"If I see some of this in writing, I'm going to shoot you": reluctant narrators, taboo topics, and the ethical dilemmas of the oral historian.
Keywords: oral history ethics, shared authority, passing, multiracialism, racial identity
"Race never mattered to me." "I was black when it suited me; I was white when it suited me." "I never honored race [laws]." (1) With these words, repeated frequently over the course of several weeks of interviewing and visiting, Marguerite Davis Stewart both identified her liminal racial identity and asserted her lack of concern for its implications. Stewart was a light-skinned African American woman who grew up in the black section of Louisville, Kentucky, and worked in integrated settings in the Works Projects Administration, in the Red Cross in the Pacific Theater during World War II and the occupation of Japan, and in the recreation program at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Throughout her life she repeatedly crossed the color line, though she adamantly denied ever "passing" for either black or white. In the course of interviewing Stewart the authors confronted a number of ethical concerns, primarily a result of differences between Stewart and us over the purpose of recording her story and what aspects of the narrative were historically interesting or significant. Specifically, Stewart's ambivalence about her racial identity and its significance in her life--and the authors' pursuit of the subject--sparked an ongoing interpretive conflict between Stewart and the authors. In this essay we argue that in the co-creation of the historical document that is the oral history narrative the oral historian must balance sensitivity to the interviewee with responsibility to the larger ongoing project of preserving history, without abdicating the role of trained interpreter of the past. Moreover, because we insisted on our responsibility as researchers and engaged Stewart in a dialogue on subjects difficult for her, the interview became an opportunity for her to struggle with, and in the end express, her own understanding of her life and biracial identity.
In the summer of 1999 Stewart contacted the archivists at the Oral History Center at the University of Louisville and they directed her to K'Meyer, the co-director in charge of acquisition of interviews. Stewart was seeking help in recording her stories about her experiences in the Red Cross in the Pacific Theater during World War II and the occupation of Japan. Although the Oral History Center typically conducts interviews only on the history of the Louisville metropolitan area, we view it as part of our public service mission to help people record their own stories. In addition, there is a collection in the archives on Kentuckians' experience with war, to which this interview could contribute. Crothers was at the time the director of the Floyd County Oral History Project at Indiana University Southeast, supervising student interviews of veterans. K'Meyer invited him to co-conduct the interview because of his expertise in World War II projects. On the first day of interviewing, Stewart told a vivid story of her trip to the Pacific aboard a transport, and we recognized her as a great storyteller. Moreover, in conversation after the taping finished for the day she revealed fascinating glimpses of her early life as a light-skinned African American who regularly traversed the color line with her mother. We decided to return and over the next three months recorded thirty-two hours of conversation. We alternated visits, with Crothers picking up more of the responsibility as time wore on. These tapes have since been transcribed. We are in the process, as promised to Stewart, of arranging the interview chronologically and by subject matter, and editing it for clarity. The raw transcript and edited version will be placed in the Oral History Center Collection at the University of Louisville Archives. (2)
The context for Stewart's life story was shaped by the racial climate of early and mid-twentieth-century Kentucky and Louisville. Stewart was born in 1911 during the high tide of Jim Crow. In Kentucky the courts defined as black anyone with one-sixteenth black ancestry, and custom and law operated to segregate and limit the life experiences of anyone so defined. Kentucky established segregated public schools in the 1880s and in 1904 the Day Law required that all educational institutions public or private be segregated. By the early twentieth century virtually all state institutions were segregated, including prisons, hospitals, and the school for the blind. Meanwhile, in Louisville local ordinances and custom ensured that most parks, libraries, restaurants, stores, and places of amusement were closed to African Americans. On Fourth Street, which until the 1970s was Louisville's retail and entertainment center, blacks could enter stores to purchase items, but they could not sit down, use the restroom or lunch facilities or try on clothing. Though the African American community chafed at these restrictions, it was forced to abide by them. As Louisville resident Mae Street Kidd recalled in her autobiography, "Most of us blacks knew what the boundaries were and more or less observed them." (3) The result was a circumscribed community in which black children were taught, at a very young age, not to step across the barriers.
Still, as local activist Lyman Johnson recalled, "For a southern city, Louisville had good race relations." (4) Indeed, in the self-proclaimed "Gateway to the South" segregation was more fluid, with more room for interracial cooperation than in the Deep South or even many other border cities. For example, streetcars and eventually buses were integrated as a result of protests by the black community in the late-nineteenth century. Similarly, housing segregation was less pronounced during the time of Stewart's youth than it would become later in the century. In 1917 a Supreme Court decision, resulting from a case originating in Louisville, proclaimed city ordinances requiring housing segregation illegal. After that Louisville developed a checker-board pattern in which white and black lived on adjoining blocks or even in nearby alleys. Stewart lived in just such a situation, identifying her closest neighbors as Italian and noting the large Irish population nearby. The most striking sign of Louisville's relative openness was that blacks retained the vote and were actively involved in local politics. In addition, African American leaders cooperated with white elites to provide services to the black community. As a result, historian George Wright has labeled Louisville's race relations "polite racism." The city's white elite sought to avoid the violent repression of the Deep South and made a series of concessions to the black community. However, these were designed to blunt protest, and civic leaders never contemplated ending African Americans' second-class status. (5) The atmosphere did, nevertheless, create a relative sense of openness and a color line that was more fluid than in other southern locales. Equally important, it kept open lines of communication across the racial divide that Stewart was able to use to inaugurate her career.
