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The Roots of Oral History, and Finding Strength for Trying Times

This pandemic is a time to take stock and review lessons as well as look ahead. My recent guest post for the blog of the Oral History Review looks at how the American Life Stories gathered in the 1930s by the Federal Writers’ Project influenced the popular view of oral history today. You could say that those writers and those windows on American life shifted our popular perspectives on who gets to write history. Years ago I wrote about how that experience inspired the founders of StoryCorps to recreate a form of that process today.

This summer I had the great opportunity to speak with WYPR host of On the Record, Sheilah Kast, about one of those federal writers, Zora Neale Hurston and her time in Maryland. Hurston went into the Great Depression as a successful novelist and an expert anthropologist with a career in research and publishing. That was a tremendous feat for anyone — for a Black woman in 1930s America, Hurston forged a phenomenal career through strength and resilience. Still, the Depression’s economic disaster hammered both of her careers, her anthropology research and her fiction writing. She adapted by applying for work with the Federal Theatre Project and the Federal Writers’ Project, gathering folklore and documenting the African-American experience in her native Florida.

Hurston wrote that “folklore is not as easy to collect as it sounds.  The best source is where there are the least outside influences and these people, being under-privileged, are the shyest.  They are most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by.”

This fall I’m thrilled to be working with the producers at Spark Media on The People’s Recorder, a podcast that probes how we gain strength and insight for the crises of our present through seeing how communities responded to emergencies in our past. More to come. Meanwhile, please check out the audio clips in my post on the Oral History Review blog, and listen to the segment of On the Record.

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