By Michael Grathwohl
When I read or watch the news (on both sides of the political aisle) I find myself spending an inordinate amount of time lamenting that one person’s story told in minute detail can be spun in such a way as to overwrite the experiences of others to serve overtly political ends. These observations had made me cynical about the uses of personal narratives. But twice now I have observed, up close, the power of oral history, and it has begun to reshape my attitude toward the importance of stories.
My first experience with oral history as a pedagogical tool came in high school during my participation in the band for The Parchman Hour, a play written and directed by Chapel Hill playwright Mike Wiley that chronicles the experiences and struggles of the 1961 Freedom Riders during their integrated journey into the heart of the deep South. The play is named both for Mississippi’s most notorious penitentiary and for the make-believe variety show that the riders cooked up to keep themselves sane while imprisoned there.
Part of Parchman’s power is that its dialogue featured direct quotations of icons such as John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael right alongside those of folks who Cornel West might call “everyday people.” As a result, Parchman presents a refreshingly grassroots image of the movement, and that image is more dirty, more intricate, and, I would argue, more fruitful. The inclusion of testimonies from often-unheard participants adds important texture to the play’s portrayal of the movement; it has a gritty, truthful quality and doesn’t shy away from ambiguity. We see the Freedom Riders not as a monolithic group but rather as a collection of real people with real baggage and, sometimes, real disagreements with one another. The play is teeming with complexity: there is struggle within struggle, and the result is beautiful.
This summer I had another, perhaps more intimate encounter with oral history as a volunteer for UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Oral History Program. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the program helped carry out a large series of interviews on the industrialization of textile factories in North Carolina’s Piedmont region. The interviewees were predominantly former mill workers who had experienced these technological changes firsthand, and my first project at the SOHP was to prepare a research dossier for a new interview with Helen Lyerly, the daughter of one couple who had been interviewed thirty years earlier.
I was asked to come along for the interview for which I had compiled the dossier. I spent a good deal of time thinking about how the interview would go, what questions to ask, and how I should present myself. As it turned out, everything fell into place and I wound up thinking that the term ‘interview’ is a misnomer: it was organic, fun, and moving in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. Mrs. Lyerly had also invited her sister and daughter-in-law to come, and the most glaring thought in my mind as I left was that oral history has important implications far beyond the confines of academia. We had all laughed, philosophized, and gotten choked up together for an hour and a half that went by in what felt like fifteen minutes. The interview conducted in the 1980s is the only recording of Mrs. Lyerly’s parents, and she said repeatedly how much she appreciated listening to their voices, hearing them tell stories she had never heard of how they met and fell in love. It was clear that oral history can be important on a human level even more than an academic one.
Not unlike The Parchman Hour, both parts of my project with the SOHP had the insistent feeling of something that is important in its particularity— the stories of the women and men portrayed in Parchman are engaging at least partially because they tell stories that few can truly relate to; part of their value is their novelty. Yet as I read through interviews with mill workers from Greensboro, Concord, and Burlington and participated in the interview, it also struck me that one of the sources of the power of the interviews was precisely their pertinence to a great many people’s own experiences. In their own ways, both the stories from Parchman and the Piedmont industry series form repositories of narratives that simultaneously reflect and help form the collective memory of a time. The kind of history work that resulted in The Parchman Hour and the Piedmont interview series is refreshingly democratic, and my volunteer work this summer with the SOHP helped me begin to rehabilitate the notion that narratives can be used positively in practice and not just in theory.