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.

Forrest Gump, You’re A Fraud

Before anyone asks me to step outside for a fight, I will begin by saying that I actually love Forrest Gump. It is an entertaining and fun movie that almost always makes me cry a little bit. However, our loveable Tom Hanks does not teach us history. If you’ve never seen Forrest Gump, it follows the life of one man who ends up witnessing or being a part of the majority of historical events in the latter half of the 20th century. He fights in the Vietnam War, reports the Watergate scandal as he watches it happen through a glass window, and comes in contact with John Lennon, Elvis Presley, JFK, and a bunch of other famous icons. I’ve had multiple people tell me that it’s a great movie about history. The entire thing is a work of fiction–the historical events that “occur” mostly center around popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s, and are kitschy recreations of the war and American life. All of this to say that the question I’ve been asking myself recently is:

Are we doing history a disservice by translating it into film?

What is the purpose of utilizing history in film? Is it a backdrop for a love story (Pearl Harbor)? Is it an attempt to educate about certain events or individuals (Hacksaw Ridge, Unbroken)? And why do so many of our movies somehow end up involving World War Two?

Team Danny–forever.

I am proposing to analyze the different uses of history in film making, with a specific focus on the prominence of World War Two movies. Historians can have a role in filmmaking as advisers, but their recommendations are often compromised. The American Historical Association seems to be optimistic about the future of historical consultants in the media industry:

“An increasingly sophisticated audience is demanding greater historical integrity in media productions. Producers of documentaries, dramatic films, and educational programming often hire historical consultants to advise on costumes, scenery, props, dialect, and content accuracy. Most television networks and large production companies will require the services of a historian, and some consulting firms specialize in media productions and the entertainment industry.” Are they really, though?

If you haven’t watched JoJo Rabbit…you should and let me know what you think as a historian (it’s meant to be satire, as a heads up).

The questions I will be answering are as follows: Does fictional filmmaking ever do history justice? How much historical inaccuracy is acceptable in a film? Can film teach history, or is it always doomed to fall into speculation and fabrication? What role does the historian have in critiquing, supporting, or condemning “historical” films?

I will be using a variety of popular films for analysis in addition to the writings of historians in defense of film (or in opposition to film as a medium of history education). I am hopeful that the audience for this type of research will be broad–I think the appeal lies in using well-known films and keeping the research questions wide enough to interest a large and diverse audience.

Let me know what you think! Do you have strong opinions on the role of history in film? How does the translation of history into a digital and visual medium benefit us? Are there any World War Two movies that you loved? Any that you hated? Drop them in the comments below. Looking forward to your recommendations!

John Mulaney Teaches Us Computer-Assisted Analysis

If you’ve never heard of John Mulaney, let me be the first to introduce you to a loveable, gawky stand-up comedian who got his start on SNL. One of his most well-known bits is about grade-school assemblies and the “street smarts” he learned as a child. He describes the colorful, real-life character of J.J. Bittenbinder, who “looked like he should be the conductor on a locomotive powered by confetti” and had a huge handlebar mustache. Bittenbinder’s assembly taught elementary students about stranger danger and tactical ways to escape from criminals.

Look at the man shimmy!

So what can John Mulaney teach us? With an excerpt from his act, I can show you how to make computer-assisted text analysis work for you. And it’ll be more fun, because it’s comedy! I’ll be using Voyant Tools to demonstrate how the site can manipulate digital text to show you themes and statistical relationships in the writing itself: https://voyant-tools.org/

Voyant Tools is a web-based reading and analysis environment for digital texts.

On the homepage you can insert text directly into the box, upload a file, or simply paste URLs and hit the “Reveal” button. Once you do, the site will create a list of all words used and track their frequency, mark their relationships, and provide context for the use of specific words. This information will be presented in multiple areas, oriented around the central text listed in the center box. In the top left-hand corner, a word cloud will appear that can be manipulated to show the most used words and their relationships to each other. In the right-hand corner, a list of all words used and their frequency will allow you to click on a word and see it highlighted in the central text.

While this may seem overwhelming at first, I would suggest playing around with a small piece of text and looking at the various trends, it gets easier to use with a little bit of practice.

On the bottom left-hand corner, you can view a summary of vocabulary usage and average sentence length, manage multiple documents, and view the most commonly used phrases. On the bottom right-hand corner, you can view word relationships, correlations, and context. Voyant Tools is a free resource that can be extremely helpful in analyzing historical sources and other forms of written text. Similar tools have been used to aid historians in condensing large blocks of text and sources into themed sections (see Cameron Blevins blog post about topic modeling and Martha Ballard’s diary here: http://www.cameronblevins.org/posts/topic-modeling-martha-ballards-diary/).

Some other potential uses of this site could include:

  1. Using the tool on oral history transcripts to track themes and narrow down the central parts of the interview. Oral history interviews are often not linear, and using a text analysis tool could aid scholars in organizing the narrator’s information, memories and insight.
  2. Using the tool on scholarly articles to aid in summary, understanding and relationships between argumentative points.
  3. Using the tool on historical documents that have been digitized, such as diaries, letters, unpublished manuscripts, etc. to support and enhance analysis.
  4. If you have any other ideas, drop them in the comments!

Before I go, I’ll just say a big thank you to John Mulaney for showing us how to use Voyant Tools, and if you haven’t watched his Street Smarts bit, it’s in the first twenty minutes of Kid Gorgeous at Radio City Music Hall (stand-up act available on Netflix). He also talks about ghosts and Donald Trump so it’s a real winner. If you have any questions or would like more insight into Voyant Tools, let me know! I am happy to answer any questions. I would highly recommend playing around on the site and learning how it works for yourself. It’s easy and can be fun, especially when you use entertaining chunks of text. If you want to use John Mulaney again, or pull from a movie or TV show you really like, transcripts can be found here: https://scrapsfromtheloft.com/

Happy analyzing!

Shae Corey Intro (Hi!)

Me on the face of the sun aka Florida

Hello to my fellow historians and blogging pals! My name is Shae Corey and I am a first year student in the Public History MA program at American University. I recently graduated in May of 2020 (yes, I walked across my back porch to receive a fake diploma) with a bachelor’s degree in history and secondary education. In undergrad, I completed grant-funded oral history work and digital history work, and had the time of my life doing it. I was able to create a digital archive for an historically African-American neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama that has been plagued by recurrent issues of gentrification and has campaigned for historical recognition as a once-segregated neighborhood (https://rosedalememoryproject.omeka.net/). Go ahead and check it out!

My main historical interests include community history, African American history, cultural history and oral history. I am excited to learn how to best utilize digital tools to convey history across a variety of platforms. In the modern era (especially the COVID era), it is essential for historians to understand and use digital spaces to create spaces for conversation, engagement, and learning.

I am excited to learn new things and expand my skill set in this class. It’s a perfect time to embrace the digital, and I’m personally pumped to see what we can all accomplish this semester.

Before I go, I’ll leave you with a few things about me that aren’t academic. The absolute love of my life is my dog, Cooper, seen below as a puppy. He lives in Florida where he can always run around outside. I currently live in Washington DC with my Museum Studies roommate who attends GW. We watch a lot of true crime series and 80s movies. I was raised by a stay at home dad while my mom worked as a midwife for the Navy. I’m a bit of a klutz and sprained my ankle just walking a few days ago (it was a very public tumble outside of the grocery store, I was mildly embarrassed). I love my program and this city, and I’m looking forward to the rest of my time at AU.

If you have any questions for me, always feel free to ask. I am a very open book. Looking forward to getting to know you all!