Stewart was born and raised, and she learned about race and segregation, in this context. She and her family lived and worked for most of their lives within the black community. But unlike many of her peers, Stewart frequently ignored racial barriers because of her own and her mother's light skin color. As a result, she lived her life with a foot in both the black and white worlds.
She attended black schools, used the black branch of the public library, and associated socially with other black girls. Yet unlike her classmates and friends, she was able to go to the local amusement park, Fontaine Ferry, which remained segregated until 1964. Similarly, Stewart accompanied her mother to upscale shops, theaters, and restaurants on Fourth Street. They also crossed the river and enjoyed the white-only public accommodations in southern Indiana. Stewart and her mother stayed at the segregated West Baden Springs hotel, where her mother was being put up by a white man with whom she was having an affair. The move across the river was not motivated by a desire to bypass southern restrictions on interracial relationships; like Kentucky, Indiana prohibited marriages between black and white. But at a remove from Louisville there was less chance their relationship would be discovered. The only apparent barrier hindering Stewart and her mother from enjoying these accommodations was economic, not racial. "Segregation," she noted, "didn't mean too damn much to us, as long as we had money to go." She and her family, she recalled frequently, "went wherever we wanted and no one could do anything about it."
As Stewart entered adulthood she remained primarily in the black world, but she was never completely segregated from white associates and opportunities. At times, however, she encountered a less pliable racial climate. For example, in the 1930s she headed south to Nashville and attended Fisk University, a historically black college, to study chemistry. She fondly recalled her exposure to black culture there, but also experienced a more virulent form of racism. She described how black men at the college refused to date someone as light skinned as herself for fear of being attacked by locals who might think they were with a white woman. When she returned to Louisville she sought a job teaching science in southern Indiana and again confronted racial barriers when the job was given to a less qualified white woman. A few months later Stewart began her long career in government-sponsored service and entertainment organizations when she was hired by the WPA to work first at the Central State Mental Hospital and then, soon after the start of World War II, at the Bowman Field Airport in Louisville, which also served as the base for a black engineering unit.
In Stewart's view, her real career began when she joined the Red Cross and began serving alongside the U.S. military. In 1943 she went to American University in Washington, D.C., for her training and then was sent to the Pacific Theater, where she served at a number of island bases before the end of the war. In her work for the Red Cross, Stewart again had a foot in both the white and black worlds. She trained in an integrated setting at American University and expressed pride in having attended a white school. Moreover, her medical records listed her as white and she never corrected them, although Stewart was concerned that in the event of her death her mother would have trouble collecting her insurance money. Still, she was assigned to black units and worked in segregated recreation facilities with black soldiers. Eventually Stewart was assigned to work at a recreation center in Japan during the occupation, where she remained until the outbreak of the Korean War. She came home to the United States after the death of her mother in 1952. She continued to work with the Red Cross, employed for twenty-four years until her retirement in 1976 as recreation director at Fort Knox, close to Louisville. At Fort Knox she helped to oversee the integration of the base and the recreation facilities, and maintained friendships with both blacks and whites. Indeed, for the remainder of her career she limited herself to the newly-integrated world at Fort Knox, withdrawing from both the white and black communities of Louisville.
The story of Stewart's life touches upon a number of interesting historical topics: women's work in the mid-twentieth century; women in war settings; the role of service organizations in the military; and race relations and life under segregation both in the border South and in military institutions. When she contacted us to initiate the interview, Stewart identified her work in the Red Cross and her time in the Pacific as the subjects most worthy of recording. As our summary of her biography reveals, however, we believed her experiences as a light-skinned African American who crossed the color line and saw herself living outside of racial categories were equally significant. Moreover, as the interview progressed we became increasingly interested in her language, her choice of subject material and stories, and how these revealed her racial identity. (6) Most striking, though Stewart claimed she did not care enough about race even to discuss it, her repeated assertions about her own racial identity, the racial characteristics of others, and how she was affected by her racial identity, revealed that race and color were never far from her mind.
