From October 9-13, the Oral History Association hosted its 47th annual conference in Oklahoma City, OK. The conference featured presentations from researchers from around the world, including members of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Dr. Paul Ortiz, Joanna Joseph, and Graduate Coordinators Jessica Taylor, Justin Dunnavant, and Ryan Morini.
The Oral History conference gave me great insight into the breadth of research being conducted within oral history. Panelists flew in from all over the world representing communities from as far afield as Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, and Argentina. I had the opportunity to meet with scholars studying similar themes of displacement and dispossession and track similarities between the civil rights struggles of African Americans and the Maori of New Zealand. Unknowingly we even crammed into an elevator with the renowned oral historian Alessandro Portelli.
My presentation entitled, “Veterans of SNCC: The Painful Memories of the War for Equality” contextualized Freedom Summer in the framework of warfare and presented a need for Civil Rights veterans to be recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Such a designation would allow them to acquire veteran’s benefits and the accolades associated with heroism in military service. My powerpoint presentation was interspersed with audio clips from interviews conducted with veterans of Freedom Summer.
In addition to our individual presentations, SPOHP members collectively accepted the Stetson Kennedy Vox Populi (“Voice of the People”) Award on behalf of the program. In sharing our work, audience members asked how we find the strength to continue when confronted with stories of immense hopelessness and grief. Pondering the question for the first time, I came to the realization that it’s often the most depressing stories that give you the motivation to carry on.
The highlight of the conference resonated in the keynote address. Dovie Thomason left the audience with some deep reflections on ethics and the significance of oral histories. She reminded us of the seriousness of retaining oral histories, stressing that the best storyteller must be a great listener, first and foremost. My only regret is that I was able to attend the conference earlier. I look forward to participating in the 48th annual conference, “Oral History in Motion: Movements, Transformations, and the Power of Story” in Madison, Wisconsin next year.
While I’ve attended and presented at conferences before, I’ve never done so as part of a team of students. The experience can be isolating as a lone undergraduate and graduate; it’s difficult to network when the distance between yourself and a group of senior scholars remains at the forefront of your mind. However, as part of a delegation representing not only my university but an award-winning program, I felt that together we collected conversations and experiences over the course of the conference that made our own conversations about oral history stronger.
During our off-time, I don’t think that any two of us attended the same panel: we were each other’s eyes in every room. I’m excited to share what I learned about lyrics as oral history in the New Deal workshop with Dr. Frisch in my own and others’ survey classes, and Justin talked to us about some weaknesses in a panel he attended that helped us strengthen our own presentations the night before. We also met with other grad students who presented on post-World War II Germany in a panel we could not attend, but still shared their ideas with us at a chance meeting in the lobby. The grad student network at the OHA was open and supportive, but I suspect that it is undergirded by equally supportive and reassuring advisors and advocates established in the field.
UF students gave as good as they got at the OHAs, and that alone bolsters camaraderie. Working late at night to perfect presentations and anticipate post-panel discussion questions paid off the day of our presentation. Joanna and I helped Justin narrow down his clip times, and I spent dinner talking over heritage and anthropology with Ryan the night before. Together, we knew to complement one another’s presentations with our respective opinions and perspectives on our time in Mississippi while keeping the individuality of our experiences in the field. The results reflected both our Mississippi and Oklahoma experiences. The audience felt at ease to laugh and inquire with us, and our circle of friends tied to Mississippi got larger.