Saturday, 14 July 2012

Week 6: He says, She says, what do you say?

This week at The HistoryMakers, I worked on the finding aid for Bernice Baynes Brown. Mrs. Brown was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, attended Carnegie Mellon University to study art education. I bet that she would not have guessed that 30 years later she would be an executive in the San Francisco Foundation, distributing millions of dollars to fund programs for deserving minority populations. This week’s archives lecture from Dr. Salvatore was about Collective Memory. Dr. Reed’s history lecture was about Jim Crow, migration and early 20th century black militancy. The week concluded with two days of oral history training with Mr. Leon Dash. Mr. Dash’s lectures were interesting and interactive. Going into the interviews with a methodology is a critical way to establish some credibility in the field of oral history. 

I’ve learned from working with Julieanna on my finding aids that The HistoryMakers is not an oral history archive of “black folks talking”. If it was, what would separate these stories from the stories we hear on any bus, train or grocery store line in America? The fact that every HistoryMaker in the database has made an important contribution to society is one weeding factor that we have. Another is the fact that the interviewer goes into the session with an eye for historical context and guides the interviewee toward those topics. Even with all of this vetting and preparation, interviewees can wander into religious or ambiguous diatribes about the way of the world, but the archivists deal with this in the back end processing. We flesh out these interviews, identifying the historical relevance, and describing them with subject headings and summaries that allow researchers to quickly see what the interview is about. At first it was difficult for me to ignore the funny anecdotes or famous people that the interviewee had met, but I put myself in the researcher’s position and began to see the reasoning. If I tagged the interview with a Michael Jackson label because the HistoryMaker was a shoe salesman and sold Mr. Jackson some shoes in 1973, no one who was studying Michael Jackson would benefit from that connection. From this stand point archivists have a lot of work and a lot of responsibility. It is hard to come up with a perfect system but beginning with the end in mind is an important step for reaching the ideal.

In regards to establishing a collective memory, I was pleased with the opportunity to tackle this discussion in archives lecture this week. The phenomenon of the way that we chose to remember people in history seemed so prevalent in popular culture. For example, in the film Barbershop, Cedric the Entertainer’s character causes controversy by diminishing Rosa Parks’ role in the Civil Rights Movement. Another funny example is Don Cheadle’s character, Petey Greene, a radio personality in the film, Talk to Me”, is taken off the air when he announces that Berry Gordy was a pimp. Berry Gordy and Rosa Parks are complex individuals that society decided to put in the “winners” column. Will Angela Davis and Sean “Diddy” Combs be treated with the same reverence as time moves on. What does one have to do to stay palatable in the eyes of the masses? What about Michael Vick, Chris Brown, R. Kelly or Michael Jackson? Will they be remembered for their positive contributions of their indiscretions?

  I would be interested to see which factors are at play with the ultimate fate of these famous figures. This discussion also demonstrated the incredible power that archivist have, specifically in the areas of public outreach and appraisal. Pulling from Thursday’s discussion, there is a difference between depicting Tupac and Biggie as two victims of a destructive regional rap dispute, and depicting them as two insightful poets who were assassinated entirely too early in their budding careers. Movies, television, magazines and other media outlets will try to paint the picture for us, but it is important that a popular explanation does not equal an accurate explanation. I look forward to preserving the evidence that will make people re-consider what they think that they know.

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