What is oral history? It is a opportunity for people—many of whom have never been interviewed before because they are not professional athletes or politicians or reality TV stars—to talk about their lives. Their stories, their perceptions about their own lives and the events they have experienced can give us a picture not only of them but about the times they have lived through. These are some of the reasons why a group of faculty at Brooklyn College started the Brooklyn College Listening Project in 2014. In addition, we also thought that our students were uniquely qualified to help their families, friends, neighbors and strangers to tell the stories of their lives.
Oral histories come to be through a conversation between the person being interviewed and the Brooklyn College student interviewing them. The student starts with a list of questions…and if the interview goes well, each question becomes a nudge, an invitation for the interviewee to tell their story, which leads to more questions and more conversation.
Anyone encountering this website is getting to hear and read what the interviewee has to say. But what was it like to be the interviewer? What was the experience like sitting down, sometimes in very close proximity and asking this person questions, sometimes very personal questions, of being part that conversation? What was it like to really listen to what the person has to say?
A number of students who interviewed their families, say they found out far more about what their parents or others went through than they knew before.
When Najrana Azad interviewed her mother, she discovered that following 9/11, her mother, who wears a hijab, was subjected to repeated anti-Muslim harassment, including being accused of being responsible for the terror attack. While they screamed at her for being a terrorist, they weren’t aware that her own uncle worked in the World Trade Center and was killed in the attack. “I didn’t know anything about she went through,” said Azad. “I was only seven at the time. She never told me about it.”
Despite the racist incidents, her mother experienced, she continued to wear her hijab. “It showed what a strong person she is,” Najrana said. “I’d like to be like that.”
Anthony Izaguirre interviewed his father, a first generation Cuban immigrant, for the BCLP who shared harrowing stories of racist slurs and physical intimidation he experienced in Catholic school, where he was the one Latino student in his classes when he was growing up. “I had heard bits of stories growing up, but I was surprised by the level of racism that he experienced,” he said. “And this was in Washington Heights, which is now predominantly Latino.”
Izaguirre, who just graduated from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, credited his Oral History class with Prof. Phillip Napoli with giving him the interviewing skills that he still uses as a journalist.
“The whole idea is to ask someone a question and let them talk,” he said. “If there are awkward silences, let them go. Shut up and let them say what they want to say. You want to get the person’s story, how they remember an event and what they feel,” he said. “It’s very different from getting the who, what, when, where, why and how of a story.”
At CUNY Journalism School, Izaguirre just completed a long investigative project working with other students examining the situation for mentally ill people in a variety of New York City institutions. He felt the skills he learned working on the BCLP informed the work he has been doing at the journalism school. “These were tough interviews around issues of mental illness, often dealing with trauma,” he said. “You have to have a level of compassion.”
Compassion, whether you are interviewing a family member, a friend or a stranger, means you don’t just ask them questions; you listen closely to what they say and engage with them. Listen to the conversation between Emily Castro and her friend, Yudelmis Moran, the Brooklyn College student who interviewed her:
Azad and Izaguirre interviewed their parents for the BCLP. Other students, depending upon their class assignments, interviewed strangers.
Ahmed Aborseria interviewed José Salgado, a Mexican immigrant for Prof. Jessica Siegel’s Peopling New York course in the Macaulay Honor’s College. “Being a very shy and conservative individual, I thought that I would not be able to genuinely connect with my interviewee,” he wrote in reflection after the class.
“As the interview progressed, I realized that not only did my interviewee become more relaxed but I also became more comfortable asking him questions. At the beginning, José’s answers were very short and condensed and he answered them in a very low tone. As the conversation progressed, he became louder and his answers more elaborate. Noticing he was comfortable with my question, I started asking him more.”
Michel Fallah, who was in the same class with Aborseria, wrote about the effect that doing the interview had on her, about listening to Mitsuka Attya’s stories about growing up in Haiti. “My favorite part about conducting the interview was actually learning about someone else’s culture,” she wrote. “The Haitian family dynamic and values were similar to my Lebanese family style. Her extensive knowledge of Haitian culture from history to traditions amazed me and had me thinking that, maybe, I should seek to strengthen my own ties with my Lebanese heritage. When she spoke about her life in Haiti, particularly the foods, she expressed such a passion and excitement…I knew about the earthquake with a 7.0 magnitude that struck Haiti in 2010 from the news, but to hear a person’s account was so surreal.”
Other students connected viscerally with what their interviewees had to say. “I could relate to a lot of the things that Sonia Cuzco was saying, especially how she struggled in school when she came to America,” wrote Divya Roy. “She didn’t speak English and her classmates were being weird with her. I also had a similar experience, where I felt like an outsider, not knowing English and not being able to communicate properly. Sonia also mentioned how her parents were so strict, and how she was limited because of that. I think my parents to this day have a similar problem. They are so scared of me being independent and being ‘Americanized.’”
For Najrana Azad, who graduated in December with a major in history and social studies education with the intention of teaching high school history, oral history offers an antidote to ‘the traditional narrative taught from a textbook.” “When you interview a group of people through oral history, you get multiple perspectives on how people understood the world at the time.”
And, she added, “it’s a great way to get kids interested in history.”