The Auburn Housing Authority Oral History Project interview day with Auburn Senior citizens arrived long before I felt confident to conduct an actual oral history interview. I visited the Leo Twiggs exhibit meet and greet session with the senior citizens last month at the Jule Collins Smith Museum to encounter a few people we would interview. I felt that , other than a group discussion over the luncheon that included one senior citizen (Alice), I did not meet anyone. The museum tour of the exhibit did not lend itself to interaction with the senior citizens in the group I was with. At the Housing Authority visit, Alice was again in attendance and eager to tell her story. Alice is very close to my age, has an upbeat attitude and lots of energy. I hoped that she would be willing to talk to me, and I did seek her out to interview. My partner Tara made the interview move smoothly. finding us a separate space from the main room, she kept a positive, comfortable vibe throughout.
It is hard to be objective in an oral history. Hard to keep personal comparisons of life trajectories out of the story, especially when the interview turned into more of a conversation and some easygoing story telling. The purpose of the oral interview was for Alice to be able to tell her life story, not a chat on a neighborhood stoop in Brooklyn. Should there be a responsibility of the interviewer to the interviewee? I think definitely, yes. I felt protective of the interviewee. I perceived that I was responsible for the story she was willing to tell. I felt responsible for the tears that fell as she told difficult crossroads of her story. Why had I asked that question? Why did I pursue that story, when it would have been easier to ask a different question on a less vulnerable topic? Is it okay to keep going down a story path that is not on the guiding questions list, but told about areas of Alabama history not often heard? the story of her grandmother, a country midwife and her grandfather, an unschooled, but knowledgeable folk art doctor could have been its own interview topic. Alice knew how that type of medicine was practiced and where the herbal medicines were grown.
Ethically, where can the relationship with the interviewee develop? A power dimension is hard to ignore and makes the relationship unequal. My status as a professor is hard to ignore, even though I tried to be just one of the students in the Public History class. I don’t think I succeeded.