The Power of Oral History

July 17, 2020

I think I’ve always been an oral historian, but I didn’t always know to call myself one. When I was a young kid, I used to spend countless evening hours bombarding my father—always at the end of his long workdays—with questions about his life in India. He was the only person in my family who was born and raised there. He and my American-born mother decided that life would be easier for my siblings and I if we grew up learning and speaking English alone, and as such, our knowledge of Punjabi was reflected through a scattered and very limited vocabulary. There was a clear cultural gap between my father and his children. My ethnic identity was tied to a place that he had called home for the first twenty-six years of his life, the same place in which I had spent perhaps less than twenty-six days up until my twenties. I wanted to know more about my dad, his life before he had kids, and the part of my own history that remained unknown to me. So I asked him questions…ad nauseam.

As a college student I majored in American Ethnic Studies with a history focus, and in the time leading up to my graduation I came across a few books that would change the direction of my young adulthood and the course of my life more broadly. One such text was Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and its Legacy by Paul Hendrickson. Hendrickson is a journalist by training, but this particular text is a history of the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962. The author tells this story by interviewing some of the major players involved in that tense and violent moment, including James Meredith—the first African American to enroll in the school—as well as a number of sheriffs who coalesced from around the state to prevent Meredith from entering the university. For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the text was Hendrickson’s conversations with the children—now in adulthood by the time of the book’s publication—of some of these sheriffs, as he examined how they made sense of their parents’ role in this history and their own relationship to this past. These were questions of political inheritance- questions with which we are all confronted at particular moments in our lives. How do we make sense of our familial legacies- the good and the bad? What do we choose to acknowledge, celebrate, reject, or forget? They are inquiries without simple answers, to be sure. Upon finishing Hendrickson’s text, however, I was left with the urgent feeling that, particularly for historians, it is our responsibility to become aware of the histories we are born into. And in many cases when the archives are silent, we may do well to turn our attention to the very people who helped create the past, even if our inquiries are met only with memories.