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Posts from the ‘staff picks’ Category

Meaning-Making and the Process of Dying

“As I think back about my taste of death, it is clear that my preparatory thinking enhanced the possibility of a peaceful letting go. Can we ever be sure when our lease is up? Waiting until coda-time may be too late.”

  1. David Martin, Facing Death page 68

My last post ended with a consideration of death’s long-term trajectory that we observe as we age. Although it has been regarded as a decidedly morose thought, the idea that we’re all slowly dying has some real merit. Perhaps it deserves a chance to re-enter conversations about death without the “I’m-13-and-this-is-deep” associations. One mistake we make in our conception of death is to project binaries onto it. Although we can usually delineate experientially between what is alive and what is dead, pinpointing the exact moment of death has become increasingly problematic as medicine understands physiology with increasing nuance. Degrees of brain death, the mere existence of the Harvard Ad Hoc Committee on Brain Death, and the ensuing legal and philosophical debates demonstrate that death is no black and white matter. Thomas W. Laqueur elaborates in the afterword of Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Mortality and its Timings about how the physiological state of death is negotiated in the modern hospital for comatose patients:

This is what happens: First, doctors use clinical criteria to rule out other reasons for someone being in a deep and persistent coma rather than whole brain death: abnormally low body temperature; evidence of barbiturate poisoning, for example. Then, they administer a battery of neurological tests, dating back to the nineteenth and early twentieth century, that cumulatively show whether the lower brain, the part that controls breathing, is functional. There are many more. All bear testimony to the glorious history of nineteenth-century neurology and, cumulatively, to the destruction of the place in the brain that controls breathing as well as so much else. Only when all of these examinations indicate that the brain stem, and hence the whole brain, is indeed dead is a person eligible for the determinative test for death. The candidate is given a big hit of pure oxygen so that her blood is fully saturated: (10 minutes pre-oxygenation). Then the ventilator is shut off. If she does not breathe within three minutes—in some jurisdictions, five or even eight minutes—she will never never never never breathe again. We know this because the part of the brain that controls breathing is, as the earlier tests had suggested, truly gone. The time of death, to repeat, is recorded not when the patient, already suspected for some time of being brain dead, on the basis of various neurological tests, but when she failed the apnea test and was dead in the old-fashioned way.” (148-149)

Does this medical evidence feel conclusive? Maybe not. According to Laqueur, patients are sometimes hooked back into the ventilator to protect the viability of their organs for transplant after the death is recorded. Our stomachs may still churn at the thought of removing ventilator support in the first place, but somehow replacing it feels like another transgression. The issue is fraught medically, but also from a more pedestrian perspective: we don’t like to have to take control of the threshold between a breathing moment and a subsequent non-breathing moment, and something visceral tells us so when we read the above description. Additionally, a profound reframing of this death moment and the life at stake occurs: comatose patients become “candidates” for death, which becomes “real” only once a series of tests have been passed.

Robert Morison charges us to avoid the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” when it comes to death.[i] He identifies the danger of squishy, process words like “living” and “dying” being replaced by apparently bounded, static words like “life” and “death.” Similarly, in Cuttin’ the Body Loose, William Gavin argued that “the word death does not have meaning invariance; it has meant different things to different cultures at different times. More strongly put, there is no such thing as death ‘in itself,’ or, if there is, we don’t know anything about it.”[ii] All of these subtleties around our constructions of death lead us away from the so-called objective, biological “facts” and towards the subjective expressions of life, particularly through story. Eric J. Cassell argues that “there are two distinct things happening in the terminally ill, the death of the body and the passing of the person.”[iii] Quantitative measures, however suspect, can measure the death of the body, but the passing of the person relies on narrative for meaning-making. Importantly, meaning-making in death narratives relies on the audience as much as the storyteller. Gavin posits, “the absurd thing is, that one has to do this [address their own mortality], and, that one can never accomplish the task of making death and dying meaningful.”[iv] Importantly, in the work of making meaning for our deaths, the meaning is made for the ones we leave behind. Although this is true for any audience-storyteller relationship, it seems more piquant when the storyteller is gone. What the dying do in crafting an end of life narrative is more for the people who will tell their story than it is for themselves. To shift the perspective (and perhaps state the obvious), in the way we live and die, we take part in the dictation of our legacy and afterlives.

