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On Making History

This guest blog post was written by Karida Brown, Founder and Principle Investigator of The Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project

History is made.

Being party to, or even sharing, the story of “what happened” is not enough. History requires access to the venues and institutions through which stories can enter the public sphere. What I am suggesting is that there is a certain legitimacy that comes along with being “out there”, on the record. Think about that one sensational story that circulates in your own family about a relative who did something grand back in the day—a grandfather who was an alleged spy for the CIA, an uncle who was secretly Martin Luther King’s best friend and confidant, a great-grandmother who passed for black or white but was actually full-blood Cherokee. Although they are often quite captivating, these stories only have currency in the private sphere, for they belong to the families, friends and communities that share a connection with them. And the traces of “what happened” are often embodied in repertoire: casual storytelling, song, dance, gestures, jokes, silences, and repetition. But they do not necessarily become a part of history.

In my own work I have come to think a lot about how some people’s experiences comes to earn the status of history—a public artifact—while other folk’s lives and memories remain private goods—invisible, tenuously believable, and slippery in hands of history.

Here’s an example. My research is based on the African American experience in and through Appalachia. When I turned to the archive, the media, and to the historical record to get started on my scholarly journey, I was disappointed to find a bounty of imbalanced representations of the white, toothless, backwards mountaineer, a trope that has continued to titillate the American imagination when it comes to the people of Appalachia. But where were the black folks? In fact, I personally knew Appalachia to be a diverse place that embodied a long history of Native American, European, Jewish, and recently Asian, Latino and Indian migrations. I knew about this diversity because my own mother and father were born in “bloody Harlan County,” an infamous coal mining community in the Appalachian region of southeastern Kentucky. And, like the thousands of other families in their community at the time, they were the children of black coal miners. Yet the disparaging image of the hillbilly persists. It was through these early encounters with the archive that I learned that history is largely a matter of who has the pen: Who gets to make history? Who gets to write about whom? And on what terms?

This is why I became an oral historian.

I took up the challenge of reconstructing the rich history of the African Americans who lived and worked in the company-owned coal towns of eastern Kentucky during the first half of the 20th century. As a descendant of coalminers’ sons and daughters, I was already familiar with many of the African American families, stories, and traditions that were associated with the region. But if there was to be a history of this experience, we had to make it.

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EKAAMP interview #88 with Richard “Bo” Chapman in Lynch, KY | June 24th, 2014

Oral history was the only way to go about accomplishing this goal. I got an old-school Marantz plug-in audio recorder and hit the road. I of course went back to Harlan County to interview the few folks who still lived there, but due to the precipitous decline of the coal mining industry in the mid 20th century, few black families remain in the region. So I spent the last two years traveling across the country, from Newington, CT to San Jose, CA and everywhere in-between, conducting oral history interviews with the descendants of black coal miners from eastern Kentucky. I found that my participants were living archives.

Now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, they not only lived through the experience of growing up as black children in Appalachia, they also witnessed, lived, and were party to some of the greatest transformations of the 20th century—events such as the African American Great Migration, school desegregation, the urbanization of the American city, the pre- and post-Civil Rights era, and the election of the first black President. I learned early on that if I really wanted to get their story right, I had to learn to listen.

Listening is not a passive act. It requires sincerity, energy, care and humility (a practice that is easier said than done for us academics who are in the business of being know-it-alls). Listening is an act of giving. This was a game-changing epiphany for me, because it made me question my role as a researcher. Who was really in charge here? Oral history opened up the space for my participants and I to co-create historical records through relationship. As opposed to sharing a document to convey “what happened,” the participant becomes the author of his or her own history through storytelling—sharing moments of success and triumph, disappointment and shame, turning points, drama, and regrets. In my opinion, oral history is the most capacious instrument for capturing the complexity, and the sheer messiness, of life.

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EKAAMP Dinner at Love House, April 2015

Over 200 interviews later, I finished my cross-country oral history spree, and have since turned my attention to working on my first book manuscript about Kentucky’s coal camp blacks. But the oral histories I collected are way too good to keep to myself. History is a public artifact, right? So in 2013, I founded the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP) in partnership with the Southern Historical Collection here at UNC Chapel Hill. Through this partnership we embarked on the journey of forming one of the institution’s first participatory archives—a practice through which communities take an active role in transmitting their history through archival preservation. In two short years, EKAAMP has blossomed in into a thing of its own. In addition to the collection of oral history interviews that I recorded for the project, individual participants have donated thousands of documents, photographs, and objects to the collection to ensure that their contributions to Appalachian and American history would not die with them. To that end, the EKAAMP collection will be made available to the public through the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library here in Chapel Hill.

Together, we made history.