A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Archive

Erstwhile guest contributor Amelia Brackett (Ph.D. student, CU Boulder) considers the perplexing influence of identity in the practice of oral history. Unlike other historians, oral historians must consider how the outward manifestations of their identities and personas shape the conversations they can incite and, therefore, the evidence they can gather. Brackett shares some of her experiences with this dilemma and proposes a startling antidote. 

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Think outside the boxes. City of Toronto Archives. Photograph and editing by the author.

“Hey, you! Come over here!” I smiled awkwardly, half pretending I hadn’t heard. “Little lady, with the camera! Come on over!” He crossed the street to ask what I was doing. Continuing to smile, I said I was a curatorial assistant at a local museum and was in the neighborhood to take pictures for a research assignment for a new exhibition. “Little white girl like you with a camera like that, you need someone to show you around.” After living in the city for several years, I rarely looked or acted like a tourist anymore. But I was white, and I did have a camera, and that was enough to make me stand out in this neighborhood.

From around a conference table earlier in the week, taking pictures of neighborhoods had sounded like a good idea. My museum colleagues wanted to get a feel for the role of immigrant businesses in shaping the city following the Immigration Act of 1965. When I told this to my impromptu guide, he took me to several of his friends’ businesses. I hadn’t planned to talk to anyone, just to take pictures of storefronts, but I thought I could use this strange turn of events as an opportunity. So I asked where these shop owners had come from, how they had gotten their jobs, who frequented their stores, and if they had any family in the neighborhood.

Know who asks questions like that? Undercover immigration officers. My guide pointed this out to me about three stores in when he cornered me against a food rack to ask if I was an officer. “You’re just a scared little girl,” he concluded. And I was afraid, mostly because he kept edging me up against walls, but I was also confused. What I had meant to express as the polite establishment of spatial boundaries around my body hit him as racial prejudice, especially when I wouldn’t follow him into an empty building he wanted to show me. I had walked into a situation in which perceptions of me were obliterating my chance to collect usable evidence. On top of that, I was making vulnerable people nervous with my inconsiderate questions. I have had several accidental interviews that have forced me to confront how my identity colors my ability to do the job of an historian. In these situations, I have wondered how much my subjects’ opinions of me have affected the stories they tell me, but I have also realized how, in some cases, my perceptions of them have nearly precluded me from hearing what they have to say. Through these experiences, I have learned that keeping an open mind to finding sources in unexpected places and practicing how to build intimacy in an interview has helped me connect with and learn more from all of my sources, written and oral.

A little over a year after the interviews with immigrant business-owners, I found myself heading into the second hour of a phone call with a volunteer at a Toronto neighborhood historical association. I was starting to get annoyed, because what was supposed to be a quick call to confirm a time to meet so she could let me into the archives had turned into 45 minutes of a woman I didn’t know lecturing me about things she assumed I didn’t understand. So began Part Two of the saga of my unprepared forays into oral history. Interviews are hard. People aren’t pieces of paper you can turn over, read and re-read, leave open on a desk as you get up to stretch your legs. They don’t appreciate incredulity, which can show up in many forms, like your facial expressions and the questions you ask. They’re even harder when you’re not thinking of the exchange as an interview, which on this phone call, I wasn’t. When the volunteer demanded that I rehearse the traits of a good research question, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that something about me—maybe it was my young-sounding voice or maybe that she knew I was a student—triggered her pedantic rigmarole. The next day at the archive, we talked as she helped me sort through filing cabinets. I learned that she was a retired professor who had taught the first class on women’s studies at a teachers college in Toronto, which she said was like leading a therapy session. We bonded over a few similar experiences and our shared passion for local history. It dawned on me that she had led a fascinating life and had been a professor at a time when there were truly very few women in that position. She would be an excellent person to interview, but I had almost missed it because I had only thought of her as someone to unlock the archive door.

Listening to the volunteer’s life story reminded me that one of the most important skills historians can have is empathy. To me, practicing empathy in the archive mostly means being able to imagine possibilities for what life has been like for the thousands of people historians meet through the sources those people leave behind. Those imaginings don’t have to be right. Instead, they create space to see the past differently. In oral history, empathy can mean something more concrete. In an interview with Chicago magazine, oral historian Studs Terkel said of his subjects, “they’ve got to believe you’re interested. I don’t have written questions. It’s a conversation, not an interview.”[1] Terkel’s advice made me realize how the art of conversation had helped me in Toronto, where the comfortable flow of talk over the menial work of sifting through file folders massaged a stilted exchange into an insightful conversation about gender, work, and history.

