Folklorist Alan Lomax said, “Everyone has a story” ("Folklorist Alan Lomax", 2011). Oral history is story- biographical, experiential, artistic. Oral histories have played an important role in recorded history, from the first historian Herodotus to the American Civil Rights movement. Historians, researchers, and those concerned with the preservation of culture collect oral histories.
Oral history is considered distinct from oral tradition, especially in the social sciences. Although the primary purpose of this paper is to explore oral history, the spoken and narrative threads of oral traditions persist in our collective memory, and in the collective patterns of our thought. Clear definitions of each will enable differentiation and comparison throughout the discussion. Oral tradition is defined as stories that societies have passed along in spoken form generation to generation. There were many social and historical factors that eventually relegated oral traditions to the realm of "myth", a word that connotes stories that are untrue or fictionalized. Oral history is based on the memory or recollection of individual experience. This can take the form of autobiography, as well as a ‘topical’ autobiographical account or retelling of specific events (Rosen, 2010). In relation to the concept of collective memory, recollection can be ‘episodic,’ of a single event, or ‘semantic,’ commonly shared habits of mind (Hutton, 2013; p. 356). Each has its own realm: oral history is rooted in the disciplines of history, social science, and journalism whereas oral tradition is enmeshed in mythology and literature.
This paper explores oral history first within an historical context, then in comparison to oral tradition, and finally in relation to the way cultures think and communicate. This is why the collective expression of primarily oral cultures is different from cultures steeped in writing, or chirographic cultures (Ong, 2012). Writing impacts the value placed on the oral histories of individual people and the oral traditions of the community. An exploration of specific examples of oral histories in American culture will tie together the threads of history, tradition, and the power of language to bring us closer to answering the question: What is the role of oral history in literacy education?
Recorded oral history through interviewing dates back 3,000 years to the Zhou dynasty in China, when court historians collected sayings of common people (Thompson, 2000; Ritchie, 1995). Other notable examples include the court of the Japanese emperor in the 8th century, the words of the Muslim prophets in the 9th century, and pre-conquest Aztec history and culture recorded by Sahagun and the Spanish Franciscan Friars in the med-sixteenth century (Thompson, 2000). Oral histories were important in painting a bigger picture of historical events. In the example of the Aztec culture, many stories would have been lost, had they not been recorded from the living memories of Aztec descendants years later in Mexico City. Early collections of Aztec oral tradition were interpreted through different cultural lenses, as is the case in many of the recorded oral histories of indigenous people without their own written history.
In Western culture, the famous Greek historian Herodotus sought out and cross-examined people in his histories (Thompson, 2000). Thucydides also used eyewitnesses, but complained of their reliability (Ritchie, 1995). In fact, well into the 1700s, the spoken word was given preference. During the yearly “audit” of bookkeeping, figures were read aloud because “the truth had to be heard, since records could be forged” (Thompson, 2000, p. 32).
Oral accounts of history lost potency as societies became more reliant on documentation (Thompson, 2000; Ritchie, 1995). Still, oral accounts are not necessarily any less reliable than any other kind of data (Ritchie, 1995). All data, whether written or oral, should be scrutinized and vetted appropriately. Oral histories, however, offer a unique perspective: “Every historical source derived from human perception is subjective, but only the oral source allows us to challenge that subjectivity: to unpick the layers of memory, dig back into its darkness, hoping to reach the hidden truth” (Thompson, 2000, p. 173). In spite of this, the late nineteenth German school of scientific history turned to the documentary approach, claiming that oral histories were unreliable and more akin “myth” or folklore (Ritchie, 1995). Documents produced during the time became the primary focus and established history as a separate discipline from literary disciplines (Ritchie, 1995). Journalism would continue to emphasize first-person accounts.
Oral historians persisted in the late eighteen hundreds. The U.S. Bureau of Ethnography began recording songs and stories of various Native American tribes using wax cylinders (Ritchie, 1995). The Archive of Folk Culture at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress began collecting American folksongs, beginning with the Native American recordings received from other agencies in the 1890s. These were procured as part of a mandate that predated the establishment of the archive in the 1920's (Taft, 2012). In a video detailing the process, Taft discusses the Archive's first conscious effort to collect oral history after the bombing of Pearl Harbor (Taft, 2012).