In this week’s sole clip, Carl Henley, a retired professor emeritus from the School of Social Work, describes an unusual experience from the final weeks of his wife’s dementia-related death. Whatever the cause of this final conversation they got to share, it created space for a significant moment of meaning-making. This moment is a story worth repeating and probably a precious thing for Carl to reflect on in the absence of his wife. We can’t count on experiences like this to happen to us or our loved ones, so perhaps embracing dying as an ongoing process rather than a moment in time would provoke more conversations like this in our own lives. Perhaps we would have a greater sense of urgency when it comes to embracing those sweet moments of human warmth and vulnerability when they happen across our path.

[i] See Morison’s piece “Death: Process or Event?” in Death Inside Out: The Hastings Center Report edited by Peter Steinfels and Robert M. Veatch (1975). Quote from page 64.

[ii] Page 32

[iii] See Cassell’s piece “Dying in a Technological Society” in Death Inside Out. Quote from page 45.

[iv] Page 191

Staff Pick: Bringing History to Life in the Classroom

Abigail Nover, an SOHP field scholar, is a graduate student in folklore. Her MA thesis is a music-based interactive web application for fourth grade classrooms, designed to supplement the NC Common Core Social Studies Standards for teaching North Carolina’s history and cultural heritage.

The history textbooks I read in middle and high school were not particularly memorable. What I do vividly remember from social studies and history classes, however, are the guest speakers who visited, the interviews we listened to, the documentaries we watched, and the debates we had as a class. Those moments most likely stick out in my mind because the history in the textbook that seemed distant and detached became personal and immediate through hearing and discussing peoples’ firsthand experiences. Now, as I focus on K-12 educational materials in my graduate studies and as a field scholar here at the SOHP, I am excited by the incredible potential of oral history to bring history to life in the classroom.

Last summer, the SOHP partnered with Carolina K-12 to host The Carolina Oral History Teaching Fellows program. Middle and high school teachers from across North Carolina gathered here at UNC-Chapel Hill for a three-day seminar, which focused on oral history and the Civil Rights Movement. The teachers then returned home, worked on creating lesson plans using oral history clips from our archive, and several weeks later, returned to Chapel Hill to share their work with one another.

The lesson plans that resulted from the program creatively delve into complex topics relating to the Civil Rights Movement like voting rights, education, and disenfranchisement, just to name a few. Each lesson weaves multiple voices together in oral history-based classroom activities, providing students with the opportunity to examine primary sources, evaluate historical events from diverse perspectives, and extend their critical thinking. Oral history as a pedagogical tool is unique in its ability to convey the impact of historical events on personal and community levels, garnering deeper understanding and empathy among student listeners.

I have been working with Christie Norris, the Director of K-12 Outreach for the NC Civic Education Consortium, to edit the lesson plans and make them available to teachers as a free resources online via the SOHP’s and Carolina K-12’s websites. As I read through the lessons and listened to the accompanying interview clips over the past weeks, I was absorbed by the materials. Listening to Pauli Murray, for example, describe her many trailblazing accomplishments, I was floored by her persistence and powerful outlook on civil rights and citizenship as well as how little I had known about her previously. It is easy to become engrossed in listening to someone tell their story, and I am excited for students to experience the lessons I have been reading in the classroom. These lessons will be memorable, I am sure.

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the North Carolina Council for the Social Studies’ annual conference in Greensboro where I was able to broaden my understanding of social studies instruction. In the sessions I attended, I heard educators describe the challenges and triumphs of engaging students in current events and history, helping students to understand multiple perspectives on key issues, integrate research techniques and primary sources into classroom activities, and work towards public engagement projects. It was incredible to hear teachers share their innovations. As I listened, I recognized many facets of the lesson plans I had edited. I am honored to support teachers as they share their ideas and work towards integrating oral history into their lesson plans.

Find more information about the Carolina Oral History Teaching Fellows program, and access the lesson plans here. You can also listen to the clips features in the material by visiting the SoundCloud playlist.

Staff Pick: Dr. Claude Barnes

This spring, the SOHP staff is selecting interviews from the archive that celebrate or challenge the practice of oral history, and serve as teachable moments. SOHP field scholar Isabell Moore is a PhD student in UNC’s Department of History. She found her interview, and the lessons it brought forth, by sheer accident.