Throughout the interview Stewart laid claim to what today would be called a multiracial or biracial identity. She consistently refused to put herself in one category, stating, "I don't identify myself one way or the other all of the time," or more poetically asserting that her family "was black when they wanted to be and they were white when they wanted to be; they were anything they wanted to be." At other times she remarked that she did not quite know how to define herself. On one occasion, she told a story about whether she should attend a segregated carnival with her white Red Cross colleagues, concluding, "They wouldn't have known who I was because ... I don't know who the hell I am anyway." On several occasions she went further and argued that no one could prove her racial background. She explained that because she and her parents lacked birth certificates, no one could prove their, or her, racial identity. As a result, her family, particularly Marguerite and her mother--her father seems to have confined himself more exclusively to the black community--"moved from one race to another any time we felt like it," did "anything a white person did" and, in short, "did what [we] damned [well] pleased." Over the course of the interview, Stewart made more than fifteen such references to her mother's and her own disregard for Jim Crow laws. She asserted, in short, that she cared little about her own racial identity, and knew less about race relations and racial discrimination in Louisville because she never paid attention to it.
Stewart's language in the interview, however, contradicted her assertions and revealed that she did care about race and color. For example, there is the sheer frequency with which she repeated her ability to flout racial laws and do whatever she wanted. Equally revealing were the comments Stewart made about the race and color of others. Almost every person she mentioned in the interview was described by color, particularly those whose racial heritage was also mixed. She described her cousin Maude Benboe as "almost white," and characterized Maude's husband as "Indian looking." She catalogued the Porters, a leading Louisville black family, by color, from the son who is "very good looking" but "not as white looking as his mother," to the father who was "very dark." She described her good white friend "Mr. Cox" as having a wife who may have been mixed. At times her descriptions betrayed her preference for light-skinned African Americans. When she named her female colleagues in the Red Cross she commented on the darkness and straightness of their hair, labeling those with more Caucasian features, "good looking." Most striking, she referred to a dark cousin as someone who "showed his race badly. He was definitely black." But she also rushed to add that while she used race and color to describe people, those characteristics did not matter to her. The Buckley family, for example, looked white. The mother "may have been white. I don't know. Anyway I can't tell and it didn't mean a damn thing to me." On another occasion, after telling the story of a black soldier who had been mistakenly identified as white for years by the government, she added, "I'm not trying to dishonor him because I don't care what he was." Our belief is that the frequency with which she spontaneously mentioned skin color and race and gave them value revealed that the issue was very much on her mind and was a significant part of her identity, even if it was a part with which she was uncomfortable.
We quickly recognized that Stewart's ideas about her own and others' racial identity were a potentially interesting part of her story, and one which was connected to a considerable body of scholarship. (7) However, when we asked follow-up questions in the search for more information Stewart insisted she did not want to talk about it. She often simply dismissed the topic, saying "I don't like to discuss race. I just don't think it's anybody's business." At other times she explicitly denied it was an interesting topic for a book, remarking, "I lived in the black world and the white world; I lived in the poor world and ... the rich world"--statements that would intrigue most historians--but concluded, "I don't think that's what interests you in a book." At times she shut down the conversation, saying, "I can't help you much" on racial issues or, most explicitly, "I get tired of talking about that. If you are going to ask me all these questions, I'm going to shut up," and then changed the subject.
At times, Stewart adamantly resisted discussing not only race, but other subjects as well. In particular, she asserted she did not want to talk about her personal life, nor did she consider it important. Occasionally, she dismissed a question with, "I'm not writing a story about me," or "I don't want to talk about myself." In response to Crothers's explanation that many historians are interested in the lives of common folks, Stewart responded, "I think my life is very uninteresting. Who would want to know about it?" In response to a question from K'Meyer about her husband, Stewart got angry, saying she did not want to discuss her personal life and then launched into a lecture about marriage. The subject was quickly closed. At times during the interview our differences over what was important or legitimate erupted into conflict over recording. Early in the interview process Stewart made jokes. In the middle of a story about her Red Cross work she asked, "Are you taping? Oh Lord, I'm going to shoot you," laughed, and went on with the story. A few minutes later, after another story about her training and preparation for the trip to the Pacific, she laughed and said, "You taped a hell of a lot of stuff I didn't want to say," and then went on with the story. On both occasions, Stewart had no reason to expect that the tape had been turned off. These were the very stories she had contacted us to record. Moreover, she later returned to both stories spontaneously, without prompting from us, and showed no objection to them being included. We concluded that in these cases her laughter and decision to continue were signs that she was simply getting used to being recorded.
Stewart's insistence that her racial identity and experiences crossing the color line were not appropriate topics for "the book," however, continued to raise for us a number of ethical dilemmas. We seemed to have a different conception of the goals of the interview. We certainly had discordant ideas about what were legitimate or historically valuable subjects to discuss, record, and include in any final products. We wondered, since it was clear that we disagreed with Stewart on those counts, were we using her? Was it legitimate to have different goals? Was it ethical to probe on issues about which she was resistant? Social-science scholars have demonstrated that for light-skinned African Americans of Stewart's generation the subject of skin color and its significance was taboo. Indeed, Charles Parrish, in a study of Louisville's black community in the 1930s, asserted that the subject of color "is simply not a topic for general or public conversation," and that "anyone who broaches the subject is quickly made to realize that he has committed a serious breach of social etiquette." (8) Stewart thus likely learned to resist speaking about race in her youth. The taboo seems to have lasted her entire life. We pondered, what was our responsibility as scholars of race relations in documenting the impact of this taboo? How could we as oral historians, recognizing the historic and, clearly, the personal sensitivity about this subject, engage her in a productive dialogue on the topic?
