Engaging unheard voices

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Oral history: The art of engaging unheard voices and recreating history

On the 28th and 29th of March dr. Rose Mary Allen, anthropologist at the University of Curacao, visited Atria for a workshop on oral history. A diverse group of students, researchers, writers and artists came together to discuss the ethical and practical issues of oral history and to think further: how do we engage the voices that are commonly missing from archives? Especially in societies that are shaped by colonial and dominant voices, certain people are never heard of. How do we pull these voices out of the shadow of oblivion?

Marginalized voices

Oral historians have a particularly feminist way of conducting their work. Information that is not physically present in archives or files but in the memories of people is often recovered by oral historians. And whose information is frequently forgotten in ‘conventional’ research and written documents? People who are marginalized – women, people of color, people who don’t belong to the ‘cisgender’-category. Especially soieties that focus on colonial or dominant voices can benefit from alternative modes of research. A person conducting oral history is fulfilling the role of a listener, archivist, anthropologist and historian all at once. Dealing with the voices of marginalized people comes with great responsibility. It is a complex job, but certainly an important one. One job an oral historian has is to convince people that their memories are valuable. In order for them to speak up about sensitive topics, they need to realize that their personal information matters. And whenever important specks of information are being told, they can be clouded by riddles or lengthy anecdotes. The interviewer needs to recognize and translate these cultural codes and for them being able to do so, very specific cultural knowledge is needed.

Moral and ethical dimensions

An oral historian can encounter some serious moral issues. What is the reason for people to not give out certain information? Perhaps they only consider it relevant to their own community. Other times, information can be shared that should not necessarily be published. As a researcher, it is important to critically reflect on the goal and purpose of revealing certain information. Will it harm someone? A workshop participant gave a personal example: his findings would ‘out’ a well-known, now deceased person as being homosexual. Can he justify using this particular information in his research? In the workshop he was advised to approach the information with the attitude of a researcher. Does the information contribute to his research question or objective? Possessing certain data comes with responsibility – protecting the people you interviewed is an important issue. But when someone passes away, does that mean this person loses the right to privacy? How private are your experiences allowed to be?

Archives as spaces of power

Finally, archives are spaces of power. An archive has the power to exclude and the power to silence. Without critical reflection, only dominant voices will be heard. Oral history is not about uncovering “the” truth, but about interpreting different experiences, creating multiple perspectives and collecting snippets of information that can put together the pieces of lost histories.

Ida Blom studied cultural anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and assists Atria at events.

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