I recently stumbled on an interview with Dr. Claude Barnes, a black leader from Greensboro, North Carolina, my hometown and the place I now live. What I heard brought up illuminating and uncomfortable questions about the practices of oral history in our current moment.

It started when I was asked to search for stories in SOHP’s archive about University of North Carolina’s Morehead Planetarium. I expected to find stories of stargazing and celestial events. Instead, I came across an interview with Dr. Claude Barnes, a well-known civil rights and black power activist and professor in Greensboro. Reading about his cohort of activists in the 1960s and 1970s as an undergraduate in New York in the late-1990s was part of what inspired me to move home to North Carolina. For almost fifteen years, I have been in and out of social justice meetings and events with Dr. Barnes. The story he told about the planetarium (click to hear the audio) had nothing to do with shooting stars.

Morehead Planetarium at UNC. Image courtesy of

Claude Barnes: And I’ll tell you this incident, too. I’m going to write this up one of these days. I was in third grade, and I’ll never forget it. We went to Chapel Hill, to the Planetarium, to see an Easter show. All right? I’m in third grade—Ms. Gregg’s third grade class. And I’m a little third grader. But anyway, in the middle of the program, I had to use the boy’s room. So I ran out, straight into what I considered to be the bathroom. I didn’t take time to look and understand there was a colored bathroom and a white bathroom. So I went in the white bathroom by mistake—I didn’t mean it, though. They stopped the show, put us back on the bus. I got a beating by my third grade teacher with a rick-rack. I got a beating when I got home. And I still feel bad about that, [laughter]

Angela Hornsby: So someone found that you were in the wrong bathroom?

Claude Barnes: Mmm-hmm, yeah. I was drug out of there.

Angela Hornsby: Oh, Lord. Who drug you out?

Claude Barnes: One of the officials. Some other person was in the bathroom, said “There’s a black kid in there,” or something. And they stopped the show. They literally pulled the plug on the show. The lights came on; everybody was mad at me. [laughter] But that’s the absurdity of that. Anyway, that incident stuck in my mind from the third grade. I guess that might have something to do with why I was so rebellious as time went on.

Dr. Claude Barnes. Photo courtesy of Carolina Peacemaker.

Hearing Dr. Barnes’ story brought together many threads from what I am learning as a field scholar at the SOHP, in UNC’s oral history course (History 670) with Joey Fink (a former SOHP field scholar), and in a digital history course at UNC Greensboro with Anne Whisnant.

The interview with Dr. Barnes was conducted by Angela Hornsby in 2002. It’s part of the SOHP project, Remembering Black Main Streets. Hornsby’s questions focus on Dr. Barnes’ life growing up in Greensboro, and his memories of East Market Street, the road that runs through the historically African American area of Greensboro.  Dr. Barnes’ story about a field trip to the planetarium in Chapel Hill surfaced when Hornsby asked about his childhood.

Oral history practice often stimulates the recall of memories that may not be on topic, and add to our understanding of the past in unexpected ways. Interviews often reveal meanings that we cannot glean from visiting the place itself. Dr. Barnes began with, “I’m going to write this up one of these days.” Most of us have those urges about significant moments in our lives, but few of us actually find the time to write down those stories. Oral history makes sure these recollections are not lost to history.

Dr. Barnes’ words teach us about the quotidienne system of racial segregation: Dr. Barnes’ use of the “whites only” bathroom was treated as an emergency. A presumably white official dragged him out. Black school children could be in the planetarium’s seats but not in the bathroom. Dr. Barnes’ teachers and parents punished him and in the process participated in enforcing segregation, surely out of a desire to keep him safe in the future. Dr. Barnes understood this incident as a root of his own willingness to stand up to power. Through the interview and archival practices of oral history, we can access and learn from Dr. Barnes’ memories.

Aside from what we can learn from the story itself, Dr. Barnes’ interview and the way I came across it raise issues that oral historians grapple with in the digital age.

As Michael Frisch discusses in his essay “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, the increasing digital searchability of oral history audio and transcripts creates opportunities but also potential problems.

Had I pulled out this one story from the much longer interview, I would be left only with information about the oppression and abuse that young black people suffered under segregation. In the rest of the interview, Dr. Barnes discusses his efforts as a high school then college and post-college activist, his involvement with the Greensboro Association of Poor People (GAPP) (click to hear the audio), and the ways their activism won better housing, wages and influence in city government.