Prior to this time, oral historians also collected stories from freedmen and former slave masters that dispelled myths around the antebellum South as a ‘benevolent institution’ (Ritchie, 1995). These stories also provide a rich picture of life on plantations. The language expresses lived experience, adding poignancy and a more intimately human perspective than an historical account could produce. One former slave, Joe High (1937), tries to recall his mother:
"It's quare to me, I cannot remember one word my mother ever said to me, not nary a word she said can I remember. I remember she brought me hot potlicker and bread down to the house when I wuz small; but I'se been trying to 'member some words she spoke to me an' I cain't." ("Born in Slavery," n.p.)
The Work Projects Administration’s (WPA) Federal Writers Project and Folklore Project employed writers during the Depression era from 1936 to 1940 and included work from famous writers such as Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and May Swenson (www.loc.gov). Accounts collected from American citizens included first-person accounts of the 1871 Chicago fire, meeting Billy the Kid, and pioneer journeys West. During World War II, the government called for ‘live’ history and “living historians,” dispatching collectors to draw on the experiences of those who lived it (Ritchie, 1995, p. 4). Also during this time, journalist turned professor Allan Nevins established the first oral history archive at Columbia University in 1948, collecting the stories of major American figures in business, government, and society (Thompson, 2000; Ritchie, 1995). He sought to interpret rapid changes around the globe for an American audience ("Allan Nevins," n.d.). By contrast, European oral historians were social historians who sought to “record the lives and experiences of working-class people exclusively” (Ritchie, 1995).
It would not be long before the stirrings of labor movements bring oral history to the fore as a powerful push against dominant power structures (Thompson, 2000). This resurgence in the 1970s is what Ritchie (1995) called writing history “from the bottom up” (p. 4). Of the many American journalists, folklorists, and oral historians, Studs Terkel emerged as a prominent figure. Terkel jockeyed a popular radio show and collected hundreds of stories of people whose every day lives coincided with important historical events. For example, Turkel’s (1970) interview with Cesar Chavez illuminates poignant moments of a family struggling against injustice and racism. Remembering the day his father and uncles lost their small farm to the bank, Chavez recalls:
“One morning a giant tractor came in, like we had never seen before. My daddy used to do all his work with horses. So this huge tractor came in and began to knock down this corral where my father kept his horses. We didn’t understand why. In a matter of a week, the whole face of the land was changed. Ditches were dug, and it was different. I didn’t like it as much.
…But this had quite an impact on my father—things like, we’ll work this season and then we’ll get enough money and we’ll go and buy a piece of land in Arizona. Things like that. Became like a habit. He never gave up hope that some day he would come back and get a little piece of land.” (Terkel, 1970, pp. 53-54).
Later in his account, Chavez recounts slights and insults he suffered from Whites as a poor migrant worker. In this incident, he recalls his father entering a restaurant with a sign that said "White Trade Only":
My dad read English, but he didn't really know the meaning. He went in to get some coffee- a pot for my mother. He asked us not to come in, but we followed him anyway. And this young waitress said, "We don't serve Mexicans here. Get out of here." I was there and I saw it […] I’m sure for the rest of her life she never thought of it again. But every time we thought of it, it hurt us […] These are sort of unimportant, but they're... you remember 'em very well. (p. 56)
In another part of the interview, he talks about the strikes led by his father and others (Terkel, p. 55):
Did these strikes ever win?
Documentary history exists on Cesar Chavez and the heroic struggles of immigrant laborers, but this intimate account- what he called "unimportant"- exemplifies the effect personal accounts have on historical figures and events. Lived experience adds a dimension that speaks to our natural affinity for narrative, as well. Italian oral historian Alessandro Portelli (2013) emphasized that no two stories are alike; remembering is deeply personal (p. 119).
While the Columbia University archive of American oral histories continued to document the experiences of prominent players in American history, still others sought out the experiences of ordinary people. Alan Lomax, son of folklorist John Lomax, would contribute invaluable accounts of American folklore, music, and life. Among his list of “firsts” are Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie. He recorded around the world from living rooms to chain gangs and included legendary artists like Pete Seeger and Jelly Roll Morton ("Folklorist Alan Nevins," 2011). The Library of Congress American Folklife Center archives the Lomax treasures. Visit the Iconic Song List.
