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In a 1989 interview, Lakecia Denson asks Ella Gibson, age 74, about her life in rural Georgia during the early 1930s. Gibson tells the freshman interviewer that as a young girl, around Lakecia's age, she worked from dawn to dusk in the cotton fields around Lee City, Georgia. When Denson follows up and asks about school and her education, Gibson pauses and responds, not with graduation dates and favorite classes because working prevented her from attending, but with a confession of sorts: "well now, ya'll blessed, ya'll really blessed. But you know what it is ya'll livin' on? People's prayers from back then up until now." When sophomore Cyndi Martin asks Norman Smith about his experiences as a young man during the 1950s in Warren, Ohio, like Gibson he chooses not to answer the asked question and instead admonishes today's African American young people because they "don't realize the price we paid for [their] freedom." (1)
These two comments underscore the discursive nature of the oral history interview and the structure of collective memory that frames the African American experience in the United States. This essay will use a series of oral history interviews to explore how different groups of African American and white Americans frame their personal and, by association, collective histories and how these narratives can help guide the development of a new trope concerning race relations in the United States.
Beginning in 1990 and continuing through 2004, my students and I collected over 600 oral history interviews from rural Georgians and urbanites from northeast Ohio. The first project began while I was teaching at the University of West Georgia (then West Georgia College) during the early 1990s. Located in Carrollton, a small town west of Atlanta near the Alabama border, the student population was predominantly white and residential, with most students coming from the surrounding counties and the Atlanta area. I used an oral history assignment in my modern United States history courses to show the students how history is made personal and also so that I could gain a better understanding of the people of the region. The questions dealt with how ordinary people felt, thought and acted during the Depression era. I encouraged the students to interview a family member or close friend to allow for greater openness since, given the time frame, many relatives from this period were still alive. Other students went to local assisted living homes to talk with those residents. The issues of race and identity were not the central core of the interview, but oftentimes these issues surfaced and the students were encouraged to listen for these verbal cues and follow up with more direct questions. Many did, but a larger number did not, instead quickly moving on to the next topic or question. Since the great plurality of those interviewed were white, perhaps the students did not feel comfortable asking questions about race given the period under investigation, their relative's general attitude in this regard and how this might be perceived by their northern professor.
The second group of interviews came from a series of courses during the early part of this century I taught at a regional campus of Kent State University outside Warren, Ohio. These students were commuters and many were first-generation college bound, working in part-time or fulltime jobs and, in many cases, raising a family. They mostly came from the surrounding urban areas hard-hit by the steel mill closings of the 1970s and 1980s. The oral history questions for these courses were designed specifically to probe the nature of race relations in the region during the 1950s and 1960s through the description of getting a living, home life, food ways and cultural/social activities. My goal was to encourage the students to hear how history is made personal and what can be learned through listening about the past.
Comparing the two, I noticed that even though separated by region, era, class and context, a surprising unity in the responses regarding race emerged. Through their stories I heard how the use of language, silence and local color helped to illuminate the past, allowing one to draw from their stories a meaning that transcends the traditional historical narrative. Within these interviews, African American respondents found new space to discuss their daily struggles with racism and present their journey within the larger context of liberation, even within the construct of the dominant culture and its narrative. For white respondents, the discussion of race relations brought discomfort and a refusal to accept responsibility or complicity for the past injustices. For one group the interviews presented the opportunity to come out from the shadows; while for the other, it allowed for a nostalgic look back to a time when apparently everyone got along in their separate spheres.
INTENTION AND COLLECTIvE MEMORy
Much of what will be explored concerns the concept of collective memory and its relationship to the creation of public and private history. (2) The negotiation between society and the individual with regard to collective memory is replayed in the oral history interview, where the interviewer and interviewee negotiate on the basis of what each brings to the process. The informants frame their responses and make themselves both the subject and object of the interview, infusing the directed conversation with more power via an emotional and personal connection that transcends a historical episode. This speaks to the methodological approach of oral history, where both the interviewer and informant come to the experience with an intention, a desire to get something out of the interview. For the informants, the oral history interview presents a variety of intentions, including the opportunity to validate their lives and experiences, to tell stories that position their individual past within the collective identity, to satisfy the interviewer, to get attention or to see themselves as historical actors. For the interviewers, the intentions are slightly different, but generally, their desire is to attain a better view into the past through the individual experience, to unearth new information, or to find an amazing story that might better focus the larger context. Since both enter the oral history moment with specific intentions, the interview itself is an active negotiation in the form of a directed conversation.
This exchange is evident throughout the interviews, as interviewer and interviewee work to fulfill their individual intentions. This intentionality displays symbolic and literal meaning through word choice, slang, diction, pace, form, enunciation, facial expressions and a whole series of verbal and nonverbal cues and helps to place the individual into the collective recall of a group through his/her legitimation. Historian Susan Crane posits the "task of representation" as fundamental to understanding both the value of the collective memory and the historian's role in its meaning. By validating the individual within the collective, historians can better "focus on the way individuals experience themselves as historical entities" so that their "lived experience ... becomes part of collective memory." (3) Sociologist Reuben A. Buford May details how tavern conversations among African American men in Chicago create and define a collective memory concerning race relations and how these conversations validate their personal histories. May argues that the men's sense of liberty to vent their feelings within the safety of the bar allows them the space to place their experiences within the larger framework of the city and the nation, creating a socially constructed historical memory. (4)
Each generation of Americans since the Civil War has had to deal with the structural and generational memory of slavery, Jim Crow and its corresponding historical paradigm of subordination, which helps to construct a collective memory. For African Americans, this process reminds them that for their historical cohort slavery was a lived, real …