Claude Barnes: But GAPP is the key. And GAPP not only organized around redevelopment. It was the cafeteria workers, the blind workers. Skilled-craft blind workers, they called a boycott at Christmas one year. Because the blind workers—I think they were making something like two dollars an hour or less than that, I can’t remember. It was just some horrible wage. And their working conditions were terrible—we’re talking about blind people. So we organized a strike in behalf of the blind workers and boycotted Christmas one year. And won them a lot of concessions. And so successes like that fueled other successes. There were rent strikes, I remember. GAPP organized one of the longest rent strikes in the history of Greensboro against a big slumlord. Kay Agapion, Triple A Realty. Big slum lord in Greensboro—houses all over the place. I think we took people out on strike for about six months or something like that. And were successful in improving their living conditions, improving the housing conditions, and enforcing some regulations, and that kind of thing.

And we had built this coalition between the A&T students, Dudley students, and Greensboro residents especially. It was a broad coalition, and it was a multi-class coalition. Because there were blacks from the middle upper, and blacks from the lower lower. Now they didn’t agree on everything, but there were lots of issues that people did agree on. Now redevelopment was one of the issues that they did not agree on. But some of these other things I just mentioned to you—like the Cafeteria Workers’ Strike– [Tape ends].

Dr. Barnes understands his own life experience as shaped by both empowerment and collective action, on the one hand, and oppression on the other.  A search for key terms in the transcript could encourage us to examine a few minutes of tape or a few stansas of transcript outside of the context of the rest of the interview.  Examining only these moments of the interview would give us quite a different view.

The interview with Dr. Barnes raises additional questions oral historians often grapple with: Dr. Barnes laughs numerous times while telling the story about the Planetarium. What can we make of this? What is the role of affect in oral history? How should we ethically interpret and assign meaning to displays of emotion? Yes, Dr. Barnes freely shared his personal and painful story in an oral history interview he knew would  be archived. However, is there a voyeuristic element to listening to stories like these, especially if they are used for the learning of white scholars like myself? Are Dr. Barnes’ current collaborators in Greensboro aware of this interview?  How might his interview — from the planetarium incident to his retelling of decades of activism — be useful to campus and community activists engaged with racial and economic justice today?  Are we doing enough to make the stories in our archives available beyond the academy? How can those of us engaged in oral history ethically think about how to use interviews in ways that are helpful in our present moment?

Whenever I pass Morehead Planetarium as I walk through campus, I will now think about Dr. Barnes’ story. And after listening to and reflecting on his interview, I will approach the practice of oral history interviewing and archiving with new questions and concerns.

Dr. Barnes was interviewed by Angela Hornsby in 2002 for the SOHP Project, Remember Black Main Streets. His 2014 oral history recorded by B. Bernetiae Reed is part of the project, Moral Mondays and Community Activism, 2014-2015.  He asked us to include his contact information: and

Staff Pick: Ruth Dial Woods

SOHP intern Blake Hite.

We’ve asked the SOHP staff to select an interview from the archive that celebrates or challenges the practice of oral history, along with interviews that serve as teachable moments. This week SOHP intern Blake Hite shares his reflections on Dr. Ruth Dial Woods’s interview from 1992. 

In his book, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, Dr. Thomas King says that “once you hear a story, you can never un-hear it.” Growing up, I was always told stories about my family and my people, the Lumbee, so that I would know myself as an individual. One of my favorite stories is how my family left the Cherokee Nation a few years after Indian Territory became Oklahoma, and about the struggles they faced before they ended up in Robeson County, North Carolina. This story makes me proud of who I am as a person and my people. Stories are very powerful in shaping people’s identity but they are also very influential in initiating change in society, and that is what Dr. Ruth Dial Woods hoped she would be able to do.

Woods was a member of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, and the Director of Indian Education. She was also a professor at Fayetteville State University. Throughout her life, she held multiple titles and positions where she was able to influence the next generation. She was heavily involved in the Civil Rights and feminist movements and their purpose: to ensure that she leaves behind a world that is better than the one she experienced. She wants to make sure that Native people are represented in all sectors of society, and she believes that by telling stories, individuals can profoundly affect society.

