Previously dismissed as a non-authentic and unverifiable source of information for past events, oral history is today a widely used information collection methodology. Pioneered by African American scholars, the methodology has proven invaluable in the collection and preservation of first-person accounts, which would have otherwise been lost. Oral history helps historians preserve insights absent in printed sources, making them available for scrutiny and posterity by recording and preserving the collected information. The nature of oral history is such that the historians, while remaining in the background, catalyze and direct the line of inquiry by asking questions propping areas of interest, exemplifying ambiguous statements, and producing transitions for the reader. Perhaps most invaluable in oral history is women’s oral history. In an often male-dominated sphere, women’s oral stories are especially important as they allow the women to tell their story on their terms, in addition to the women playing a vital role as the custodians of cultural customs and traditions. Oral history, especially women’s oral history, is an invaluable methodology given its role in the preservation of history.
While there are many definitions of oral history, one in particular stands out. In her definition of oral history, turner states, “Oral history is the information of historical and sociological importance obtained through tape-recorded interviews with living persons whose experience and memories are representative or whose lives have been of special significance” (Turner 329). African American scholars pioneered oral history as a research methodology as a tool for collecting and preserving specifically Afro-centric history. The scholars fronted oral history as a methodology as a challenge to the Eurocentric notion that held the view that only written records presented the only trustworthy sources of information of the past (Turner 329). By presenting oral history as a source of knowledge of the past, the scholars presented a new platform for historical consideration for Africans, African Americans, women, and other nationalities previously excluded by the Eurocentric tradition.
Since its introduction, oral history has played a significant role in the preservation of history. Turner posits that at the beginning of the African American Studies revolution in the United States, scholars (often Black) discovered the loses they were incurring in living legend within their communities (Turner 329). The loses, through natural attrition of the elderly in the society, meant that a lot of community history was dying with the elderly. It was, therefore, necessary to interview these elderly people within the community, as a means of preserving the records for posterity. The scholars (African American) promoted oral history as a valid research methodology, leading to its prominence as a field within the humanities for the documentation of prominent and ordinary people’s lives (Turner 329). Its acceptance as a field, is perhaps the most important development, as it gives legitimacy to stories told by the ordinary people as true records of history.
Aside from its role in preserving history, oral history’s other significant role is giving voice to an African-centered perspective. As aforementioned, the Eurocentric approach to record-keeping emphasized on written records as the only source of knowledge of the past. Oral history challenges this notion by reconstructing and documenting African, African American, and African Diaspora history and culture (Turner 330). The documentation thus gives voice to an African-centered perspective of history by presenting African history within a full African context. By presenting and sometimes unearthing some hitherto forgotten information, oral history empowers people hidden from history, granting them the platform to tell their stories. Often, such individuals give firsthand information supplying important information on their unique experiences, which are representative of families, communities, cultures, and nationalities (Turner 330). Oral history additionally serves as a means of preserving data at risk of being lost, especially of figures significant in the community and not given much prominence in the media. In essence, oral history becomes a repository of authentic research with a significant Afrocentric perspective.
Additionally important is the vivid imagery created by oral history. Often researchers collect oral history using tape and video recorder. These methods of data collection provide the audience with the opportunity to relive their history through vivid images painted by the narrator; a rare opportunity to talk to history through the recording methods (Turner 330). Oral history here plays the role of a medium enabling the interviewer to interact and understand the recent past through the interviewee’s memories (Anderson and Jack 11). Through the interaction, the interviewer gets information that at the moment exists nowhere else. Most important is that the interaction process has the potential of leading the interviewer to primary information associated with the interviewee including photographs, recordings, memorabilia, and documents, all of which help to authenticate the interviewee’s accounts.
In collecting historical data through oral history, women’s oral history is especially valuable. History often obscures women’s role and participation in events of historical importance (Anderson and Jack 11). Giving voice to women (especially Black women) in recording history through the methodology, therefore, gives visibility to their stories and faces. Most Black women revolutionaries remain uncredited for the role they played in Black movements. Oral history becomes an avenue through which these women can give an account of their stories and serves as examples of “the marginalization many female activists experienced during the civil rights and black power eras of the 1960s and 1970s” (Phillips 33). Women’s oral history additionally becomes a representation and depiction of ills committed by the government. Such narrations relay women’s experiences, not only of the narrator, but also of other women who underwent similar experiences, but whose records are often distorted, expunged or excluded from official public records (Phillips 33). The narrations set records straight and allow the women to claim their place in history.
The power and need for women’s oral history lie in the way that their personal experiences challenge hegemonic knowledge and power plays. Ericka Higgins is a true exemplification of the challenge, where the narrations of her trial hoist her as a critical player in the black radical protest movement (Phillips 34). Before her narration, the Black Panther Party and the history of black radical protests were disproportionately male-centric giving no significance to the role black women played in the movement. The Party was evidently one of the most well-known organizations during the Black Civil Rights struggle. The radical nature of the Party, seemingly had no place for women, which history often sees as meek and submissive, taking little to no interest and participating less in such movements. Her narration is an affront to the traditional hegemonic practices of knowledge and power through the reconstruction of history, especially the role of black women.
Still, on the hegemonic practices of power play, women’s oral history allows women to tell their stories in their terms. Records of history traditionally tell the stories of women from male perspectives, with an assumption of objectivity (Borland 64). It is perhaps this notion of objectivity that caused Ericka Higgins in her interview with Mary Phillips, to grant the interview only on account that it (the interview) would produce research that transcends a “scholarly approach” (Phillips 34). The demand is a salient reference to women’s personal experiences, often detached from historical accounts involving women in the name of objectivity. By recording their experiences on their terms, oral history gives women a platform to present an alternative political perspective through which different audiences can understand the implications of history, while at the same time enabling the emancipation of women from the shadows of history to the limelight.
Oral history remains one of the most significant methodologies in the collection and recording of traditionally inaccessible historical information. Through oral history, it is possible to capture the knowledge of significant cultural and historical value. Most important is oral history’s role in providing an avenue for minorities to record their histories without necessarily relying on the Eurocentric bottlenecks of written records as the only authentic sources of historical knowledge. Of additional value is women’s oral history. Recording it allows women to express themselves in their terms, tell their stories from their perspective, and most importantly allow them to take their position in history. By recording their experiences, readers get alternative perspectives that help in providing a deeper understanding of the role of women in history in addition to grounding oral history as a research methodology.
Anderson, Kathryn and Jack, Dana, C. Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses. n.d., 11-25
Borland, Katherine. “That’s not what I said”: Interpretive Conflict in Oral Narrative Research. n.d., 63-74
Phillips, Mary. “The power of the first-person narrative: Ericka Huggins and the Black Panther Party.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, 43.3/4(2015), 33-51.
Turner, Diane, D. “The interview technique as oral history in Black Studies.” Critical and Analytical Measures n.d.:329-332