Lomax and others like him saw music as a form of storytelling. Songs can be used in "some of the ways that scholars use oral history: to pass on traditions, to raise consciousness, to make sure of particular ways people tell stories and explain their lives...to expand our knowledge of what it means to be human and to get people to participate in history" (Honey, 2015, p. 217). In this way, people are empowered to use their voice, or as folksinger Pete Seeger (from Honey, 2015) said:
Literary artists also used oral histories to enhance both fiction and nonfiction stories. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is steeped in Afro-American preacher tradition and Black folklore (Plant, 2007). She worked for the WPA in the 1940s and her work is curated in the Florida Folklife WPA Collections. In her own writing, Hurston drew on the authentic, living voices of African Americans during her time. Deborah Plant (2007) said of Hurston’s use of oratory, “Like the folk preacher, she tells stories, folktales, and jokes…more often than not, these examples of oratory are dramatically cast; settings are described, characters speak in dialogue, and the dialogue sets forth much of the action” (p. 8).
Novelist Alex Haley’s personal journey toward understanding his ancestral path from Africa to American slavery culminated in the book Roots, inspiring countless others to look to family history as source of community identity (Thompson, 2000).
Contemporary oral histories of moments in the life, such as the Story Corps project, highlight the deeply personal nature of collective experience.
Speaking is important in both oral tradition and oral history. Speaking is not just vocalizing, but a voice that comes through in writing what was said, what was spoken. This leads to orality.
The dictionary definition of orality is simply the quality of being spoken or verbally communicated. Cultures in which writing is not predominant, or existent, shed light on the different ways speaking affects collective memory, thought, and ways of being in the world.
Primarily oral cultures have a fundamentally different way of thinking (Ong, 2012; McLuhan, 1967). It is difficult for people steeped in writing cultures to understand the power of words for primarily oral cultures, since writing encourages a different quality of thought and enables human beings to progress in ways that primarily oral cultures cannot (Ong, 2012). Luria (1976) noted that thinking is the “shared experience of society conveyed in its linguistic system. This reliance on society-wide criteria transforms thinking” (p. 52). Simply stated, chirographic, or writing cultures, internalize writerly ways of thinking (Ong, 2012). The grammar, syntax, and semantics of writing influence the way we think (Gee, 1990; Vygotsky, ; Ong, 2012; Luria, 1976).
Primarily oral cultures which have appropriated writing literacies still experience ways of thinking that are oral in nature- it may take hundreds of years for writing to transform collective patterns of thinking (Luria,1976; Ong, 2012). Native American and Native African people, for example, still hold the ‘Word’ as sacred (Clair, 1993, p. 70). Paula Gunn Allen, Native American author and scholar, said: “Instead of ‘preachment of truth,’ American Indians consider the sacred power of utterance a way to shape, mold, direct, and determine the forces that govern and surround life and the lives of all things” (Clair, 1993, p. 70). Many primarily oral cultures see words as action, or event, instilling words with great power (Ong, 2012). Words, then, can actively shape reality. Clair (1993) uses Malian author Amadou Hampate Ba to illustrate this idea:
“African tradition conceives of speech as a gift from God…[speech] sets latent forces in motion. Oral tradition is the great school of life. It is at once religion, knowledge, natural science, apprenticeship in a craft, history, entertainment, recreation, since at any point can take us all back to primordial Unity” (p. 70).
Though it may seem an alien sentiment at first, Western cultures steeped in biblical tradition recall the power of words over things in Genesis and Adam’s naming of creatures (Ong, 2012):
“The fact that oral peoples commonly and in all likelihood universally consider words to have magical potency is clearly tied in…with their sense of the word as necessarily spoken, sounded, and hence power-driven. Deeply typographic folk forget to think of words as primarily oral, as events, and hence as necessarily powered: for them, words tend rather to be assimilated to things, ‘out there’ on a flat surface. Such ‘things’ are not so readily associated with magic, for they are not actions, but are in a radical sense dead, though subject to dynamic resurrection” (Ong, 1977, from Ong, 2012, pp. 32-33).
