I am sitting on a bench in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, six feet from my neighbor. My cell phone, perched between us, records our voices—and the ambient noises of a summer’s late-afternoon in McGolrick Park. Ordinarily, I’d choose a different spot for this interview, one without any sounds beside my neighbor’s voice and my own, per the traditional guidelines of the Oral History Association. But, it’s 2020, and to meet in person, we need to convene at a distance, outside, wearing masks. The unusual circumstances define the task: this recording is a part of North Brooklyn Narratives, a volunteer-led neighborhood oral history of 2020, which I launched this summer through North Brooklyn Mutual Aid, to collect and preserve stories, experiences, and memories of this extraordinary time.
As the United States is rocked to its foundation by a lethal and isolating pandemic, oral history has emerged as a way to share, document, and preserve our experiences, to connect to one another across isolation, and to consider who we are as a nation.
My neighbors and I are not alone in our inclination to collect and preserve a communal record of 2020. In fact, oral history projects are proliferating across the U.S. For example, StoryCorps is collecting oral histories of 2020 through StoryCorps Connect. The New York Public Library has launched History Now: The Pandemic Diaries Project. And universities from Princeton to Arizona State to the University of Wisconsin are building COVID-19 oral history archives. So many projects are underway, in fact, that a number of organizations have offered guidance on how to take an oral history.
Americans have turned to oral testimony in a time of crisis before. The American Life Histories and Ex-Slave Narratives Projects undertaken by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) between 1936 and 1940 stand out as extraordinary precedents for the coast-to-coast collection of oral testimony in the midst of a national catastrophe. They offer prescient lessons for the present. The Federal Writers’ Project was established in 1935 as a part of the WPA Federal Project Number One, which offered government jobs to unemployed culture workers during the Depression. The FWP’s stated goal was to “hold up the mirror to the face of the United States,” in order to create a new, democratic, portrait of contemporary America that reflected, for the first time, the nation’s diversity and cultural pluralism.
During the Great Depression, faced with economic collapse at home and the threat of fascism abroad, many Americans wondered which direction the country might turn. The FDR Administration’s answer was toward a new kind of “cultural democracy,” as the historian Jane De Hart Mathews writes in the Journal of American History, bolstered by unprecedented federally funded access to the arts. The FWP’s work was meant to be enlivened by what the American literary scholar J. J. Butts calls “participatory citizenship,” wherein ordinary Americans shared, recorded, and presented a new portrait of America in which they could see themselves and their neighbors reflected.
Personal narrative and testimony was central to that mission. As W. T. Couch, the FWP Southeast Regional Director put it, “with all our talk about democracy it seems not inappropriate to let the people speak for themselves.”
Accordingly, thousands of Federal Writers, including out-of-work journalists, writers, teachers, typists, and librarians, among them future literary lights like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Saul Bellow, and John Cheever, conducted interviews and collected more than 10,000 life stories from Americans from every state and background, from boxers in Chicago to farmers in Alabama to circus performers in Oregon.
The FWP encouraged Federal Writers to interview people whose voices rarely had been heard in accounts of American history, including factory workers, immigrants, formerly enslaved people, Native Americans, cab drivers, and newsboys. What was it like, for example, to be a 90-year-old woman living on a hog farm in Vermont in the fall of 1938? What was the life experience of a 51-year-old Scandinavian ironworker, born on a fishing boat in New Orleans, who had been put out of work when he was crushed by a crane while driving rivets on a skyscraper in Manhattan? What were the memories of an 89-year-old man living in Jasper County, Texas in 1940, who had been born enslaved?
The effort to collect these stories, and to include them in American history, was unprecedented. Discussing his work as a Federal Writer in New York City, Ralph Ellison explained, “we are creating American History.”
Ralph Ellison reflected in 1977:
For me, being on the Writers’ Project was a way to broaden my knowledge of Afro-American culture. I’d always liked the stories and things, and I couldn’t hear enough of them, so this was throwing me into my own history. Once you touched the history of Blacks in New York then you were deep into American history.
But, he told an audience at the New York Public Library in 1983, that history was systematically excluded from the “official history” of the nation. He explained: “
I want to say a word in favor of the collections of regional and ethnic histories, folksay and so on, which were published under the WPA. Let’s face it… there’s something called “official history.” Perhaps it’s only academic, but you couldn’t find the truth about my background in that history. You could not find the truth about other ethnic groups… you didn’t even have the truth about white southern history.
The FWP helped redefine the way the nation approached its history, and conceived of itself as a polity. “What the WPA did,” Ellison said, was “allow that intermixture between the formal and the folk: the real experience of people as they feel it, perceive it, act it out, and try to embody it in art, and narrative and jokes and so on.”
Indeed, fieldworkers could collect “the real experience” of their own cultures and communities and help amend the historical record. For example, in 1941, Fred Gone and Mark “Rex” Flying, from the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Native American communities in Montana, began collecting historical narratives and traditional stories from tribal elders for the Montana Writers Project. This was a conscious effort to offer a new perspective on Native history and culture. Flying wrote: “the historical past of the Assiniboine in its true nature has never been successfully recorded by the many attempts by different writers.” He explained that previous writers “brought distortion to [their] interpretations … of what the Indian life belief custom and stories really mean.”
