For an oral historian, one of the most exciting times is reviewing the transcript for the first time. Slightly apprehensive but mostly eager, you turn on the audio and read along to get a better sense of what you and the interviewee covered during your time together. The first-glance-at-the-transcript experiences are well underway as we near the end of Back Ways preliminary interviewing. For me, this process has been especially enriching. It bolsters my belief in the transformative potential of this work.
I was drawn to both oral history and study of the South as a result of growing up hearing older family members recount their own youth in the place we call home, Vance County, North Carolina. I have always been struck by the stories of community and kinship these family members told. Additionally, I have been moved by the personal recollections of major events that I learned of in school, such as, school desegregation or the assassination of Martin Luther King. There was something, I knew, in hearing from everyday people, like my grandparents, recollections that could transform and enliven my understanding of times long gone. I carry this sentiment with me today. Just last week, I presented at the Southeastern Division of American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting and drew attention to the oral histories of black school principals who experienced school desegregation attempts. As a field scholar at the Southern Oral History Program, I consider the transformative potential of oral history when I sit down to conduct an interview. When I read a transcript for the first time, I have learned not to underestimate how much an oral history may alter my knowledge of the past.
After collecting oral histories for Back Ways, I see that certain richly recounted topics and hardships of African American life in the rural south—black-run farms and underfunded schools—are not specific to stories told in my family. As African-Americans attempted to survive in a hostile rural South, limited options were available and a certain way of life emerged. As one interviewee, Hattie McCauley, said while reflecting on tenant farming: “And I think that’s why a lot of families left the South, because there was nothing for them to do but tenant farming. And, as I say, I think they even rented you the horse, the animals! I mean, how could you get ahead?” Despite recurring subjects such as farm life and particular economic limitations, the oral histories we have collected detail deep, multi-faceted, and extremely individualized memories that likely reflect those held by many in this area and through out the United States. With Back Ways, we have the opportunity to have unconsidered sentiments and recounted experiences of community and hardship heard by many scholars and community members who would not hear them otherwise. The preliminary interviews and transcripts remind me of the transformative potential integral to a project like Back Ways.