History conquers the past, eradicating memory through ‘official’ accounts. Oral history is an attempt to break the silence of public memory – to look at the other side of silence and give back to the people who made and experienced history, a central place. Where researching history has become perusing archives, oral history provides a fresh and more comprehensive approach to history by using personal narratives and memories to understand historical events.
This is the perspective that Stella James, Fellow at Natural Justice had the opportunity to understand and analyze in attending a one-week certificate course on Oral History, conducted by the Centre for Public History(CPH) in Bangalore from 20th-25th January 2014. Facilitated mainly by Indira Chowdhury, Director of CPH as well as Heather Goodall, Professor of History at the University of Technology, Sydney, the course was designed to act as a theoretical as well as practical introduction to concepts of oral history.
Through case-studies on the partition of India, the stolen generations of Australia, the “black ban” on Dutch ships in 1945-9 and women’s movements across border post 1945, complex issues like the reliability of oral history, manipulation of memory, the role of the interviewee in the interpretation of history, appreciating the gaps in personal narratives, power dynamics and ethics were discussed. There was also guidance given on more practical aspects like the use of audio technology, editing and transcribing, curating, designing projects and interview guides etc.
A one-on-one counselling/mentoring session with Prof Goodall, who has worked extensively with indigenous communities, allowed Stella to brainstorm ideas on how the principles and practices of oral history can be useful to lawyers working with communities.