From her interviews, Woods wants us to know what it is like to be a Native woman and the obstacles that she faced and how she overcame them. She wants us to know why she had to lie on her marriage license, saying that she was white and not Native. She wants us to know how her people, the Lumbee, were discriminated against by whites in Robeson County and how Natives are disadvantaged when they apply to colleges, and the difficulties they face trying to afford attendance. Woods wants us to know what it is like to be a Native person who comes from a tribe that avoided Removal, and what being “Indian” means to her. Most of all, she wants us to know how she “made off the reservation,” and how she succeeded in a Non-Native world.

Stories are very powerful. They can alter the lives of individuals and help in changing society. Dr. Woods started the change but it is up to us to finish what she began and take up the Mantle of Responsibility, and share our own stories.

Woods’ oral history interview was conducted in 1992 by Anne Mitchell Coe and Laura Jane Moore for SOHP’s University of North Carolina: Individual Biographies project, focusing on notable North Carolinians connected to UNC.

November Staff Picks

Danielle Dulken

Happy November! Here at SOHP we are thankful for all of our amazing narrators, supporters, interns, and of course staff! This month, Danielle Dulken is sharing her staff picks. Danielle is a second year PhD student in American Studies. Her research interests are reproductive justice and race in southern Appalachia.

For her oral history pick, she chose just one interview. The interview is with narrator Loretta Ross, a leader of the reproductive justice movement, and interviewer Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell, an independent scholar who researches and advocates for reproductive justice.* This interview stuck out to Danielle for a few reasons. First, she has a shared interest in the topic. She found hearing the movement leader talk about her reproductive justice experiences more illuminating than many of the books or articles she had read on the topic. For Danielle, this oral history felt like a testament to the reproductive justice movement.

Loretta Ross

Another reason Danielle was drawn to this interview is the relationship created the between narrator and interviewer. As an interviewer herself, she was struck by how Cynthia facilitated a dynamic that encouraged and supported Loretta’s experience with difficult topics, like sexual assault and rape. In fact, the rapport they share makes the listener feel as though they’re witnessing a conversation between great friends. This interview could help oral historians think about how to frame questions on sexual assault, abortion, rape, and similarly difficult subjects as well as how to respond to comments about sexual assault and rape. It makes one ask: How can oral historians create an environment in which the narrator feels comfortable sharing a difficult past? And how can they support narrators through thoughtful responses but also through archival skills to ensure their story gets the attention and care it deserves?

Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell

This interview is lengthy at almost three hours long, but it demonstrates the way oral history not only informs but also creates personal connections between the oral history and audience. During the interview, Danielle laughed, cried, and even revisited some of her own work. We at SOHP hope the interview can help you learn about reproductive justice as well as help you grow in your practice as an oral historian.

*We would like to let those that are interested in this interview know that this interview includes detailed conversations about rape and sexual assault.

Along with an oral history pick, Danielle has included some recommendations for oral history-related readings.

Read more

October Staff Picks

Have you ever wanted to get started with looking through the archives, but been intimidated by the sheer amount of options through SOHP? Lucky for you, this semester we are starting a staff picks blog! Staff picks will feature different oral histories and books that the staff at the Center for the Study of the American South recommends.

Our first staff member is Melissa Dollman. Melissa Dollman is a 2nd year PhD student in American Studies with interests in audiovisual materials, digital humanities, and women’s histories. For her picks, she went with a theme – librarians and archivists. Why librarians and archivists? Librarians and archivists are an integral part of research, yet their significance tends to be undermined. Dollman hopes that promoting these interviews will help people recognize the work of archivists and librarians as well as their lives and existence outside these roles.

The Oral Histories:

Linda Simmons-Henry

Ms. Simmons-Henry is an archivist at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, NC, though she grew up on her family farm land outside New Bern, NC. She discusses her love of documents, her family history in New Bern, and her genealogy.

Laura Clark Brown*

Ms. Brown is the senior librarian and Coordinator of the Digital Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in North Carolina. She discusses her upbringing in New Orleans, growing up in a more integrated environment; college at UT and culture shock; race, gender/sexuality, and reproductive rights during that time; and the death penalty, amongst other topics. She also discusses women’s voices in the archives and how studying archives has changed history for her.

*note: this was Melissa’s favorite interview!

Sadie Hugley

Ms. Hugley is a librarian in Georgia and has a library science degree from NCCU. She was active in the peace movement; a delegate to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and was in the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen (FSC), an early interracial clerical civil rights organization.