The power of utterance sheds light on the importance of storytellers and ritual in primarily oral cultures. Reading and writing are often solitary acts, whereas orality is uniquely intimate and human. This intimacy is the result of the unique relationship between the storyteller and the audience, as well as the internalization of stories committed to memory.
Oral tradition relies on storytellers to share collective knowledge and histories; in turn, storytellers rely on memory. The distinction between memory and history, sometimes referred to as the ‘memory phenomenon,’ was “the first serious effort to assess the divide between memory and history as modes of understanding the past” (Hutton, 2013; p. 355). Previous ideas around memory in historical scholarship viewed memory as “the stuff of immemorial tradition” (Hutton, 2013; p. 355).
The academic realization that ancient Greek bards used formulas in the Homeric epics was a radical concept that temporarily shook the deep admiration of the Western literary world that had championed the poems for their extraordinary originality. This is because the system revealed the use of commonly used cultural narrative devices, actions, characters, and epithets. Additionally, pre-given motifs and other formulas aided memorization, as well as stock characters and larger than life action (Gee, 2008). The demands of memory required the Greek poets, for example, to rely on patterns and stock phrases to commit long poems to memory (Gee, 2008; Ong, 2012). Now, it is commonly acknowledged that oral formulas are important in traditions around the world and help to keep the mind on track (Ong, 2012). Accordingly, Native Americans made no distinction between poetry and prose and saw “repetition as an implement to tune the mind” (Clair, 1993; p. 71).
The stock epithets of the Iliad and other patterns might seem rigid, thus rendering cultural values as fixed; this is why Plato excluded the poets in his ideal world (Ong, 2012; Gee, 2008). There is evidence, however, to challenge the assumption that oral traditions are stagnant and unchanging. This is apparent in the system of apprenticeship. Apprentices to storytellers would learn the stories from a master bard and then retreat to commit them to their own memory, or to internalize them (Ong, 2012). What is interesting is that when the recitations were recorded they were all slightly different, in spite of the insistence of storytellers that they always recited them the same (Ong, 2012). Researchers found that even as the storyteller uses the formulas to aid memory, these “commonly shared habits of mind,” or collective semantic memories, also help the storyteller make it their own (Hutton, 2013). Ong (2012) claims: “In memorizing, the bard of poet wants time after hearing to “get with” the song, to remember and weave it together with themes and devices” (p. 60).
Another example that disputes the idea of a static oral tradition is a case study of Native American tradition in Canada. Researcher Wendy Wickwire (2005) found that contemporary accounts of origin myths included White people where they were previously not recorded. In the story recounted here, there are twins, one White, one the Coyote (Native American people), who will be reunited after the White twin’s long exile. What is even more surprising, is that writing is associated with the White twin in the story, thus equating the writing culture with White culture: “Before banishing the younger twin, God makes him promise that when his descendants encounter the descendants of the older twin/Coyote, they will promise to ‘show [them] what’s on that paper’- the stolen written document” (Wickwire, 2005, p. 461).
People’s collective stories follow the same lines that trouble historians about memory: the fact that memory is subject to time, change, and the unique experience of the present in the act of recollection. Furthermore, narrative elements in written stories mirror narrative elements of speech. This suggests that narrative is a natural way of seeing the world (Portelli, 2013).
The spoken words of poets, bards, and storytellers connected them with their audience and worked to ensure solidarity of the community:
Because in its physical constitution as sound, the spoken word proceeds from the human interior and manifests human beings to one another as conscious interiors, as persons, the spoken word forms human beings into close-knit groups. (Ong, 2012, p. 74).
Recitation is not the only way to pass down tradition. Ritual creates a reliable system and practice for transmission of culture and beliefs (Thompson, 2000). One important aspect to note in orality and ritual is that words are typically removed from the speaker in religious or ritual experiences (Ong, 2012).
