Unrelenting heat. Suffocating humidity. Overworked oscillating fans, A/C units cranked to the hilt. Sound like Chicago? Certainly. But it also fits the current climate in New Orleans, which is where I recently spent a 10-day work-ation (working vacation). Ever since a poignantly momentous day in my 12th year of life, when my mother walked me down Bourbon Street (which I hardly ever frequent as an adult), giving me sips of her Hurricane while a female sex worker engaged me in a then-mystifying repartee, I’ve spent as much time as possible in the Big Easy. When I returned a few days ago from my trip and began working on the current edition of re/search, I realized that this week’s focus on oral history coincidentally dovetails with my (and many others’) scholarly and personal perspectives on New Orleans as a physical place (a city) and as a cultural symbol.
Early in this decade I began doing HIV-related research among sex workers and drug injectors in New Orleans Parish; at the decade’s midpoint, I began the process of buying a house there, in the neighborhood known as “Mid-City” (adjacent to Treme, the neighborhood made famous by David Simon and HBO). Then came Hurricane Katrina. Yes, Katrina. Do you remember? Did it make an impact on you? Was that epic disaster salient to you? For me, it was devastating. For many of my friends, it was traumatizing. For nearly 2,000 New Orleanians, it was fatal. An entire city suffering multiple traumas, inflicted only in part by nature, for the real harm seemed to be inflicted by the various institutional actors and bureaucratic entities, whose efforts and initiatives coalesced into a human-made storm every bit as damaging as Katrina.
Remembering natural and human-made disasters like Katrina is arguably critical to our capacities as global citizens. In the case of Katrina—as with nearly every other disaster—a great deal of the “remembering” work gets done by oral historians. I’d like to draw your attention to the oral history work done by Dr. Lisa Pruitt, director of Middle Tennessee State University’s Albert Gore, Sr. Research Center. Her project titled “Narrating Katrina through Oral History” is a terrific resource, consisting of 48 audiorecorded interviews with first responders and evacuees. All the recordings are downloadable mp3 files, just click, play, listen, and learn. I have used Dr. Pruitt’s recordings in teaching the oral history method, interview techniques, and so forth. I have drawn heavily on the substance of her scholarship to conduct my own studies of pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans. More often than not, I have to admit, I use these oral histories as a salve, an anodyne for my homesickness.
The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank houses Dr. Pruitt’s collection along with more than 30 other multimedia projects (audio, video, digital and digitized photographs, data visualizations, etc.). I highly recommend that you check it out, regardless of how much you know or don’t know (or care) about Hurricane Katrina, Rita or any other natural-human disaster. Everything in the archive is available free of charge to anyone who wants it. And you can’t beat that. My parting request is that you watch (and listen) to this video, shot in St. Bernard Parish 30 days after “The Storm”.
Oral history is an essential component of academia, an integral element of a liberal education, an indispensable ingredient of critical thought. But I would argue that the greatest proportion of its value lies in its role in helping society understand itself—where it’s been, how it got here, where it’s going. I find oral histories to be inspiring in a way that few other social science products are. In fact, it was an oral history that propelled me into sociology. While it had no substantive connection with Katrina, it did put me in mind of my earlier, highly (if puzzlingly) gratifying experiences in New Orleans. At the age of 17, my high school sociology teacher required us to read Studs Terkel’s Working as part of a curricular module on hierarchy, stratification, and economic & occupational mobility. Specifically, we read the section “Pecking Order”, which concludes with the oral history of a formerly drug-addicted prostitute in Manhattan. That one oral history changed my life—it set me on a path that, while labyrinthine, has led me to the present day and even factors into my current studies of street life. Its dog-eared pages have withstood the test of time (and dozens of cross-country trips, job changes, relationship shuffles, etc.). In a word, it has endured…and that, in my view, is the mark of excellence.
A life without oral history—devoid of people who “hear voices” and re-present them to the rest of us—would be bleak, anemic, layered in shades of beige. So let’s give pause and pay due respect to the oral history method. And let’s work together as the oral history form evolves amidst the swiftly cycling tides of the digital days that are upon us. If you’ve done oral histories, please share your work with us. If you’d like to do oral history work but don’t know exactly where or how to start, then come on by and we’ll help get you going. If you’ve got an oral history project in mind or in progress but need a proper recording technology infrastructure, we can help with that too. Just let us know. Remember, your research is our business.
Greg Scott, PhD
Director, Social Science Research Center