Intro to Public History Week 9: Oral History

Last week, I wrote about the difficulty of addressing memory in the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor of Baltimore. This evening, I attended a talk at Temple by Ta-Nehisi Coates: writer, journalist, history major, and former resident of a West Baltimore neighborhood just blocks away from that corridor.

Coates spoke of difficult things, including racism and structural violence, in an easily flowing, extemporaneous manner. He cited the necessity of thinking critically of American history and the slave economy that made the nation’s creation possible- that this was a legal, widespread institution wherein real people made real profits by owning, exploiting, hurting and sometimes killing other real people. He explained the inner workings of oppressive power structures in such a lucid way that Joan Scott and Michel Foucault, in all their poststructuralist wisdom, could not hope to achieve.

But among the most striking parts of his talk came in the form of a memory. Coates at age 11, watching a group of older boys in the parking lot of a West Baltimore 7-Eleven. The looks on their faces as they postured to each other, play-fighting. The moment when he realized what one of the boys, looking directly into his eyes, was pulling from his coat pocket: a gun. The shock and fear and realization that he was not safe in his surroundings, could not count on the inviolability of his own body.

This story is testimony to so many things: A young boy’s realization of the brutality of the world he lives in, the nature of life in a neighborhood torn by crime and drugs and decades of discriminatory policies, the emulation of structurally enforced submission at the most interpersonal of levels. This memory is evidence enough of why “doing” history in the Penn Ave. area is so plagued with controversy. “Why would anyone want to remember this awful stuff?”, the argument goes.

Coates’ memory takes on meaning for him in his early consciousness of his own mortality and place in the pecking order of his neighborhood, a meaning that takes on more significance as he gets older and begins to understand the incident in the context of the larger societal struggle over agency and ownership of people of color’s bodies. This is the narrative that he now tells when he remembers the event in front of an audience. Experience has transformed into memory, which has transformed into his history. This history has broader significance in its connections to the present, and the memory must necessarily be seen through that lens as well. There’s a lot going on here.

As evidenced by this week’s readings, including “When Community Comes Home to Roost” (Journal of Social History: 40 [Fall 2006]), and  “When Subjects Don’t Come Out” (in Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity), many of these same themes are inherent in the collection and study of oral history. That’s the messiness, but also a reason why it is such an important resource. What matters is not just what happened (the event), but the meaning attached to it. Especially for public historians, seeking to share authority in any way possible, oral history is a way of trusting people to give their own interpretation of an experience. What can result is much richer, more textured, more intimate and intricate than a standard chronology of events. What can result is the explication of an entire worldview.

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