Henry Greenspan’s article, “The Humanities of Contingency: Interviewing and Teaching Beyond “Testimony” with Holocaust Survivors,” [Oral History Review 46:2(Summer/Fall, 2019), 360-379] contributes to socio/historical inquiry goes beyond the collection of testimonies from Holocaust survivors. Greenspan’s call to engage with testimony beyond the collection of experiences takes the practice of oral history into an even more dynamic practice where the actual people become 3D characters. It calls for an engagement with the people with the stories and even the reader’s or interviewer’s own positionality or understanding of the topic.
The Oral History Association Book Award committee enthusiastically names Nepia Mahuika’s exceptional book Rethinking Oral History and Tradition: An Indigenous Perspective as the winner of the 2020 prize. We also wish to recognize Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s, Sisters and Rebels: A Struggle for the Soul of America, with an honorable mention. In addition to embodying the very best in the practice of oral history, both books were inspiring to read in this unsettling time.
Rethinking Oral History and Tradition provokes a thoroughgoing decolonization of our conception of the field of oral history by demonstrating that indigenous oral accounts are oral history. Focusing on a case study of the Maori in Aotearoa, New Zealand, the book confronts a longstanding problem: the condescending and dismissive stance of non-indigenous professional oral historians and other scholars, who have relegated Maori oral accounts to the realm of myth rather than respecting indigenous practices as legitimate forms of oral history. Drawing on sixty interviews he conducted within his tribe (Ngāti Porou), Mahuika recasts oral history as a dynamic, organic, and multi-generational exchange within indigenous cultures that takes place within the context of people’s daily lives. He shows that a lack of attention to the nuance of language partly explains why Maori oral accounts have been relegated to the realm of “oral tradition” and discounted in the reconstruction of Maori history. Scholars simply did not understand the significant role metaphors play in their language. Ultimately, Mahuika’s elegant and refreshing book makes the case for not shoehorning an indigenous perspective into the existing field, but for totally reimagining and broadening the field of oral history.
Sisters and Rebels is a page-turner about two women’s complicated and noble mission to transform the region of their birth and the United States as a whole. Drawing on oral history interviews Hall conducted over the course of nearly fifty years, the book tells the individual and intertwined stories of three remarkable sisters from a former southern slaveowning family, Elizabeth, Grace, and Katherine Lumpkin. While Elizabeth clings to the Lost Cause ideology she imbibed in their youth, Grace and Katherine rebelled against and transcended the racism and mythology of their southern upbringing to fight for justice and women’s liberation. Sisters and Rebels is the work of a giant of the field that not only demonstrates Hall’s skill and sensitivity as an interviewer, but also restores readers’ faith that individuals can cast off the destructive ideologies of their childhoods to help transform society in meaningful ways.
Mason Multi-Media Awards
Refugee Boulevard: Making Montreal Home After the Holocaust creatively documents narrators’ stories through a survivor-led historical audio tour, and accompanying booklet and website available in French and English. Building on long-standing relationships with survivors, new multi-session interviews were conducted to connect stories of experiences from 1948 within neighborhood sites. The audiowalk features the voices of six War Orphans Project storytellers and the narrator, all of whom were Holocaust refugees. Voices are integrated with music and soundscapes that enhance the listener’s experience. The accompanying booklet is designed well and enriches the audiowalk with the map, historical photographs and text. Notably, the Refugee Boulevard project currently reaches the community through collaborative partnerships with two museums, as well as informs curriculum for teaching Canadian Studies and History at two Montreal universities. This beautifully conceived and executed project provides a great sense of the power of oral history for contributing to the historical record through community engagement.
Authors: Stacey Zembrzycki, Eszter Andor, Nancy Rabelo and Anna Sheftel
Voices of Virginia: An Auditory Primary Source Reader compiles oral histories across five decades and from twenty repositories into an open-access reader for high school and college students. The reader is organized well by topic, time period, and description, and offers easy links for downloading or listening to the seventy interview excerpts. The audio files were licensed through a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike 4.0 license. Content in the Reader is aligned with the History and Social Science Standards for Virginia Public Schools. Section I includes transcripts, context, and discussion questions. Section II offers six lesson plans. This replicable project demonstrates the power of oral history, offers new ways to think about the state’s history through diverse voices of narrators, and broadens access to archived interviews.
Author: Jessica Taylor
The Wisconsin Farms Oral History Project: Lands We Share initiative showcased oral histories in a unique way with a traveling exhibition and community conversation tour at twelve venues throughout the state. Oral histories conducted at five farm sites were highlighted in the exhibit and radio series broadcasts. The stories encompassed some of Wisconsin’s rich cultural diversity and history, including the Oneida Indians, Hmong immigrants, agricultural wage laborers from Mexico and Laos, African-American community activists, and multi-generational German immigrants. Notably, the organizers extended the exhibit’s possibilities by including interactive elements for visitors at each community location, including a culmination farm dinner and conversation. The Lands We Share reached almost 3,000 exhibit visitors, 600 guests at community dinners, and over 100,000 radio listeners. Partnerships and collaborations with communities from the initial oral history project were extended from the Lands We Share initiative and have inspired subsequent oral histories and possibilities for curriculum development.
Author: Stephen Kercher
Postsecondary Teaching Award
Professor Ricia Anne Chansky’s Mi María: Puerto Rico after the Hurricane showed the strength of a dual language project that was fully transcribed and translated. The committee was impressed in the interdisciplinary approach to this subject matter at a primarily STEM focused institution. Her integration of oral history with this general education course through the Department of English creativity allowed a group of newly trained students to engage with the practice. The ongoing civic engagement with the community created a place for survivors to reflect and archive their collective memories. Professor Chansky provided the “ethics of care for my students” in these dire circumstances to facilitate this project. Students in turn found solace in their collective experience and rapport beyond the classroom assignment with their narrators. In these dire conditions with limited access to electricity, this project succeeded that marked our scores high in “civic or community component.” The standard of this collection sets a precedence for future collections at this and other institutions.
Ricia Chansky’s “Mi María” project is a large-scale public humanities project that uses oral history and other biographical methodologies—contextualized in critical disaster studies and environmental humanities—to study the impacts of Hurricane María on the people of Puerto Rico while working to resituate the national narrative from stories about the people to those by the people. This new phase of the project, “Sheltered in Place,” works to understand connections between the climate emergency and the public health crisis of Covid-19 in marginalized and underserved communities that are disproportionately impacted by both. A secondary objective of this project is to devise methods for creatively listening to and circulating life stories in a time of necessitated physical distancing.
Sierra Holt’s project is to produce an oral history of the descendants of the community who live in or near Lambert Lands. Lambert Lands became the home of newly emancipated people from Bedford County, Virginia in 1843. After establishing their settlement, this group obtained a deed, built a church, and developed the oldest Emancipation celebration, which continues today. They also were a stopping point for those escaping slavery in the South. Since its creation, the legacy of Lambert Lands has continued despite threats of violence from the Klu Klux Klan, growing poverty in Appalachia, and numerous drug epidemics. To fully comprehend the history of this community, Holt will also research and interview distant relatives who hold knowledge of the community’s origins in Bedford County, Virginia. For preservation, the results of these interviews will be donated to a library or archive housed at an academic institution or museum, particularly one that is focused on Southern and/or Appalachian Black history.