Whiteness, Archives, and Oral History

"In a life spent talking and, above all, listening to the voices of his fellow Americans, he rarely made time for intellectuals. Their eloquence, he said, came too easy. He preferred the 'inchoate thought' of people who were never heard … 'An accidental shove on a crowded Loop corner, while awaiting the change in traffic lights; an apology; a phrase that holds my attention; we go for coffee; a life unfolded at the restaurant table.'"

— Economist, “Obituary- Studs Terkel, Nov. 6, 2008

In the numerous decades Studs Terkel devoted to the capturing the speech and thought of the unheard, one wonders exactly what he did hear. When reading about the indignities of a working class waitress, was the audience really reading about Terkel himself? Were his poetic remembrances of encounters loyal to their source or constructions of reality and fantasy? At the very least, Alessandro Portelli points out, oral histories reflect as much the interviewer and the interviewee. Portelli cautions historians to remember oral histories serve most usefully as tools for getting at the meaning of an event rather than the event itself. In addition to Portelli’s reflections, Walter Johnson, Daniel Wickburg, Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook all provide historians with cautionary insights, suggesting historians divorce “agency” from resistance, consider archives and archivists as active non-passive producers of knowledge, and that historians reconsider new categorical approaches to history.

Recovering the histories of marginalized groups often emerges from an impulse within a historian toward social justice or even some solidarity. While such intents may be laudable, they do not necessarily make for great history. Richard Kilminster cautioned academics that the infection of politics in their work could lead to the establishment of arguments that failed in their ability to be proven nor disproven. Daniel Wickenburg shares his concern over the shifting of the study of identities to those of social constructions such as masculinity or whiteness. Though some argue that this move toward defining and analyzing whiteness and relations to it, serves to simply to allow white people to reinsert themselves into the discussion , Wickenburg’s main issue with it revolves around its extension of social history practices especially in regard to “reading the absences”. Wickenburg wishes not to turn back the clock on these recent “historiographical inversions” but he does plead for cultural historians to break from the methodology of their social history predecessors, “My particular claim … is that cultural historians need to be more like intellectual historians and less like social historians; they need to take ideas and language a lot more seriously than they have been willing to do.”

Social history endures a different criticism from Walter Johnson. Rather than critique the social history methodology Johnson questions the use and meaning of “agency” by historians. Johnson objects to its continued connection to nineteenth century “selfhood” along with conflation with resistance. Calling for an understanding of agency’s interrelation with other aspects of slavery, Johnson believes the “isomorphism” of agency, and resistance must end. Moreover, the “returning of agency” to marginalized or “enslaved” peoples and the self satisfied attitude by historians operates as a sort of erasure of past horrors, allowing society to act as if its structure did not rest on these past indiscretions. According to Johnson, too often historians confuse “cultural autonomy” with resistance. Johnson offers the example of African cultural forms which in themselves lacked inherent agency but enabled slaves to “set about forming the alliances through which they helped one another to resist it.” Ultimately, historians need to reconsider their use, meaning, and relation to “agency”.

If scholars need be aware of their terminology, so too do they need to consider their sources. The aforementioned Portelli advises historians to remember that they consider their role in conducting, interpreting, and creating oral histories. The subjects interviewed, the use of punctuation in transcription, and the questions asked serve as only a few examples which illustrate the complicity of the researcher in the process. Portelli points out m other nuanced aspects of oral histories. For example, emphasis on a particular event or moment by the speaker might be one of several maneuvers including evasion, regret, and numerous other key sentiments.

If historians have been reevaluating methodologies and sources, other professionals in the knowledge industry have failed to illustrate the same critical eye, “Both scholars and archivists have thus had a vested interest in perceiving (and promoting) the archives as a value free site of document inquiry rather than a site for the contestation of power, memory, and identity.” Joan M. Schwarz and Terry Cook argue that scholars must rethink the assumed institutional passiveness of archives. Instead, historians need to consider the prejudices and biases of archives while reading the sources there in more critically. Obviously, the failure of archivists to examine their role in archival creation remains a point of concern for the authors; the ideal of the neutral, powerless, non-political archivist remains a fallacy, “Archivists wield enormous power, loathe as many archivists are to admit this and reluctant as many academics are to acknowledge this.” Of course some might ask why such concerns matter? Schwartz and Cook argue that “this lack of questioning is dangerous” since it perpetuates the myth of archival neutrality, thus sanctioning “the already predilections of archives and archivists to document primarily…

Ryan Reft

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