Why Oral History? (Why Narratives? Why Stories?)
The following explanation, neither original nor copyrighted, first appeared on the website of the Texas After Violence Project. It is a distillation of what I learned from mentors, colleagues, oral history narrators, books, articles, observations, and experiences.– virginia raymond
Oral history offers two broad categories of gifts: process and product. This page outlines what we can learn from the oral histories (the product). Another section of this website explains what we gain from the process of oral history.
Oral histories offer a different kind of information: people’s personal and subjective memories, narratives of lived experience.
“Official” histories, documents, and numbers, are not necessarily wrong, but they are incomplete. In public discussion about the death penalty we sometimes hear more about numbers than people, more about abstractions than real effects, and more about opinions than experiences. And while it is important to listen to everyone’s opinions, it is just as important to know what people actually experience.
Personal narratives complement more “official” and “objective” information. They help us understand how people experience and make meaning of important events in their lives.
There are many different ways to seek information. Reporters frequently want to cover the “who, what, when, where” and sometimes the “how” and “why” of events. Lawyers need to uncover evidence and hear testimony that proves or casts doubt on particular claims. In both of these situations, and in some academic fields, the people asking the questions are seeking particular kinds of information demanded by their audiences. They may be asking legitimate and good questions — but the questions don’t always match up with the stories people want (or even need) to tell.
We may think differently, value varied kinds of knowledge, disagree about what is “information,” and care about completely different issues and aspects of an event.
The oral histories that we encourage provide opportunities for people to tell their own stories in their own ways, emphasizing what they think is important, not what we might come into the situation thinking is important. When things go well, the interviewer speaks very little; in many ways, the person being interviewed “conducts” or “directs” the interview. The stories that people tell on their own may shift our focus, direct our attention to areas we may never have thought about, and surprise us. Oral histories open our eyes. They have the potential to bring us greater insight.
Oral histories bring multiple voices, including many ignored or underrepresented voices, into public conversations and the historical record.
Oral histories can help us correct gaps in government, journalistic, and academic reports that have systematically ignored and undervalued the histories and perspectives of poor or working class people, Black people, Mexican Americans and other Latina/os in Texas, other people of color or racial minorities, women, children, people with disabilities, immigrants, non-English speakers, language minorities, sexual minorities, anyone who has been instutionalized, and people with limited or modest formal education.
Oral histories help us understand who we are.
In many traditions, people share wisdom and values from generation to generation by telling stories. As the stories we tell about individual selves tell us who we are, so too are stories — for many peoples — tightly connected with collective identity. For a thousand years, griots have carried history in West African societies and for African-descendants. Corridos perform a similar function for mexicana/os and Mexican Americans. Indigenous peoples of the Americas honor storytelling. Jews retell the story of slavery and exodus every Pesach. Stories — personal and historical memories — define us.
Texas is made up of people whose lives, beliefs, values, practices, and languages differ, but some events affect us all, one way or another. How does violence in our communities, and the ways we respond to that violence, shape who we are as individuals and collectively? The answers are within us. We will understand ourselves better through listening to each other.
Limits of oral histories
Memory is funny. Memories are stories. Both remembering and forgetting are active processes shaped by our fears and desires, pleasure and pain, pride and shame. We attribute new or greater significance to events in the past in the light of our present preoccupations. Later experiences influence whether and how we remember events. So do the stories that other people tell or that we read or watch on TV or in movies. Consciously or not, we try to match or violate the expectations of our listeners, or what we think are their expectations. We all want and even need to have things “make sense”: it’s both a blessing and a curse that stories help us do that. We may try to fit our experiences into a recognizable structure: “that was the turning point,” or “ever since then,” or “if it hadn’t been that I was there in a particular place in a particular day….” Sometimes it’s hard to say whether we actually “remember” something happening, or have just heard a story so many times that the story is a memory.
Oral histories, like other kinds of historical evidence, are always incomplete. A single oral history, like a single newspaper article or photograph or government report, tells some things and leaves others out. That is why it is important to hear from many different voices and perspectives, and to consider multiple forms of historical evidence, when seeking to understand any event or process. We can’t understand the effects of violent crime, criminal justice processes, or executions in Texas, without hearing from everyone.
Oral histories may not be completely “reliable” in reconstructing what happened (nothing is). But they are very good at showing us what events mean to people, the effects of events, and how people move through and beyond tragedies.
Read more about oral history at the websites of the Texas Oral History Association (TOHA), the Oral History Association, the International Oral History Association, and the sites listed on the sidebar of this website’s home page.