Other scholars, particularly but not exclusively feminist scholars, have struggled with similar issues and have suggested a variety of approaches for mitigating such ethical dilemmas. The most extreme answer to our question of whether we were using Stewart is that all ethnographic or oral history-based research, particularly with narrators who are in some way disempowered, is potentially unethical. Judith Stacey, for example, proposes that the "lives, loves, and tragedies that fieldwork informants share with a researcher are ultimately data-grist for the ethnographic mill, a mill that has a truly grinding power." Similarly, Daphne Patai addresses the question and answers that there can be no feminist or ethical fieldwork in an unethical world. (9) Put most baldly, this suggests that oral historians take material from their narrators and put it to use in a scholarly product that only serves their professional and career interests, and thus they exploit their interviewees. This position assumes that the research product has no worth of its own or makes no contribution to a broader public understanding of the past. In our experience--admittedly with interviewees who are disempowered primarily by race, or age and the attendant infirmities--narrators understand the historical research process and the value of their story, and rather than feel they are losing something, they appreciate the chance to contribute. Indeed, most interviewees we have encountered in our own and our students' work have not expected any tangible benefits, and instead do the interview as a chance to give something back to the community or to help a student, and have little personal goal beyond that. Even Patai concedes in the latter part of her essay that we cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by these issues. Rather, we need to "make up our minds whether our research is worth doing or not, and then determine how to go about it in ways that let it best serve our stated goals." (10)
A more productive conversation concerns how oral historians mitigate the inequality of the interview relationship. At a minimum, oral historians generally advise returning the research to the community through donations of tapes, transcripts, final product, performances, or other appropriate means. Some feminist scholars, who see their work as part of an emancipatory political project, have argued for compensating their narrators and their communities in more direct and concrete forms. While few researchers advocate, or can afford, financial remuneration, oral historians have long discussed various ways to "give back" to their subjects. For Jennifer Scanlon, this takes the form of daily life assistance to the refugees she interviews--helping with shopping, bringing food, volunteering at the refugee crisis center--and educating and encouraging others to become involved in the issue. (11)
A number of commentators, however, have warned against becoming too involved in a helping role with narrators. Most important, they warn that interviewers should not make promises--of material aid or friendship--that they cannot keep. And for many oral historians, the sheer number of interviews we conduct in a project or a career make it impossible to keep such promises. (12) Moreover, oral historians should be careful not to get involved in roles they are not professionally equipped to undertake. Lorraine Sitzia describes her quandary when a long-time friend and interviewee--whom she describes as a collaborator in her research--suffered a health and mental crisis during their work together for which she was unprepared. (13) In our own case, over the course of several months of visiting and interviewing Stewart we performed for her a variety of personal tasks, including making phone calls, fixing meals, even helping her with medical and sanitary needs. We came to realize that Stewart was using the interview to get company and personal help, encouraging us to return with hints of stories she thought we might want to hear. When we recognized this it created the dilemma of how far to continue. Where is the appropriate line in the relationship? When does giving back cross a line into inappropriate social service work? Our decision was to discontinue the interview when it became clear we were not qualified for the kind of personal help she was seeking. We visited but encouraged her to seek trained social service help.
In our estimation the best approach to solving the ethical dilemmas that might arise in the interview relationship grows out of the concept of "shared authority." Oral historian Michael Frisch first articulated the idea in his book of essays of the same name. He argues that the oral history interview is an inherently collaborative process and that the relationship of narrator and interviewee yields a shared authorship of the product. Other scholars have expanded the meaning of "shared authority" to encompass a broader effort to collaborate with their subjects not only in the production of the interview, but in the interpretation and presentation of the material to scholarly and public audiences. In a recent special issue of the Oral History Review a number of scholars described projects in which they sought to "share authority" with their research subjects. In one case this took the form of choosing to work and live among the subjects, sex workers in Britain--even at risk of legal complications--in order to convince the narrators that the researcher was sharing in all aspects, even the danger, of their lives. In another project the scholar worked closely with prison inmates to convert interview material into performances. But Frisch himself draws a distinction between these experiments in collaboration, what he calls "sharing authority," and his more specific insight into the interview as a negotiated, co-created document and the impact of that shared authorship on meaning. Likewise, in her response to the essays in the special issue, Linda Shopes points out that the sharing of interpretive authority may be appropriate for some, but not desirable in all oral history projects. (14)
Our guiding approach to resolving some of the ethical dilemmas we confronted in this interview was negotiation and discussion. The first issue to arise, and to us the easiest to resolve, was the initial difference over the purpose of the project. Stewart contacted us originally for help recording her story. She was blind and confined to a wheelchair and thus could not write it herself. She had sought help from a local journalist but it had not been forthcoming. She initially only wanted someone to turn the recorder on and off and describe her photographs to her. She had a clear idea of the structure a book about her experiences would take, and its title, Kilroy Was Here. She wanted the dedication to read, "To the men and women who served and those who waited at home," and chapter titles were to include "El Pueblo" (the ship that transported her to the Pacific Theater), "New Guinea," "The Golden Dragon," and "Culture Shock." In contrast, K'Meyer and Crothers took on the project as a public service and to supplement the Kentuckians at War collection at the University of Louisville Archives. Conflict arose when, over time, Stewart sought our commitment to write a book according to her vision and outline. By that point in the interview process it had become clear to us that there would not be sufficient documentary resources to supplement her oral history and support a book-length manuscript. More important, because of her resistance there were gaps in the story that could not be filled. In short, we explained to her on frequent occasions that we could not write her book. We did agree to fulfill the original goal, to help her record the story, and to put an edited form of the transcript into the library for public use, organized according to the themes and chapters she identified. In effect, we promised separate products: her story deposited in the library and our interpretations in our academic work.
