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Kate’s Corner: The Art of Oral History


Frances Densmore and Blackfoot leader Mountain Chief listening to a cylinder recording, 1916. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 

“THE ART OF ORAL HISTORY”

BY KATE TEVES

 

In 1877, a not-so-little thing called the phonograph burst onto the Victorian tech scene.

Bulky and unwieldy though it was, anthropologists fell in love. Within a few years, they were carting the new devices off to remote corners of the globe to record oral histories, vanishing languages, and folk music.

Historians, on the other hand, were less impressed. Many viewed this new form of storytelling with distrust. The storytellers, they argued, were subjective and biased, and they embellished the details of their lives.

But the oral history fad persisted. As the 20th century reshaped the cultural and political boundaries of the world, universities and libraries invested heavily in field researchers. The data the researchers collected revealed that people all over the world were hungry to finally tell their own histories, from their own perspectives.

Historians debated this populist blow for generations. But after several waves of theorizing, most professional historians will agree that history – that is to say, the depicting thereof – is a subjective, creative process, regardless of whether it comes out of the mouth or the pen. To know the past is to produce the past.

But professional historians have also learned to fight against the slippery slope of fictionalized narratives. In the 21st century, the discipline tends to believe that truth–or at least “truthiness”–can emerge when diverse narratives overlap, intersect, and even contradict. History is alive and very, very feisty.

We at the Delray Beach Historical Society find ourselves excited by the unfinished art of oral history, and we hope you do too. If 19th century researchers were excited by the phonograph, we 21st century researchers are excited by the smartphone. We urge everyone in our community to use the technology at your fingertips to document the lives and memories of South Florida.

Click here for tips on how to conduct an interview.  


FLORIDA’S GREAT LISTENER

Zora Neale Hurston, a folklorist and writer from Eatonville, believed in the power of storytelling to communicate and transform the truths of Florida’s African-American populations. By 1938, she used this passion to publish several novels, including Their Eyes Were Watching God—one of the most highly prized books in the American canon.

Soon thereafter, she joined the Federal Writers’ Project to collect oral folklore and music from communities most wounded by the Great Depression. She traveled across the state meeting with African-American workers, musicians, elders, and storytellers to capture the triumph and tragedy of the country’s blindside.

You can listen to several of her recordings at the State Archives of Florida right here.

 

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