Why oral history matters

In 2006, I conducted my first set of oral history interviews with the girls and women in my family at my Nana’s kitchen table for a high school project. My drama teacher was writing a play on the narratives of women and nation building—Motherland. She tasked the students in her class with interviewing a woman in their family. The audio recordings from our interviews were used to write the script for that play.  

There are many uses for oral history; it can be both personal and political, both scholarly and colloquial. At the grassroots level, oral history has been used as a means to seek justice for communities and people, who have been excluded and systematically erased from or misrepresented in history, in particular people of color, women, LGBTQIA-identifying, the working class and rank-and-file activists and organizers who receive an opportunity to tell their story in their own words.

This was one of the first homework assignments I was truly excited for—it was like my version of the volcano experiment that most third graders look forward to. I remember begging Nana (my grandmother) to take me to Best Buy so I could purchase an attachment for my iPod that would enable me to collect audio recordings. With my new equipment in hand, I invited my aunt, Nana, great grandmother, older cousin and youngest cousin—who was a toddler at the time—to come to our house for dinner, unaware that they would be the subjects of my homework assignment.

But, this project was much more than a homework assignment for me.

Just a few years prior to entering high school, I lost my mother due to an unexpected heart attack. Being around the matriarchs within my family brought solace. I yearned to learn more about them, their childhoods, their interests, their journeys, and to hear them talk about my mother. This assignment was an opportunity for me to be “nosey,” to “be in grown folks’ business,” and overall to be an inquisitive teenager, asking questions of the adults I loved and admired.

Now when I listen to those recordings I recognize that it was a moment for us as Black girls and women to be vulnerable with each other. I hear myself giggling through some of my questions. I hear the strain in my grandmother’s voice as she talked about the pain of losing her husband, becoming a single-mother, and reflecting on the tumultuous 1960s. I hear my younger cousin struggling to put together sentences describing her young life and interests, mostly Elmo.

Because I expressed and demonstrated such a great interest in this assignment my teacher asked me and my Nana to be actors in the play. Nana had the opportunity to perform monologues that were written based on our interview. This experience brought us closer; we went to rehearsals and cast parties together, and practiced our lines at home. Furthermore, this experience opened my eyes to the complexity, utility and power of oral history.

Oral history is a research method often used by historians, ethnic studies and cultural studies scholars, and some sociologists to learn more about a person or group of people. These are often people whose narratives have yet to be unearthed and included within mainstream history. Therefore, this method is most frequently employed by scholars conducting research on underserved and underrepresented people or on areas of history, which have few archival materials but people with firsthand knowledge are still alive.

Unlike ethnography, structured interviews, and other traditional research methods, oral history provides a space for participants to lend their voices and tell their stories on their own terms. With researchers in the past (and present) being called out for poor research ethics and cases arising of marginalized communities being exploited by researchers, oral history compels scholars to sit and listen to participants as they tell their story free of hierarchies, establishing a shared authority and power dynamics for how the story is conveyed during the interviewing process. Moreover, oral history helps democratize knowledge production; it is a tool anyone, regardless of academic background, can use.

Having conducted dozens of oral history interviews since high school, I quickly developed my own approach. Often interviewing elders, activists and artists, I enter each interview as if I am still that inquisitive high schooler eager to hear the stories of women in my family. I view each participant as a griot—a storyteller, keeper of history and knowledge. And since that first experience interviewing the women in my family at my grandma’s kitchen table, I have been fortunate to be able to participate in an oral history program at California State University, Long Beach (Go Beach!), where we collected the narratives of former braceros—Mexican migrant workers. I have also been able to interview high-ranking members of the Black Panther Party, notable women activists and community griots for my Master’s thesis while at Syracuse University.

Today, oral history is still very much a part of my research toolkit as a doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies at the University of California, Davis. But more importantly, oral history serves an integral role in my activism—helping to amplify the voices of those on the margins of the margins, by documenting and archiving those voices, stories and histories, and writing them into historical narratives. Launching the Black Sacramento Oral History Project with your support is one way for us to capture and preserve the narratives of Black Sacramentans.

The Black Sacramento Oral History Project is looking for Black Sacramentans–no matter the age, gender identity, sexuality, ability, nationality, immigration status, religion or socioeconomic class–who want to learn about and use oral history to keep “Black Sac” alive. Beyond oral history being used for research purposes, griots, street journalists, organizers and activists have taken up this method to unearth and document lost narratives and histories of communities, help build and fuel social movements, motivate and educate youth, radically empower their kinfolk, call for justice, and assist with developing empathy and compassion across lines of difference.

If you or anyone you know would like to participate in the Black Sac Oral History project, please email me at: BlackSacOralHistory@gmail.com


Jeanelle Hope on Email
Jeanelle Hope
Jeanelle Hope is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies at the University of California, Davis. Her research examines Afro-Asian solidarity, Blacks in the American West, transnational feminism and social movements. She is a Sacramento resident, organizes with Sacramento Socialists and in her spare time enjoys playing with her two fur children and being a badass vegan home chef.