Audience plays a critical role in oral tradition- audience is the purpose for the telling. The introduction of writing creates changes in thinking for oral cultures. Socrates famously worried about the loss of memory with the advent of writing, but was also troubled by the distance created between the audience and the speaker. In discourse, the audience can press and question the speaker, which is not true of writing. Another important aspect of speaking involves space and proximity. Speech act theory, for example, rests on the ideas that discourse depends on the give and take of speakers and participants and is essentially illocutionary (Ong, 2012, p. 170). Illocutionary speech is defined as expressing, interactive between utterer and recipient, such as greeting, boasting, promising, etc.: the act of speaking is reliant on the audience’s response. The speaker has the opportunity to listen and respond within the logic of the conversation (Ong, 2012, p. 170). Reader Response theory challenges this perception by arguing that a passive text is actively interpreted by the reader (Stanley Fish, David Bleich, and Wolfgang Iser); however, this still leaves the author unable to be pressed or challenged with an opportunity for response.
Lastly, the residual effect of primary orality can be seen in expectations of the audience. In the following excerpt from Ong (2012) connects contemporary primary oral cultures to orality:
"By keeping knowledge embedded in the human lifeworld, orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle. Proverbs and riddles are not used simply to store knowledge but to engage others in verbal and intellectual combat: utterance of one proverb or riddle challenges hearers to top it with a more apposite or a contradictory one (Abrahams 1968; 1972). Bragging about one’s own prowess and/or verbal tongue-lashings of an opponent figure regularly in encounters between characters in narrative: in the Iliad, in Beowulf, throughout medieval European romance, in The Mwindo Epic and countless other African stories (Okpewho 1979; Obiechina 1975), in the Bible, as between David and Goliath (I Samuel 17:43–7). Standard in oral societies across the world, reciprocal name-calling has been fitted with a specific name in linguistics: flyting (or fliting). Growing up in a still dominantly oral culture, certain young black males in the United States, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, engage in what is known variously as the ‘dozens’ or ‘joining’ or ‘sounding’ or by other names, in which one opponent tries to outdo the other in vilifying the other’s mother. The dozens is not a real fight but an art form, as are the other stylized verbal tongue lashings in other cultures" (p. 44).
The ‘context of struggle’ is an important aspect of the spoken word- these stylistic tensions create verbal, intellectual outlets, allowing marginalized people an opportunity to voice experiences. Later, we will look at the concept of living language, or voicing in our own words, the words of our everyday speech.
Writing encourages a different quality of thought and enables human beings to progress in ways that primarily oral cultures cannot (Ong, 2012). Vygotsky (1986) illustrated this idea in his theories about the evolution of thought through speech development and ultimately through writing. Distance and reflection give human beings the space to analyze not just knowledge, but the concept of self and self in society (Ong, 2012; Gee, 2008). As mentioned previously, the grammar, syntax, and semantics of writing influenced the way we think and transformed consciousness (Luria, 1976).
Audience and all manner of communication are different in writing. The storyteller, as we learned, is a living cultural link between peoples in the present and the past. Not just people, but ideas, histories, language, and ways of being in the world; this imbues language and words with a power or potency unlike anything we experience with the written word. Ong (2012) uses the Hebrew dabar as an example, which simultaneously means ‘word’ and ‘act’: “The spoken word is always an event, a movement in time, completely lacking in the thing-like repose of the written or printed word” (p. 75). Perhaps the power is in speech- exhaled from the body.
Logic and rhetoric as we know it in the Western world would not be possible without writing (Luria, 1976). This is ironic in many cases, especially Plato’s Phaedrus, where the loss of oral culture is lamented, but whose logic is indebted to the space for reflection afforded by writing:
This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves… they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. (Plato)
Writing does not completely alienate us from each other, though some may argue that it certainly further individualized us: "Print technology created the public. Electric technology created the mass. The public consists of separate individuals walking around with separate fixed points of view" (McLuhan, 1967, p. 48). This conjures the Romantics and the emphasis on the common man- a phenomena we are experiencing as a renaissance through technology and social media. The Internet is often touted as a great equalizer. Consider all of the multimodal ways people can communicate which includes speech, and also video, the ability to see each other visually, and the capacity to connect with live audiences, giving us the sense of the very real, very lived experience.
When it comes to writing and orality, one is not better than the other, just different. Holocaust oral historian Joseph Boder (Rosen, 2010) talked about capturing people's stories in their own voices-- this is because the way we speak and the way we write are different. Writing is a much more polished, logical way of thinking. Our speech is colored by our thoughts and emotions, and tends toward the narrative storytelling.