In this case we decided against a broad experiment in "sharing authority," one in which Stewart would be involved in documenting, interpreting, and presenting her story. Still, the primary product--the oral history itself and specifically the transcript donated to the library--reflects the collaboration inherent in the interview process. Stewart and both interviewers brought to the relationship factors that shaped the story and to some extent the interpretation of the story. Stewart brought her memories of her experiences and understanding of their meaning, her sense of her declining health, and a desire to help honor the "Greatest Generation." K'Meyer contributed knowledge of, and interest in, Louisville race relations and black history from an outsider's perspective since she is neither a local nor an African American. Crothers had familiarity with veterans' stories and specific information about the Pacific Theater, plus an additional outsider status as a newcomer to interviewing. On any given day the exchange between the narrator and interviewers was also shaped by how Stewart was feeling physically, what pictures and artifacts she asked us to locate in her collection, how much time the interviewers had, and whether there were interruptions by visitors. The interview did not follow a biographical or chronological outline. Instead, Stewart began with stories about people or events she wanted to share and we described for her photographs that prompted more information. Because of this she controlled much of the direction of the interview. We then asked questions probing particular aspects of her memories to fill in gaps or to touch on what we considered to be historically significant topics. Thus, we pushed her to talk more about certain issues than she otherwise might have. The result is Stewart's story, but with shades of meaning and content that were suggested by the interview encounter.
Imbedded in the interview is also much discussion about the oral history process and what was historically important in Stewart's life. Questions of what were the significant aspects of her story and what should be included as useful or even legitimate topics had to be continually negotiated. Again, Stewart's initial goal was to record her experiences with the Red Cross in the Pacific. She wanted to honor the men she served and the men and women with whom she worked. Her stories included descriptions of base life behind the lines and the recreational centers and programs that the Red Cross provided. She also wanted to convey something of the Pacific Island and Japanese cultures she observed and enjoyed overseas. The frequency with which she returned to certain stories she labeled "Culture Shock" indicates how important she believed they were to the story. For example, she told both interviewers on a number of occasions about the Japanese practice of collecting human waste and using it for fertilizer, wearing separate shoes indoors and out, and using single-sex public baths and washrooms. As the interview progressed she also stressed the importance of the recreational programs she provided at Fort Knox, repeating descriptions of the water shows, dog competitions, talent contests, and classes she arranged at the base for the men and their families. The topics we identified as interesting and historically significant--her experiences with segregation and passing, and her personal life, including her marriage and divorce--she repeatedly labeled unimportant.
Our immediate problem was how to respond to Stewart's objections when certain topics were taped. We recognized that in some instances her objections were in jest, as when she declared, "Oh Lord, I'm going to shoot you!" then laughed and continued the story. Moreover, she frequently returned to the same story without prompting or objections. Once she interrupted a description of the luxury of the Fourth Street shopping district, a topic she discussed repeatedly, with, "If I see some of this in writing, I'm going to shoot you," followed by laughter and more details. There seemed to be few discernible patterns in Stewart's decisions about when a story was okay and when it was not. Our practice was to remind her regularly that the tape was on before we began to speak, and when she asked we reiterated why we were recording. Finally, on only a few occasions did she insist that the tape be stopped or specify that some information not be included, as when after telling one story she said, "The Red Cross wouldn't want that in the book." In processing the transcript of the interview for donation to the library as promised, we removed material where she explicitly instructed us to "leave that out." Much of the information to which she most strongly objected was missing because she instructed us to turn off the recorder. In cases where she later told a similar or extended version of the story, however, we included the later version. Throughout we used sensitivity in deciding how much to include of topics, such as the cause of her divorce, that caused her distress but that she did not ask us to leave out or to stop recording.
