources, namely documentary, visual and oral data were assembled from archival and online searches, and by conducting of 40 oral history interviews.

Drawing on former student teachers’ testimonies, this paper captures key features and major trends of the formal pattern of the Chinese teacher education system since the foundation of People’s Republic of China. It is argued that despite a wide range of structural and theoretical changes over time, continuities were more prevalent from 1949 to 1982. It also scrutinizes the impact of educational reforms upon the teaching profession and teachers’ identities from a rhetorical perspective. Evidence suggests that as an inherent linguistic and cultural characteristic of the Chinese language, metaphor, together with other literary devices, plays an important role in constructing and understanding key concepts relevant to teacher education.

Reflecting on the methodological affinities between oral history and other social science research approaches, Grounded Theory and Case Study in particular, I will also discuss how tools and techniques developed and utilised by sociologists and educational researchers could provide instructive routes for oral historians to arrive at a more reliable and insightful historical account. Specific examples are provided regarding research design, interview and analysis of multiple sets of sources.  I further propose to theorise oral history as a cyclic practice, which involves oral history as archiving, research method, pedagogy and empowerment, in building teachers’ community and promoting teachers’ voices.

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Harcourt Fuller’s Jamaican Maroon Oral History Projects

Welcome to another edition of OHA Spotlight! This month we are featuring Dr. Harcourt Fuller and his work, which includes a documentary-film and recorded album project, and how oral history was essential to both.

Dr. Fuller’s Background: I am an Associate Professor of History in the Department of History at Georgia State University. I hold a PhD in International History from the London School of Economics (LSE). Throughout my career, I have conducted research, given invited lectures and presented conference papers in Africa, Europe, North and South America, and the Caribbean. My multidisciplinary research and teaching expertise include the socio-political, cultural and economic history of West Africa (Ghana in particular), and the African Diaspora in the Americas, from the early modern period to the present. My scholarship is particularly concerned with the history of resistance against slavery and colonialism (particularly through Marronage), as well as anti-colonial nationalism, trans-nationalism, symbolic nationalism, and the construction and contestation of national and ethno-national identity in the Africana World.

My current research endeavor is a major international, interdisciplinary, collaborative and multifaceted undertaking that interrogates the ethnogeneses, histories, cultures, identities, experiences and present-day realities of Maroon nations in the Americas. Beginning with the history and contemporary dynamics of the Jamaican Maroons, this research project includes the publication of books, journal articles, the production of documentary-films, sound recordings, digital humanities content, web and social media material, and new courses. The incorporation of oral history is an integral component of these projects, which is evident in the following documentary-film and recorded album projects that I produced.

Completed in 2015, my 1-hour documentary, Queen Nanny: Legendary Maroon Chieftainess (www.nannythemovie.com), interrogates the history and legacy of this 18th century Akan leader of the Jamaican Maroons. The documentary was filmed in Ghana, Jamaica, Canada and the United States, and screened at educational, governmental, cultural and community organizations worldwide. In 2016, the UN Department of Public Information held a series of Special World Screenings of Queen Nanny in several countries, as part of its Remember Slavery Program’s “Women and Slavery” theme. Queen Nanny also won Best Documentary at the 2016 Newark International Film Festival, a Spirit Award at the 2016 Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival, and was nominated for an Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) honor at the 2016 Pan African Film Festival.

Granny Nanny Come Oh: Jamaican Maroon Kromanti and Kumina Music and Other Oral Traditions (2016) is a double-CD recorded by the Moore Town Granny Nanny Cultural Group. They completed a 3-month tour of the United States in 2016. The album features 31 tracks of live studio recordings of traditional Jamaican Maroon and Bongo-Kumina songs, drumming and other instrumentals, oral history, an Anansi story, African language retentions (including Twi and Kikongo), and other verbal arts. The album also features a 40-page color booklet with photographs and information about Maroon history and music, in addition to lyrics transcriptions and the historical background of the tracks. The Maroon Kromanti music and dance traditions of Moore Town are inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Moore Town is also part of the Blue & John Crow Mountains UNESCO World Heritage Site in Jamaica.

The album has been reviewed by several scholars. Kenneth Bilby, author of True-Born Maroons and compiler of the Smithsonian/Folkways CD, Drums of Defiance: Music of the Maroons of Jamaica, notes:

On this very special album we hear how the younger generation of Moore Town Maroons, in conversation with their elders, are bringing new life to the unique Maroon musical traditions handed down from their foreparents. Drawing on two of the most African of Jamaica’s traditional music’s, Kromanti and Kumina, these direct descendants of the great leader and Jamaican National Hero, Nanny, show that her spirit remains very much alive among them.

The album is available as a CD or digital download on popular online music outlets such as Amazon, iTunes, and CD Baby – https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/thegrannynannyculturalgr.

Besides my academic career, I enjoy travelling to various places in the United States, as well as sojourning to countries that I have never been to before. Places where nature abounds are among my favorite, as they allow for the rejuvenation of mind, body and spirit, which is essential for all facets of one’s life. For more information about my research and other activities, my website is www.harcourtfuller.com.

 

If you are interested in writing a blog for the OHA, please email oha@gsu.edu for more details.

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