Drown Recap: Oral History Workshop with Mary Marshall Clark

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Lehigh Culture & Community / Literature & Social Justice / Uncategorized

On February 17th & 18th, scholars from the Lehigh community were treated to an opportunity to participate in a workshop on the theories, methods, and practice of oral history led by acclaimed oral historian Mary Marshall Clark. Clark is the director of the Columbia Center for Oral History Research and Columbia University’s Oral History MA degree program. Her work in the field has been extensive and diverse. Some of the major projects she has conducted have explored the traumatic aftermath of 9/11 among eyewitnesses and immigrants, the experiences of Japanese-Americans interned during WWII, and the history of the Apollo Theatre. Her most recent research examines the global impact of torture and the detention policies at Guantánamo Bay.


Clark began the first day’s meeting by having everyone collect a bit of oral history themselves. Each attendee conducted a fifteen-minute interview with a partner to gain an overview of the life the “narrator”, and several then shared the results of their work. It was really quite astonishing to hear what a broad variety of experiences and backgrounds one might learn about even within a relatively small group. Having gained a taste of what it is like to collect oral history narratives, Clark used the group’s experiences to inform the afternoon’s workshop sessions on theory and practice.

Oral history, as Clark sees it, is a process that constructs meaning through the act of remembering. It is “messy” and often walks a fine line between history and journalism. The past is retold anew each time a narrator relates it. Clark stressed the vital centrality of the narrator in effective oral history. She refers to the interviews that she collects as “gifts.” To be a good oral historian, one must be a good listener. The most successful questions an interviewer can ask are usually those fashioned from a narrator’s own words. Clark repeatedly acknowledged the importance of research in an oral historian’s toolkit. Not only does careful research and preparation show a narrator that her story is important and appreciated, but it also can provide the key question that unlocks a narrator’s memory or pushes an interview beyond the ordinary.

For Clark, oral history is a necessary component in the civic life of a democracy. She approaches each new project by asking “what do we not yet know?” Oral history, Clark believes, can access dialogue that is ignored or suppressed by mass media. The present moment must be documented through the experiences of the ordinary people who are living, or it runs the risk of becoming a story fabricated for the interests of the powerful. She cited the example of the interviews that she conducted among those affected first-hand by the events of 9/11. Eighty-five percent of the narrators she spoke with did not want the US to invade Iraq, but the “official” narrative was spun to portray popular support for action. In her recent work on torture and Guantánamo Bay, her central question has been “What happens to a society when it abandons one of its core principles?” She has interviewed board-certified psychologists who worked with US intelligence agencies to develop efficient methods of torture and many of the innocent prisoners who suffered their brutal effects.

The second day’s workshop centered around an example of a public interview. Esther Lee, President of the Bethlehem NAACP was interviewed by Lehigh PhD student Joanna Grim. Lee provided the group with a wealth of stories. Eighty-three years old, African-American, female, and a lifelong social activist, Lee possesses immense firsthand knowledge of what it means to struggle for a just and equitable society and how that struggle has been enacted in Bethlehem in particular. As in the best oral history, Lee’s narration shuttled between the personal and its connection to larger moments of history. She was able to vividly convey what it was like as a little girl learning the nature of prejudice in a majority-white steel town as well as breaking into the working-world and joining the fight for civil rights as a young adult. Grim did fine work gently steering the interview in an illustration of how to subtly guide a narrator while remaining unobtrusive.

Mary Marshall Clark’s passion and enthusiasm for her work were readily apparent to everyone fortunate to participate in the workshop. Her expansive knowledge and the hands-on experiences provided by the sessions sparked rich and productive discussions among all the attendees. Anyone interested in learning more about Mary Marshall Clark and oral history might want to explore some of the resources available on the website for the Columbia Center for Oral History and Research: http://www.ccohr.incite.columbia.edu

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