More important, our solution to the apparent impasse over what topics to discuss was to engage her in a dialogue about what is historically important to her and to students and scholars. Late in the interview Crothers asked Stewart directly what she thought was worth remembering in her life, in effect asking her to interpret the meaning of her story. Her reply went on for some time as she moved from topic to topic. She emphasized that the Red Cross and its role in the war were not memorialized anywhere and that she thought something needed to be "put down" about it, particularly on the participation of Kentuckians. She also conjectured that people would probably "want to know what they [the soldiers] did for recreation." She also guessed that upon reading her story people might understand the importance of education and training, which were so helpful in her career. Toward the end of the dialogue she asserted that the most important thing in her life was her "camaraderie among people of different backgrounds," admitting that her mixed racial heritage was significant. Still, she ended her answer by returning to the importance of the Red Cross and the need to honor the organization. For our part, we explained to her that some students and scholars might be interested in other parts of her life, including the WPA, the Red Cross at home, life at Fisk University, as well as her experiences with segregation. This dialogue was an extended effort to draw her into a discussion, and thus a better understanding, of our role as historians and the historical purposes of oral history interviewing. We assume that these efforts were at least in part successful. She seemed increasingly comfortable with the interview process; for example, she did not as frequently ask about the recorder. She also showed more willingness to connect her story to the broader context and at the same time to discuss subjects that before had been off limits, such as her marriage. Finally, as the interview progressed she began to bring up the benefits of her racial identity, indicating not only more comfort with the topic, but an effort to control the interpretation of it.
Indeed, it is this last element of the interview that we think is the most significant result of the project, because it both addresses the ethical dilemmas involved and helps to document the experiences and identities of biracial individuals. Toward the end of the interview Stewart changed her approach to discussions about race and, rather than denying that her racial identity had any significance, began to assert that, on the contrary, her biracialism had a positive impact on her life and was something of which she was proud. Specifically, she attributed her success in life to her contact with both white and black worlds. She concluded that she was "like an amphibian; I adapt wherever I am," and claimed that she had "camaraderie among people of different ethnic backgrounds." She took pride in her exposure to black education at Fisk and her training in white settings, stressing how lucky she was that her mother did not "close my mind to other cultures." In the end, she hypothesized, "If I only moved in one world, totally in one world, I wouldn't have been able to hold down my job, my assignments, with any degree of success." "All I can say to my ancestors of different bloods," she concluded, "is 'I thank you'," because her mixed background enabled her to work with different people and appreciate different cultures. In short, Stewart attributed her success, and even her happiness in life, to her biracial heritage, a sharp shift from her initial denials that she thought or cared much about her racial identity at all. Because we did not avoid the sensitive topic of race and color, delving deeper when Stewart raised it and discussing with her our reasons for wanting to know about it, we believe we gave her an opportunity to struggle with the issue. Over the course of the interview she came to recognize and articulate its importance in her life. She was able, in short, to interpret the role of racial ambiguity in her life and, in the end, to forge an identity with which she was comfortable. (15)
There are some remaining questions. First, Stewart sought to end the interview on a positive note, stressing her pride in her heritage and multiracial identity. But could this shift in the interview be attributable to her sense of what we wanted to hear? At one point she observed, "It looks like I'm doing nothing but talk[ing] about race. I don't give a damn about race. I keep talking about it, I guess, because I think that's what you want to hear." In short, was this reinterpretation of her life organically hers or simply a response to please us and keep us visiting her? Second, and equally important, a variety of evidence led us to conclude that Stewart's biracial life was not as happy as she portrayed it. For example, she made frequent on and off tape comments about her current loneliness, about how she felt cut off from the community, and that she often believed that people were taking advantage of her. She even claimed to be "lost" since her mother died--in 1952--and once conceded that her life had not been a happy one. Moreover, a variety of comments--almost all off the record--from African American community members betrayed some ambivalence toward her. In short, we concluded that Stewart's efforts to be "white when I wanted to be and black when I wanted to be" were ultimately the source of significant pain for her. Finally, scholars who work in a variety of disciplines have raised the issue of whether publication of fieldwork results might in some way harm the subjects. Would publishing articles about Stewart's life hurt her or her community?
