Although I have been interested in Anthropology throughout my time at Drake, exploring oral histories was the most unique and enriching experience I’ve had with the subject. Oral histories are not what I expected from Anthropology, but the scientific rigor and potential for empowerment are a combination that should be expected more often in the field.
One thing that made an impact on me was the nature of oral histories. They are feminist in nature, unlike general Anthropology, and have the opportunity to empower marginalized populations. Through my oral history project I was able to explore the life of a rural schoolboy, impoverished teacher, member of the president’s cabinet, prisoner, refugee, janitor, FedEx delivery person, immigrant, Walmart employee and community outreach specialist for refugees. Although Benjamin has told his story many times, I don’t know if it would have been formally recorded without this course. My hope is that this website is able to humanize refugees, a group of people that is otherwise stigmatized around the world.
Some course readings were more relevant than others, but all were useful in some way. The beginning articles gave great insight into the many styles in which oral histories can be written from oral histories like Portelli’s “Death of Luigi” to Behar’s “Rage.” We learned about Anthropology’s tie to colonialism and oppression from Willis (1972) and Gough (1968), but also discovered oral history’s ability to be feminist and empowering from Gluck (1991). Shopes’ article on sharing authority was always in the back of my mind throughout the project (2003). I am still checking in with Benjamin to make sure details are correct, I am sharing stories that he feels represent him, that pictures give an accurate representation of his life, and that the project overall does his life justice. Although it is time-consuming, it is worth it. As I mention below, actually conducting the interview, transcribing, and assembling the oral history were things I found challenging and slightly daunting at first, but our readings (by Raleigh , etc.) helped prepare me for the challenges I did face.
Although we had great preparation and read a variety of oral histories before beginning our own projects, I was still nervous when the time came. I struggled with writing well-phrased questions and being a good interviewer, although this became easier in my second interview. I also struggled with the idea of writing the oral history in first person, as opposed to third person, as the words were not my own. I eventually chose to write it in first person because I felt it gave the reader better insight into who Benjamin is as a person.
Ultimately, I am glad to have had exposure to oral histories and this unique branch of anthropology. I already plan to use oral histories to better understand my own culture, and to help connect with people in other countries as a form of intercultural communication. Oral histories are a challenging, mentally and emotionally draining, unique and perspective-shifting process, but any challenges faced seem minuscule when the project is complete and presented.
Behar, R. (1993). Rage. In Translated Woman: Crossing the border with Ezperanza’s story. Boston: Beacon Press.
Gluck, S., Maksel, R., & Patai, D. (1991). Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History. The Journal of American Folklore.
Gough, K. (1968). Anthropology and Imperialism. Monthly Review. Mon. Rev.
Portelli, Alessandro. (1990). “The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories: Memory and Event.” EBSCO
Raleigh Yow, Valerie. (2005). “Preparation for the Interviewing Project.” AltaMira Press. 2nd Edition. Ch. 3-5.
Shopes, Linda. (2003). “Sharing Authority. “The Oral History Review. Vol. 30 (1), 103-110.
Willis, Jr., W. (1972). Skeletons in the Anthropological Closet. In D. Hymes (Ed.), Reinventing anthropology. New York: Pantheon Books.