Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | November 12, 2010

Memory is an endangered species

Great piece in The Root today on Baby Boom-generation African Americans’ memories of the Civil Rights era. A terrible thing happens when people die: they take their memories with them. Their memories become inaccessible, forever. And the last person to remember something really big, really important, really traumatic…when that person dies, something else happens. Our understanding of that event changes, too.

This is especially important when it comes to social groups who have historically lacked access to what becomes the documentary record. In twentieth-century American history, this generally means ethnic minorities and the poor. An American who was 12 years old in 1954, the year the United States’ highest court officially repudiated “separate but equal,” is 68 years old now. The average life expectancy in this country (genders averaged) is 78. That gives us a decade, maybe less, to ask this hypothetical person what his life was like. After that, it’s just historians picking at scraps.

The good news is, technology has made amateur oral history a tangible reality. If you have a smart phone, you can conduct an oral history. StoryCorps has an excellent DIY guide to recording someone’s story, and there are plenty of other resources online.



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