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Giving Back and Oral Histories

The academic year is almost at its end, but the work of the Southern Oral History Program keeps its steady pace. In January, I began as a field scholar mostly clueless about the project on which I was working. Now, after a few months gaining perspective in the workroom, I anticipate a summer spent collecting oral histories for the “Black Roads” project.

Though eager to get out into the field, I am glad to have spent months working on better understanding the importance of the Southern Oral History Program. I have edited new transcripts and listened to many oral histories while simultaneously planning for summer fieldwork. My plans for this summer with Dr. Seth Kotch are shaped by the quality of the oral histories in the collections. We hope to expand the digital humanities aspect of the Program by video-recording onsite interviews for a web component in addition to collecting traditional oral histories. As we investigate issues of race and space in rural North Carolina, we consult an advisory board of transportation scholars, geographers, and noted experts of the rural south. With much excitement surrounding the project, I question the impact our efforts will have on the communities and people with which we work.

As a social scientist, I am concerned with improving the communities I research. Just a few weeks ago, I attended a brown bag presentation at the Institute for African American Research where my concern was substantiated. Leaders of the presentation reported that communities and individuals in them often feel let down by academics who come in and leave without giving anything (whether it be a gift card or a relationship) to the people being researched. As I sat in on the discussion that followed the presentation, I considered what I could do to in interest of having people who I interview feel good about working with me.

After listening to oral histories here at the SOHP, I realize that for many, the opportunity to share stories and have others listen may be of unquantifiable importance. The value that sharing has is noticed, and unfortunately, the SOHP often has to turn down solicitations for oral history projects due to a lack of time and resources.

As I get closer to going into the field, I hope to be mindful of how I operate as a researcher concerned with doing good. However, I will also be mindful of how great it can feel to to have your story recorded and shared.