Oral History and the Comparative Experience of Empire

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 9:00 AM
Balcony K (New Orleans Marriott)
Ellen R. Boucher, Amherst College
This paper explores the benefits of using oral history to teach the lived impact of empire: the varied ways in which imperial rule transformed the lives of colonized and colonizer alike, and continues to shape individual and collective worldviews into the present day. It will offer techniques for integrating oral history into comparative empire courses, and will also present a model for a seminar that uses interviews to examine the influence of empire in the post-imperial era. Finally, it will provide a list of websites that host free, streaming oral history interviews or transcripts related to the imperial experience.

Since its inception as an academic discipline, oral history has aimed to record the voices of people on the margins. It remains useful for drawing connections between the impact of empire on marginalized groups across different sites. For instance, what points of commonality were there between the social conditions and cultural lives of American Indians on the Oklahoma plains and Aboriginal Australians during the mid-twentieth century? How might students contextualize these interviews in order to articulate the social and political forces that distinguished the Indigenous experience in these regions?

Equally compelling are the intersections between oral history and memory studies, which provide a platform for interrogating what empire meant – and continues to mean – to individuals who were invested in sustaining imperial rule or in opposing it. Having students explore the personal narratives of low-level participants in the Indian independence movement or the Vietnam War can open up discussions of how anti-colonial nationalism was conceptualized “on the ground,” and how it was refracted through other forms of collective belonging, like gender or religion. Located at the ever-shifting divide between history and memory, past and present, oral history remains a fascinating, if underused, source on the complexities of the imperial experience.

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