How do we answer these difficult questions? The first issue results from the nature of any oral history interview. We pushed Stewart to talk about topics we considered more important than she did. Thus, when she discussed those topics she included information that would not have been part of her narrative otherwise. Not only is this the normal consequence of the interview process, we believe that the oral historian's role is, in part, to use questions to guide narrators to make connections between their lives and broader historical subjects. In this case, we wanted Stewart to place her experience in the context of race relations and racial definitions of her time. The second issue presents a greater dilemma for us. Some of the information was documented on tape as part of the formal interview and thus it is legitimate for us to interpret the evidence and suggest a less rosy outcome for her life story than Stewart herself projected. However, much of the evidence upon which we have based our conclusions was drawn from off tape, informal conversations with Stewart or others in the community. Thus, one downside of the negotiated relationship in the oral history process is that we believe we cannot use all the information we have and therefore can only suggest a contrasting interpretation, leaving open or unfinished that part of the story. The final issue was, on one level, answered easily. By the time we completed our interpretation and sought publication Stewart had passed away. But we believe that her pride in her accomplishments and self-awareness would have made her at least open to considering our analysis of the interview. Moreover, it was clear in the interview that she was most concerned about potential damage not to herself but to institutions such as the Red Cross. We have followed her wishes to leave out particular material on that subject. Does raising the issue of the color taboo among African Americans potentially damage the black community? In light of the extensive public and scholarly debate on the issue we concluded that it would not. More important, we see it as part of the scholar's role to shed light on controversial topics.
Our efforts to balance sensitivity with thoroughness in the process of editing the transcript and publishing our interpretations reflects our broader conclusions about what material can be sought and used. During the interview itself we decided that it was our responsibility, as the co-creators of a historical document, to bring out information that we as trained scholars deemed significant for a better understanding of Stewart's story and of the past more generally. Put another way, if we restricted ourselves to recording only the stories Stewart initiated without questions or probing, we would not be doing our job. We would be serving only as recorders or transcribers. Historians must search for the story behind the story. For example, when Stewart, on the first day of interviewing, made off-hand references to her color and the ambiguity of her family's racial identity, we decided to ask questions to explore these issues more fully. In addition, as historians we are trained to know that the historical background matters, that biography and experiences in one part of a life shape another. Thus, as interviewers we must seek as full a life story as possible. Finally, as professional oral historians we know that we are co-creating the narrative, and our role in that process is to look for context by asking questions that connect the individual life story to broader historical forces. Ethics demand insuring that interviewees understand why we ask certain questions, and being honest about the purpose. But ethics do not require abdicating the professional responsibility to use our training to produce the most complete and historically significant document possible. (16)
Similar considerations have shaped our decisions about how interview information can be used. We assumed certain limitations, including Stewart's explicit requests to cut material or to stop recording and the restrictions on use that arose out of our informed consent conversation. An ethical use of the material requires that it be produced in such a manner, with honesty about purpose; a full, and as was necessary in this case, repeated explanation about why we were asking certain questions; and a willingness to drop the subject and let the interviewee return to it if and when he/she sees fit. If the document is created in an open, give-and-take exchange, and confirmed by the informed consent process, the material becomes a historical text that is open for use and interpretation. In the interview the narrator presents his or her interpretation. Stewart was extremely clear in the recording about what she considered important--and not--how she understood her life, and what she wanted readers or listeners to take from her stories. The transcript does and will reflect that. However, historians who use the transcript have the right and responsibility to bring to it their own interpretive skills. For example, we did not accept at face value Stewart's repeated statements that she was unconcerned about racial identity. Instead, in conducting the interview we recognized content and language that belied her assertions and concluded that race and color were vital factors shaping her life story.
Life histories begin with a person's interpretation and presentation of his or her life. An oral history is a co-created document that combines the narrator's version of his or her story with the results of the historian's effort to illuminate the context of the narrator's life and the connections between his or her story and broader historical themes. In this case Stewart contacted us simply to tell her story--seeing us as mere recorders, or literally as persons who would turn a recorder on and off. At least initially she believed her story should be confined to the role of the Red Cross in World War II and the Japanese occupation, and human interest tales associated with Pacific Island culture. As historians we recognized in her story additional significant themes and drew them out. As a result, her recorded and transcribed narrative contains information on a range of topics, including the experiences of occasional "passers" in a segregated world. Most important, the continuing dialogue that resulted from our decision to broach what for Stewart were difficult subjects, led her to reconsider the nature of her racial background and experience. From a negative ambiguity and refusal to examine her racial identity, Stewart ultimately embraced her multiculturalism and believed it benefited her life and career.
In short, Stewart, the interviewers, and future researchers all gained. Stewart satisfied her goal of recording her story, gained at least temporary company and, most important, presented an uplifting conclusion to her life story. We learned lessons about the negotiation involved in an extended interview and the value of pushing beyond taboos. More generally, scholars gained access to information about biracial identities. The experience of working with Stewart to record her story provided an opportunity for confronting, negotiating, and even resolving issues of what is ethical and professionally responsible in gathering historical information in the life of a sometimes reluctant narrator. In situations such as these scholars must remember what they owe to the interviewee. Oral historians can give back in the form of company, the agreed upon products of the interview and, most important, honesty and sensitivity in the creation and use of the narrative. But scholars also owe something to the profession and future scholars. They must use their skills--as we used ours--to create as complete a document as possible, they should confront taboo topics and address them with open dialogue, and, finally, they must interpret the resulting information to the best of their abilities and knowledge.
