Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Redefine and Redistribute Intellectual Authority"

We intend to create a web tool for the Mantua Civic Association (MCA) that is guided by community concerns to document the histories of Mantuans for the purposes of empowerment in the faces of current expansionism in the neighborhood.

By the end of our third class, the six of us had drafted a mission statement to guide our oral history project in Mantua. This exercise was one that brought us out of the classroom directly onto the field that would steer our interactions and goals with Mantua’s community members. The preliminary stages of this project have proved that we are grappling with a political dimension, which contributes heavily to the challenges of not only this project, but more broadly in the field of public history. How are we to address active and inherent power structures in this particular place through the lens of oral histories?
In much the same way that our mission statement navigated our theoretical discussions to the practical, scholar Michael Frisch similarly writes that theories are heavily grounded in practice. Furthermore, Leon Fink’s contact with the Cooleemee Historical Association (CHA) illuminate issues of the uses of history in specific places and the “impressive harnessing of history to community identity” (Fink 120). Many of my concerns entering this project are highlighted in Fink’s study, particularly in his treatment of the participants involved in crafting the history of the southern working class. As is made evident in Fink’s article, history “gets done” regardless of whether or not historians are actively involved in the process. This is made clear through Cooleemee’s adopted community members Jim and Lynn Rumley. Through oral histories and research, the Rumleys sought out to reclaim the roots of a working-class town in much the same way as the case studies presented in Pennsylvania in Public Memory. Fink's study illuminated Frisch's idea that the CHA failed to "redefine and redistribute intellectual authority" (xx). What was left were often racially charged interpretations and the pitfalls of relying on nostalgia, not to mention a failed relationship between the historian and the public.
Ultimately, oral histories are a dual product of subject and the historian. One of the challenges is to highlight the power structures at play, but also ensure that our subjects do not become alienated from us. As discussed throughout the course of this class, this is the ultimate struggle of engaging in public history work. It will be compelling to see how we earn the trust and form relationships with the people of Mantua.  

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