Monday, November 3, 2008

Deep Listening

Studs Terkel's death last week made me think about the oral history interviews I've done--far fewer, of course, than his, but as I thought about them I realized that for me, they've been an incredibly strong part of shaping how I approach my work. The first oral histories I did were in college, when as part of a volunteer project at a local historical society, I interviewed people about childhood games. An interesting project, and one that involved interviewing both senior citizens and people my own age.

While at the Delaware County Historical Association, I was lucky enough to work with a couple amazing folklorists, Doug DeNatale and Joyce Ice, whose interviewing skills and passionate commitment to their work made each project they worked on a place where everyday people had a voice in each exhibit we developed.

Since then, I've conducted many different oral histories--about vacationing in the Finger Lakes, about factory work, about farm work, and much more. There are several informants whose words still stick with me to this day: the Japanese-American scientist, who only at the end of the interview, tells me about his time in an internment camp during World War II, when he was forced to drop out of college; the Italian-American woman who remembers, decades later, the sting of an employer telling her, because her family was Italian, that she couldn't put American in the space for nationality on her job application; the African-American migrant worker who began coming up on the season in 6th grade--and in his fifties, it's all the work he'd ever known; the woman who shares her stories of starting a union at her work place; and the many, many stories of work on factory and farm--those stories of dangerous, hard work that were almost always equally balanced by affectionate stories of family and community.

Why do I remember these people? Because each one of them gave me a glimpse into a life very different than my own. But at the same time, each and every one also showed me that we are all human, and that what connects us is considerably more than what divides us. So in my work today, my goals are often pretty simple--to find those threads that connect us, past and present, no matter who we are.

Top: Apple picking in western New York, photo by Drew Harty
Bottom: Women workers at Belle Mills, Sayre, PA

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