Updated: May 9, 2018
“History -- in particular popular memory -- is a stake in the constant struggle for hegemony.” In writing those words in 1982, Richard Johnson and Graham Dawson were pointing to the long-standing monopoly of the powerful on the stories which become part of accepted history.
That’s what we acknowledge when we repeat the truism that ‘History is written by the victors’; the many memories, perspectives and points of view of all the players in an event are distilled into one master narrative, straightforward and linear enough to fit into a high school history textbook. And more often that not, that narrative focuses on the ruling class: the royals, nobles, aristocrats, politicians, and generals that wielded the most influence in their communities.
It’s what’s often referred to as the ‘Great Man’ approach to history – the idea that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” as the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1840.
The ‘Great Man’ approach is problematic, not because it’s completely false, but because it’s narrow-minded. It assumes the thoughts and actions of anyone who was not rich, powerful, and influence-wielding (so, the majority of the population of the world at any given time) are of no value and do not deserve to be remembered.
The roots of modern American oral history lie very much in a continuation of that approach. When in 1948 Allan Nevins created the first institutional oral history program in the United States, at Columbia University, his expressed goal was “to document the lives of those who ‘created and carried out policy.’” In other words, he planned to study exactly the same sort of men who had been both creators and subjects of history for centuries.
Since then, however, oral history has proven to be a valuable tool for shifting the focus of history. Social, labour and feminist historians have all used oral history to expand the historical narrative to include populations and communities that would have otherwise been marginalized and silenced by the “Great Man” approach to history.
Recorded interviews form the basis of the oral history process – going out and interviewing people, often those who have lived through a historical event. For example, the Shoah Foundation uses oral history to document the experiences of Holocaust survivors. Equipped only with a recording device and a set of questions, an oral historian can document the everyday lives of, well, ‘the rest of us.’
I’m not sure why oral history has been able to so successfully push past the boundaries of traditional history. Perhaps it's because the core of oral history is not the written word but the spoken one. As such, it’s not only academics who can make use of the oral historical method. It’s also accessible to activists, educators, artists, students – in short, anyone who is curious enough to learn about their community and willing to pick up a recorder to do it.
At its core, I believe doing oral history is a distinctly political action, just as remembering is a political action. As an oral historian, I can acknowledge the forces that shape the history of my community, and seek out a multiplicity of perspectives which complicate, and sometimes contradict, that narrative. That’s the power of memory, and of oral history.