Advice From the Pros

One of the good things about being a public amateur, negotiating my way through American history, is that I've been fortunate enough to attract the attention of people who do this for a living. The result is that I constantly get e-mails, and comments after posts, suggesting other lines of inquiry or clarifying my own. I am not always as gracious as I would like to be. 


With respect to my friends in academia, this blog is a constant dissertation defense, after which there will be no degrees conferred. Sometimes, I chafe under the microscope and snap.  But I hope that all of you who write in know that ultimately, after taking a moment, I appreciate the criticism. I love poets and historians--mostly because I aspired to be both and became neither. But there is still time yet.

At any rate, I wanted to share a note I got from a historian who'd like to remain anonymous offering some edits on the guidelines I offered the other day. I think they might help us as we proceed:

I wanted to make a comment from my seat as a historian on this:

4.) Primary documents are useful, but like all sources, limited. They are helpful and useful, but not God's word.

The way "professional" history is practiced, this is the nub of the question, not really a "settled" issue at all. Indeed, there's a way in which the practice of history is precisely that -- figuring out how to use primary sources to make conclusions. In that way, the [believability]  of your explanation about how and why you use a particular source is also the credibility of your argument.

To use your specific example, the slave narratives, professional historians would immediately tag them as "oral history" documents and then note, among other things:

1) All oral histories are "memory" -- retrospective accounts, in contrast with documents like wills or memos that were produced when events were actually taking place. Over time, people forget and revise, as when many Holocaust survivors began to retell their stories to match up with the narrative of Schindler's List. It is not dishonesty -- it just makes oral histories a particular type of document, which we need to note has been produced AFTER the event.

In the case of the slave narratives, we would also want to do the math -- many of the subjects who were still around to be interviewed in the 20th century were very young when they were slaves. How "accurate" are your memories of childhood? How "accurate" will they be when you are 80? What assumptions do kids make that adults don't, and vice versa?

2) All oral histories are "co-produced" -- by the interviewer and interviewee. As your commenter notes, this means that we have to account for differences in background and power between interviewer and interviewee. At a recent conference, I talked to an oral historian who is employed by a big investment firm to record the stories of the CEO, founder, and other employees. When we hear the oral histories he produces, won't we want to note that he was paid by his interviewee?

This is particularly fraught for black-white interviews. In the 1930s and 1940s, when opinion polling was first used, polling firms like Gallup spent a lot of time figuring out how best to get "honest" answers from black interview subjects. Some early pollsters found that it helped to send black interviewers to talk to black subjects; and, during World War II, government pollsters found that it helped to tell the black interviewees that the government was running the poll. (In the Roosevelt years, black Americans placed a lot of trust in the government, certainly trusting it more than many other institutions).


When we use the WPA narratives as history, then, we might want to start by doing a few things:

- Flag them for our readers as WPA narratives, and attempt to explain how they were collected and recorded;

- Put them in a historical context. What was the income of that older black woman, or a woman like her, at the time that interview was taken? What do we know about the sort of people who were taking the oral histories?

- And try to find contemporary documents that corroborate or disprove the stories they tell. That is, take them as ONE type of document that combines with many others to form a narrative, or make an argument.

The point is not to recap your commenter, but to say that historians approach ALL objects, interviews, accounts, documents, stories...as imperfect and incomplete -- *but then also use them*. As imperfect as they are, this evidence is all we have if we want to reconstruct the past. There is no "god's word" out there -- it's all full of holes and biases and problems. Being a historian means exposing the problems, and then dealing with them in as open a way as you can. There is no secondary source without a primary source; there is no history without the process of "situating" and "contextualizing" -- that is, taking a source figuring out what it can tell us.

In other words, when we say "Primary documents are useful, but like all sources, limited. They are helpful and useful, but not God's word," we mean more than that -- we mean that *history* is a constant and open process of figuring out how documents are useful and limited. This "conclusion"/"assumption" is always changing.

I'm sure you know all this (especially as an autobiographer!), but I thought it might help to hear it from someone who deals with it every day.

As these conversations will continue on this  blog

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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