What Is History Without Words

Oral history transfers something intangible, connects the living and the dead through story, and contradicts the documented. In many cultures, both globally and nationally, oral history is used as a medium of archive. On a more personal scale, I listened to so many stories uttered by my family about my relatives, family friends, and ancestors while I was growing up. Oral history in such forms introduced me to those who preceded me, even if I did not get the opportunity to meet them. The greatest storytellers I know are advocates and practitioners of oral history, though they rarely put a pencil down to paper. Despite such potential, oral history is often not perceived to be a valid form of history in contemporary academic spaces. To not consider oral history in academia is to consciously ignore unique and equally articulate perspectives in history.

The disregard for oral history can be attributed to the elitism ingrained in academia. Philip Gerrit Kreyenbroek, a Dutch scholar, studied a specific religious group within the Kurdish area who orally document their history and folklore, the Ahl-e Ḥaqq. According to Kreyenbroek, “The few existing academic discussions of [the stories] tend to offer no more than descriptive accounts of, e.g., the Ahl-e Ḥaqq’s cyclical view of history, as exotic aspects of an alien culture rather than as part of a highly intelligent and effective system that is conditioned by the particular possibilities and limitations of oral literary culture.” As the quote suggests, if oral history is ignored, there are crucial components of cultural histories and practices lost. Academia, by throwing aside rich oral tales, inhibits complete cultural discourse. 

What makes words strung out along generations less worthy of credibility than a paintbrush? 

Where, then, lies the distinction between rumors, urban legends, and oral history? Unfortunately, there are no explicit standards to determine the answer to this question. What may be dismissed as a myth to some is a real retelling of an event for others.Yet the dispersion of words to tell complicated and nuanced histories is not so different from the swelling of narratives through paintings and written accounts. All are capable of retaining bias. I understand that paintings and texts feel more concrete, and that details can get lost in oral history through generations. That concern, however, should not completely invalidate this irreplaceable medium of recounting periods of time. If we wholly disregard certain sources out of fear of details being confused or muddled, we would end up with very little to work with. A painting is painted from the perspective of the artist and written accounts are written from the perspective of the author, and in that aspect, oral history is no different.

It’s important to recognize the historical context that precedes such prejudice. In the past, there were many barriers preventing people from attaining literacy, be it redlining, segregation, or poverty. Even now — though not to such an extreme of literacy, per se — certain neighborhoods with more historically marginalized folks have significantly less funding for public education than others. If we continue to neglect oral history, the history that students from poorer neighborhoods create will be forgotten in favor of more elite and mainstream records enabled by robust schooling. We, as Andover students, often do not realize what a privilege it is to have a school newspaper. Many underfunded schools don’t. This indicates that they don’t have the platform to write their own version of the collective history that is unfolding before us. Therefore, the denial of oral history fosters a system where only the voices of the privileged are recognized. 

And perhaps more importantly, oral history has specific benefits due to the nature of its telling, in that it brings an important, nuanced lens to history. Oral history demonstrates how perspectives of one event may have morphed over time and over the generations it has been passed down from. For instance, the story your great-grandmother may have told about World War I may have been patriotic and heroic, but your mother might present a perspective geared against war that can influence how she tells it to you. By observing those factors, there is even more to say about the progression of history and how it is told. Thus, oral history equips an era-dependent lens on historical events that is telling in itself, and demonstrates who is receiving certain versions of particular stories.

Oral history should be considered a valuable and valid primary source in academia so that we can combat elitism and take advantage of oral accounts’ special merits. Moving forward, there needs to be a greater incentive towards collecting accounts of historical events. Not only must we create and support pre-existing databases of oral history, but we must also pioneer new initiatives towards documenting modern oral history.

Editor’s Note: Bianca Morales ’24 is a News Associate for The Phillipian.