The drive back from an oral history interview is a long, lonely drive, but quietly powerful. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking. And it’s always cast with my self-doubt and hundreds of new questions. Did I even come close to getting it right? Why didn’t I ask this one question? What kind of impact will this leave? How will this person feel once they read their words, see their photograph, hear their own voice? Will I ever see them again?
A couple weeks ago, Joe Darensbourg passed away. I never had a chance to meet him, but I met his son, Joseph, who was involved in our Lives and Loaves of New Orleans project. He recorded his father’s story for us because Joe was in poor health. I feel lucky and forever grateful for Joseph’s curiosity, willingness, and his understanding of the importance of this work. I had the honor of meeting him at our 2015 summer symposium in New Orleans when his father couldn’t attend. Joseph moved the audience to tears when he spoke of how, when we lose our food culture and our family legacies through those memories and stories, we’ll be gone.
I feel heartbroken for Joseph and his family’s loss, but so eternally grateful that he recorded his father, and that the SFA recorded Joseph. We will now have this story until the end of time.
I can’t help but wonder what would be possible if someone recorded Joe when he was his son’s age? What more would that have contributed to Joe’s recorded legacy?
It is near impossible to regularly stay connected to every person who sits down for an oral history interview. We try but sometimes an interview exists as a visit at that particular time and that’s the end of the story. But as our archive continues to grow I keep thinking of all the ways SFA might be able to change our approach to the field.
Instead of thinking of each project as a one-time deal, I keep moving in the direction that we need to go back.
Last spring, I took a research trip to Mobile Bay with one of our new oral historians, New Orleans-based Graham Prichard, looking for potential stories for our ongoing Saltwater South project.
Graham arrived with a deep interest in oyster culture, but as we traveled to the Alabama Gulf coast, I kept telling him, “Joe York already made the Alabama oyster film. No more oysters, okay?”
I kept repeating this cadence to remind myself too. And then we sat down with Bill Walton of the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory on Dauphin Island. It was a year after Joe’s film and things were not sounding like a gospel anymore. The industry had moved in the opposite direction.
By the end of our conversation with Bill, Graham watched me completely shift 180 degrees, and he started his first oral history project to document oyster culture in Alabama.
So for the next year, you’ll get to see Graham’s evolving fieldwork as he spends time documenting the handful of families, like Troy and Becky Cornelius of Portersville Bay Oyster Company, who are doing everything they can to keep this working because their livelihoods rely on it. Graham will be returning to these families to find out what happens after things are good and then bad, and how people find the courage to stay the course and keep going.
Our lives are complicated, change is guaranteed. Oral history interviews capture a piece of a person at one place in a certain time. We can’t always go back to collect more. There are opportunities to return, and there are times when you know it won’t be possible.
But we can try to make it possible. This is the new direction I want to see our oral history program move. I intend for SFA to continue building a community of voices and stories next to each other instead of quickly upon one another.
By slowing down. By spending the first visit without recording gear. By earning our way into a new place by being quiet, listening with an open mind before uttering a word. By returning again after the first interview.
Sara Wood is SFA’s lead oral historian.