While the Federal Writers’ Project collected a remarkable trove of history, experience, and cultural heritage, the FWP interviews as a whole were not without their own interpretations and distortions. Due to technological constraints, to a lack of widely available recording devices, and to editing practices that are no longer consistent with the field of Oral History, the vast majority of these interviews were written by hand, then edited by a supervisory staff, rather than recorded and preserved directly. In most cases, we cannot actually hear the diverse voices the interviews intended to capture. Instead, those words and stories come to us mediated through the memories and biases of the largely white FWP staff, who wrote them down and edited them.
If we “hold up a mirror” to the FWP itself, we can see the Project reflected the nation that conceived it, one based on democratic ideals, but permeated by segregation and structural racism. For example, in 1937, when the FWP employed 4,500 workers, only 106 were Black. Project administrators in every state found excuses not to hire Black applicants. New Mexico’s state director wrote to Washington explaining, “there are no colored persons working on the Federal Writers’ Projects” because “nearly all of the colored people in New Mexico are cooks or chauffeurs.” Ultimately, the National Director of the FWP, Henry Alsberg, made funds available specifically for hiring Black personnel, but in many cases, particularly in the south, Black Federal Writers were forced to work from home rather than allowed a place within all-white Project offices.
In the face of that discrimination, Black Americans made some of the most enduring contributions to the Project. Professor Lawrence Dunbar Reddick, who participated in pioneering work collecting testimony from formerly enslaved people at Fisk University in the late 1920s and early 1930s, suggested to Federal Emergency Relief Administration Director (and later, WPA Director) Harry Hopkins that an Ex-Slave Narratives Project would be appropriate for the Writers’ Project. The perspectives of formerly enslaved people were vital to American history, and any historical record, let alone histories of American slavery itself, would be incomplete without them. That Project, which launched in 1936 and operated in 17 states, was the first national attempt to gather the stories and perspectives of formerly enslaved people.
The stories that Black Federal Writers collected across the country also made their way into canonical American literature. For example, Zora Neale Hurston’s interviews with the Black community in Cross City, Florida helped inspire Their Eyes Were Watching God. Famously, an interviewee at Eddie’s Bar in Harlem told Ralph Ellison, “I’m in New York, but New York ain’t in me.” Ellison quoted him directly in Invisible Man.
The celebrated folklorist Benjamin Botkin, who became the FWP’s Folklore Editor in 1938, decried the racism and segregation within the Project’s ranks. He remarked, “the Negro is praised for his folklore, and yet the white workers are thought to do a better job of collection because [they are] more ‘discriminating’ (an unconscious pun).” Instead of whites cataloging Black culture, Botkin argued, Black Americans should have “fair representation in both the program and the personnel of the Project”
For Botkin, diverse representation was a moral imperative, and the essential work of democracy. He considered the plurality of American experience and tradition to be the nation’s “living culture,” and felt it was necessary to understand “its meaning and function not only in its immediate setting but in progressive and democratic society as a whole.” Concerned about the rising tide of fascism in Europe, and clear-eyed about the threat of its appeal in the United States, Botkin believed it was necessary to stand “on the side of the dynamic creative forces of cultural pluralism and equality against the forces of conformity and reaction.”
The FWP presented that pluralism in more than 1,200 books and pamphlets, the most famous and ambitious of which was the American Guide series. The American Guides “charted a nation,” creating guides to every state, and most cities, towns and villages in the country, relying on both research and interviews to “describe and present the American scene in full local detail as it had never been presented before.” Each guide was hundreds of pages long, and included essays on history, folklore, culture, economics, and labor relations.
A chronicler of 30s America no less than John Steinbeck called the full set of Guides, “the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together,” and the writer and historian Lewis Mumford called the guides “the first attempt, on a comprehensive scale, to make the country itself worthily known to Americans.” For that reason, he deemed the guides “the finest contribution to American patriotism that has been made in our generation.”
In a sense, the FWP projects were “patriotic” because they articulated the national motto, “Out of many, one.” When the FWP published a collection of life histories, it was entitled, These Are Our Lives. From the particular testimony of a white farm owner, a Black sharecropper, a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and a truck driver, the volume asked readers to extrapolate their own stories, their own lives. By asking Americans to extend empathy to one another, the FWP helped draft Americans into the New Deal coalition, which was redefining the role of government in public life while creating a new American cultural consciousness and national identity based on democratic pluralism. Today, neighborhood volunteers accomplish tasks once assigned to WPA workers, from improving parks to conducting interviews. While the New Deal offers an example of what a national government is capable of, 2020 offers a lesson in what communities can achieve.
Today’s community-led oral history projects are truly engaged in what Benjamin Botkin called “history from the bottom up.” Even without a national organizational umbrella, the work of collecting oral history in 2020 has much in common with that of the FWP. Collectively, oral histories of 2020 are working on a national project: chronicling America. In a year when the question of who gets to be considered “American” is near the forefront of civil discourse, the FWP offers a lesson on including and listening to diverse voices, and reminds us that the historical record is malleable: we can create a new, more honest, and more nuanced American narrative.
The example of the FWP shows that crisis actually opens a space for an ambitious reassessment of our history. If we do the archival work in the fire of crisis, we can forge a brighter future. That work is imbued with the democratic imperative that drove the FWP. Botkin tasked the FWP with standing “on the side of the dynamic creative forces of cultural pluralism and equality.” The FWP reminds us that recording oral history can invigorate democracy by allowing us to speak for ourselves, and describe who we are. As we listen to varied and vital experiences of our neighbors in every corner of this country, and as we contribute our own, we are, as Ellison said, creating American history.