(1) All quotations are from the transcripts of the life-history interview with Marguerite Davis Stewart by A. Glenn Crothers and Tracy E. K'Meyer, conducted between August 4 and October 23, 1999, deposited in raw form in the Oral History Collection of the University of Louisville Archives, Louisville, Kentucky.
(2) We lost contact with Stewart in spring 2000. She passed away on February 11, 2005.
(3) Wade H. Hall, Passing for Black: The Life and Careers of Mae Street Kidd (Lexing ton: University Press of Kentucky, 1987), 41. For a good general introduction to race relations in Kentucky in the early-twentieth century see Stetson Kennedy, Jim Crow Guide to the U.S.A.: The Laws, Customs, and Etiquette Governing the Conduct of Non-Whites and Other Minorities as Second-Class Citizens (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1959), 50; and George C. Wright, Life Behind a Veik Blacks in Louisville, Kentucky, 1865-1930 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985).
(4) Wade H. Hall, The Rest of the Dream: The Black Odyssey of Lyman Johnson (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988), 127.
(5) Wright, Life Behind a Veil, 4-5.
(6) For a fuller discussion of these issues, see A. Glenn Crothers and Tracy E. K'Meyer, "'I Was Black When it Suited Me; I Was White When it Suited Me': Racial Identity in the Biracial Life of Marguerite Davis Stewart," Journal of American Ethnic History 26, No. 4 (Summer 2007, forthcoming).
(7) See, for example, Charles Henry Parrish, "The Significance of Color in the Negro Community," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1944); F. James Davis, Who is Black: One Nation's Definition (1991: 2nd ed., University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press+ 2001); John Langston Gwaltney, Drylongso: A Self Portrait of Black America (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 71-92; and Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson, and Ronald Hall, The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans (New York: Anchor Books, 1992), esp. 62-80. These works emphasize the importance of skin color in shaping the experience of African Americans within the black community.
(8) Parrish, "Significance of Color," 65 (quote), 171-72; see also, Davis, Who is Black, 148, 190; and Russell et al., Color Complex, 2, 163.
(9) Judith Stacey, "Can There Be a Feminist Ethnography?"; and Daphne Patai, "U.S. Academics and Third World Women: Is Ethical Research Possible?" in Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai, eds., Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (New York: Routledge, 1991), 113, 150.
(10) Patai, "U.S. Academics," 150.
(11) Jennifer Scanlon, "Challenging the Imbalances of Power in Feminist Oral History: Developing a Take-and-Give Methodology," Women's Studies International Forum 16:6 (1993): 639-45.
(12) Scanlon, "Challenging the Imbalances," 643; Valerie Yow, "Ethics and Interpersonal Relationships in Oral History Research," Oral History Review 22 (Summer 1995): 57-59.
(13) Lorraine Sitzia, "Shared Authority: An Impossible Goal?" Oral History Review 30 (Winter/Spring 2003): 97-98.
(14) Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), xx-xxi; Wendy Rickard, "Collaborating with Sex Workers in Oral History"; Daniel Kerr, "'We Know What the Problem Is': Using Oral History to Develop a Collaborative Analysis of Homelessness from the Bottom Up"; and Alicia J. Rouverol, "Collaborative Oral History in a Correctional Setting: Promise and Pitfalls"; Linda Shopes, "Commentary: Sharing Authority"; and Michael Frisch, "Sharing Authority: Oral History and the Collaborative Process," Oral History Review 30 (Winter/Spring 2003):27-46, 47-60, 61-86, 103-10, 111-13.
(15) Katherine Borland describes a similar interpretive conflict with her grandmother, and a similar transformation in her grandmother's attitude; see the postscript of Borland, "'That's Not What I Said': Interpretive Conflict in Oral History Research," in Women's Words, 73-74.
(16) For other statements on the importance of maintaining interpretive authority even in a collaborative relationship, see Linda Shopes, "Commentary," 108; Borland, "That's Not What I Said," 63-76; and Patai, "U.S. Academics," 63-76, 137-53.
Tracy E. K'Meyer is Associate Professor of History and Co-Director of the Oral History Center at the University of Louisville. She has published a variety of articles on oral history, race relations, religion, and the civil rights movement. Her current work is Gateway to the South: The Civil Rights Movement in Louisville, Kentucky, 1945-1980.
A. Glenn Crothers is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Louisville and Director of Research at The Filson Historical Society, where he also co-edits Ohio Valley History. He has published articles in a variety of journals including Journal of the Early Republic, Business History Review, and Journal of American History. He is currently completing a book manuscript, The Quakers of Northern Virginia, 1740-1865: Negotiating Communities and Cultures.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||K'Meyer, Tracy E.; Crothers, A. Glenn|
|Publication:||The Oral History Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
|Previous Article:||Four paradigm transformations in oral history (1).|
|Next Article:||From migrant work to community transformation: families forming transnational communities in Periban and Pennsylvania (1).|