Ear-Splitting Silence: Oral History as Social Justice

“History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands.” Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, 153.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot popularized the term “silences” to describe gaps in the archives and records of the past, and identify the missing pieces of history at large–empty space where minorities, the poor, and those that lack privilege lack representation, because their stories were not deemed worthy of preservation. America is currently wrestling with herself–issues of racism, poverty, and the systemic oppression of minorities have deep roots that are buried in uncomfortable histories that some people simply don’t want to speak aloud.

But other people need to speak–deserve to speak–and should speak, for their history to be legitimated and preserved. Oral history provides a solution of social justice that can address certain gaps in the archive and provide a more equitable understanding of historical events that inform our present.

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Certain organizations have already embraced this idea and produce scholarship to help individuals produce oral histories that amplify marginalized voices.

I’ve personally worked with oral histories for 3 years now in various capacities, but every time I bring it up outside of the academic world, I get a bit of a head tilt and the question:

“But what’s oral history?”

This is sometimes what my face looks like before I explain. I don’t blame anyone for not knowing (I didn’t know either, most of my life), but it’s such an amazing resource, I wish it was more renowned!

The goal of my digital project would be not only to answer this question, but to publicize the act of oral history as an act of social justice. The year 2020 held numerous historical events that radically changed the fabric of our current world. A global pandemic, the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer after the death of George Floyd have all impacted us, and impacted our history. Many people found that the only outlet available to them was through the internet–accusations of virtue signaling and being stuck inside made many people feel as if they couldn’t help, and couldn’t contribute to any real social change.

Oral history can provide an outlet for young people to engage with the world around them and improve the historical record–if they KNOW about it and if they have the appropriate resources. My digital project will center on two objectives: teach people about oral history as a practice, teach people how to use it as a form of social justice.

I am currently planning on utilizing Youtube and Tiktok to create short, educational videos that will engage audiences and provide a large amount of resources (for example: places to submit your oral history interview for archivization, where you can record oral history interviews online, if you can do it with your phone, etc.). I am also hoping to get in contact with oral history organizations and ask for permission feature some of their interview content. I will center these two platforms in a blog format site (most likely WordPress) that will provide links, articles, and extended resources mentioned in the videos.

If you have any ideas or suggestions, please let me know, I would love your feedback. Additionally, since many of us were in the oral history class last semester, if you would like part of your interview featured or referenced on the site, I am more than happy to set that up. If you want to be featured on the Tiktok, also let me know. We can get famous together.

Also, I am currently looking for name suggestions for the site/Tiktok since I am terrible at striking a balance between too much of a pun and something cool. Help a girl out. Let’s get oral history on the map, and make it a process that anyone can do with a little bit of training and a little bit of Tiktok.

5 Replies to “Ear-Splitting Silence: Oral History as Social Justice”

  1. Great idea Shae. Maybe we can collaborate and figure out how to incorporate the twitterstorians I am planning on working with, I imagine most of them have done oral history in some form.

  2. I love the idea of bringing oral history into the mainstream. Everyone knows about interviews, but you’re correct that many people don’t know how they are used in oral history. Thinking on it, Tik Tok seems like it could be a great way to promote oral history in social justice since it’s easy to use and share. I’ll admit, though, I know nothing about the site, so I’m not sure if there’s a time limit on videos like Vine. Still, videos talking about how people can do their own oral histories seems like a great way to get people to know about the field.

  3. Shae, this idea is so unique and I think your plan of using YouTube and Tiktok will be effective for bringing in a young audience that wants more platforms for social justice. I agree with you that oral history is a prime example of another tool that people can use as a form of social justice and for educational purposes especially. I am excited to see where you go with this!

  4. Shae good idea, I think TikTok and YouTube seem like effective platforms for you to use in this project. The idea of oral history is fantastic and I think makes up an important part of education for anyone trying to learn more about how we can apply historical knowledge.

  5. Really creative idea and I think it’s one that could be very successful. There is a growing genre of short expert storytelling kinds of content happening on TikTok and a very strong interest in social justice and racial justice on the platform. So I think this could be a really great concept.

    If you do run with it, I think your best bet would be to try and plot out what you think could be doable in the rest of the semester and start to work on that. Like could you produce 4-7 of these short videos. If so, what would the style/format of them be.

    For some context/example, a former student of mine has been putting up some videos on digital preservation/digital archives that have gotten some traction https://www.tiktok.com/@zombiespaceship/video/6912195159757245701

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