I can’t help but think that drawing from Terkel’s experience as an interviewer leaves something unsaid for people who, for one reason or another, are liable to get pushed around. (My reasons tend to be that I’m a petite Midwestern woman and, more recently, that I’m a student. Terkel was a New Yorker and a Chicagoan with a big, male voice and a personality to match.) I wonder if part of the process of putting an interviewee at ease is convincing him that you’re worth talking to, that you’d “get” the story if he told it to you. In my experience as an accidental interviewer, people talked to me, but it sometimes felt like it was because they thought I needed a talking-to. I wondered how much that tendency affected the story they were telling me. So, I turned to one of my favorite books for guidance. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (2010) describes the Great Migration using over 1,000 interviews Wilkerson conducted.[2] Wilkerson, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, describes her process as a series of steps in which she gains her subject’s trust at the very end when it looks like the interview is through. Her first three steps involve maneuvering around her interviewee’s reluctance to share personal details and their general skepticism about her motives for asking them questions. Only after moving through three phases of this does Wilkerson get to the heart of the interview.[3] Knowing that establishing trust can be a ponderous process for Wilkerson, but one at which she is obviously capable of succeeding, encourages me to lay aside my frustrations with how people perceive me and move toward gaining the trust and respect of my subjects. My accidental interviews showed me that I am going to run into some difficulties with how my interviewees see me—as a student, something I’ll be for a while, and as a white woman, something I’ll always be. I don’t think I could have helped but be afraid in that situation with the camera a year ago. But I do think, with a little training, I could have diffused the anxiety caused by my suspicious questions. I have also realized that once I acknowledged the rich oral history the volunteer in Toronto could give me, who I was—my identity as a woman—actually helped her open up to me about her experiences. Training on how to leverage that identity to help put my subjects and myself at ease might make a sometimes-disadvantage into an advantage.

The astute reader will have figured out by now that a lot of my difficulty connecting with my interviewees happened because of the way I imagined they saw me. A few months ago, my third accidental interview emphasized just how much my identity affects my ability to hear other people’s stories. My dad and I were hanging out together on the family room couch, pausing a documentary on Vietnam every minute and a half to talk. My dad served in Vietnam, but he never talks about it. He was around for the second half of the Great Depression and WWII and I’ve heard all about those times and how great they were (I roll my eyes when he talks like that, often unsuccessfully resisting the urge to quip, Great for whom?) But this documentary made him want to talk about Vietnam. I heard about the limbs of young men piling up in the hospital tent, about the helicopter my dad was supposed to be on that he saw blown out of the sky. He wasn’t on it because the helicopter was heavy with dead bodies. Who was this man, crying at the waste of war? Had I ever met him? Had I ever made the space for him to speak?

It’s possible that my dad never talked about his service with me because the memories were too painful. And yet. I’ve never considered interviewing him about picking cotton in New Mexico in the 1940s, traveling to Mexico on a mule in the 1950s, or moving to Chicago during the 1964 race riots. I’ve never done this because I didn’t think I could get through it without my eyes rolling right out of my head; I thought he wouldn’t make a good interviewee because he was too biased. Turns out maybe I wouldn’t make a good interviewer for the same reason.

I write about identity and perception in oral history through personal stories because it is an intimate process to recognize how intertwined a historian’s identity is with the history she writes, and how each source—oral or written—has a human identity of its own. There is a broader takeaway from these experiences, however: all historians should be trained in oral history. Practicing oral history forces historians to confront the human element of the past, encouraging empathy and reinforcing the humility of their role as conduit. It helps them think on their feet, engage with people, and learn how to talk about their work in appealing and beguiling ways. Finally, being trained in oral history opens up a whole new way of thinking about sources beyond the archive, reminding historians of the crippling silence surrounding their paper sources. For these reasons, oral history is worth the discomfort I’ve described, even for historians who study the more distant past. The people they interview may still put them in boxes, and unfortunately that’s simply more likely to happen for people who look or sound a certain way. But who knows better the importance of listening than those to whom people sometimes don’t listen?

Amelia Brackett is a first-year Ph.D. student at CU-Boulder. As a museum professional and a student of history, her work connects academic and public history in the interests of public education and environmental protection. Her main research explores the intersection of non-human animal migration and movement with human spaces, though her most recent work tells the story of neighborhood organization in the face of deindustrialization in mid-twentieth-century Chicago. You can find her on Twitter @histmia.


NOTES

[1] Whet Moser, “Studs Terkel on How to Interview Someone,” Chicago, August 1, 2011, accessed March 24, 2017, http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/The-312/July-2011/Studs-Terkel-on-How-to-Interview-Someone/.

[2] Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Random House, 2011).

[3] Isabel Wilkerson, “Interviewing Sources,” Nieman Reports, accessed March 24, 2017, http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/The-312/July-2011/Studs-Terkel-on-How-to-Interview-Someone/.

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