This video of a Spoken Word performance exemplifies the different uses of language for audience. This can be considered true whether the audience experiences it aurally or on paper. The first performance is "a linguistic celebration," exploring what it means to be articulate.
The use of oral history in the classroom has the potential to emphasize individual experience within the larger context of literacy, history and society. Gee (2008) said “…the traditional view of literacy as the ability to read and write rips literacy out of its sociocultural contexts and treats it as an asocial cognitive skills with little or nothing to do with human relationships. It cloaks literacy’s connections to power, to social identity, and to ideologies, often in the service of privileging certain types of literacy and certain types of people” (p. 67). This sentiment was echoed in Deborah Brandt’s (2001) exploration of the various economic and social sponsors of literacy, ultimately declaring: “It is time for the public school to reclaim in a serious way the role of literacy in strengthening democracy” (p. 207). Through expression of the self the community becomes more connected (Greene, 1988).
When schools are not the space for reclaiming voice, alternate spaces, or third spaces, become more necessary (Gutierrez, 2008). Gutierrez’s (2008) work with nondominant communities led to what she calls “sociocultural literacy,” or an emphasis on the everyday literacies of students to help them better negotiate the tensions between their lived literacies and institutional literacies (p. 149). These literacies are then turned outward into critical literacies or powerful literacies (Gutierrez, 2008). People need to be able to name alternatives for themselves, for without this kind of language, imagination cannot flourish (Greene, 1988). Literacy education can draw on oral histories to connect students to the lived experience of the presence and resolve that experience with their socio-historical understandings of the world. As Gutierrez (2008) argues, “the learning of new concepts and skills, as well as the development of collective identity, is facilitated through a range of language, reading, writing, and performative practices that embody key concepts, emotions, and theories- the threading of conceptual metaphor” (p. 153). Students must be able to articulate possibilities, to share it with others to “project” change in order to “uncover humanizing possibilities” (Greene, 1988, p. 13).
Institutionalized literacy is not always mirrored in lives of students (Gee, 2008). The emphasis on the lived language, the everyday speech and expressions of people illustrates this in an instant. Common language used in the context of art, such as Zora Neale Hurston, in Spoken Word, or poetry helps us see not only the value in colloquial speech, but its shifting and ephemeral quality, as well. Ong (2012) said that a word once uttered is at the same moment disappearing. That is its weakness and its power. In the following videos, living language is explored as tied to place and to a people. Identity is tied into language and we must learn to listen in order to faithfully capture lived experience.
The pace of change in technology has ushered in an era of "secondary orality" (Ong, 2012) or New Media Literacies (Gee, 2008; Jenkins, 2009). The use of media and tools for communication in some ways draws on the participatory nature of orality, but in other ways loses intimacy in what Marshall McLuhan (1967) called the "global village" (Ong, 2012). Schools are slow to change, leaving teachers and students trying to make important connections to lived experience and future potentialities (Jenkins, 2009; Gee & Hayes, 2011). Oral history draws on the use of narrative, technology, and expression to bridge what Jenkins (2009) called the "participation gap."
The individual in the American way of thinking is partial to independence or self-reliance. Oral history emphasizes the experience of common people, but within the context of the larger community. Oral history does not replace history, it supplements it, makes it more human and more personal. In order to understand each other, we have to be able to ‘walk a mile in another person’s shoes.’ When we read, the voice we hear is really our own, internal voicing. When we hear spoken words, there is no mistaking that it is other, but somehow ours through thinking. Perhaps that is the root of Socrates’ fears- that we would only hear our own voices in text and the author would be too distant. Reading an oral history, such as Joe High, or Cesar Chavez, we hear their voice in the reading of it- unmistakably.
In a globalized world, where the noises of dominant cultures or economies drown out the voices of individual people, stories are ever more important. As Alan Lomax said, “I give voice to those with NO voice in a world of big communication.” Oral histories connect us to the true conditions of living- whether they are fiction or not. Social anthropologists do not distinguish between the myths and histories of a people- they see them as “complementary and mutually informing” genres (Turner, 1988, p. 237). There is much to be learned from stories.
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