12 December 2013

African American Oral History, guest post by Sharon Leslie Morgan

Illustration from My Daddy is a Cool Dude (Dial Press, 1975)
(CREDIT: Sharon and Vincent Morgan)

How many times have you thought about sitting down with an older relative and having a serious talk about your family history? Then life intervenes and you put the conversation on hold until another day; one that never comes.  Your elders pass on and you want to kick yourself in a spasm of coulda, woulda, shoulda.

For African American researchers, elders are the singularly most important repositories of family knowledge. Even when their memories are dimmed or their facts confused, every story they share is enriched with at least a grain of truth. Don’t wait until it is too late.

Here are a few guidelines for conducting a meaningful interview:

·        Don’t jump out of the blue and try to dig for deep family secrets.
·        Explain clearly what you are doing and that it is an effort to honor your family.
·        Arrange a time when there will be few distractions.
·        Print out a family tree with photos as a guide to the conversation.
·        Have a list of questions in hand but let the conversation flow.
·        Tape the conversation if you can. If you can’t, take good notes.
·        Ask specific questions but know that most people will not remember exact dates.
·        Try to get descriptions of people, places and events that will lead to substantiating documentation.
·        Be patient and kind; try to jog memories by leading with what you know.
·        Don’t worry if people shut down because memories are too painful.
·        Do follow up interviews in order to get more detail.
·        Write up and share your story with the people you interview. They will cherish it.

It is unfortunate that there are no remaining survivors of slavery, but that doesn’t mean their memories are gone. In my own case, I had a great grandmother who was enslaved and lived until 1954. I was only three years old when she died, but many of her memories were passed along to my father, uncle and cousins. When I sat down with them, I was transported back into a time that rends my heart. Much of what they told me was eventually verified with further genealogical research in courthouses, libraries and archives throughout the South. And, because of tapings, I can still listen to one uncle’s voice, which elicits a whole new set of feelings.

One example of oral history in action is the WPA Slave Narratives. From 1936-38, the United States government employed people to conduct interviews with surviving African Americans who were enslaved. The interviewers collected more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery in the deep South along with 500 photographs. These narratives, which provide a rich view of slave life, are on file at the National Archives and are available online. In 2003, HBO produced Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives in which actors, including Oprah Winfrey, Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett and Courtney Vance, dramatized the readings. These are available on YouTube.

Sharon Leslie Morgan is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a website dedicated to African American family research. She is co-author of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press, 2012). This blog expresses the views of the author and should not be attributed to the National Genealogical Society.

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a sequence of four posts by Sharon on researching African American roots. If you missed the first three posts, you will find them here and here and here.

Upfront with NGS thanks Sharon for her generosity in being a guest blogger.

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