Oral History Amidst A National Crisis
Over the past few months the novel coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, has dramatically changed the way people across the world are living their lives, the future of the global economy, and the understanding of how a contagious virus can affect people all over the world. The coronavirus originated in the province of Wuhan, China and over the span of only three months, it has infected people from over 180 countries. At the time I am writing this, New York City has more cases alone than any other country in the world.
This virus has also forced many Americans to work from home, and subsequently forced students all across the country to conduct most of their classwork at home. For those of us enrolled in HIS 240: Vietnam War Stories this semester, a class based on the documentation of oral history, technology has proven to be the saving grace. Technology has allowed millions of people to work from home and stay in touch with colleagues, and it has allowed students in classes like ours to conduct oral history interviews with as much face to face interaction as possible without being able to physically meet in person.
The oral history process is a task that involves a lot of work outside of the actual interview process, such as transcription of the interviews, organization of content from the interviews and, if necessary, follow-up interviews. While this pandemic has made the latter virtually impossible, technology has made it possible to complete the other parts of the process. However, the one major downside to performing these tasks during the pandemic is the newly implemented policy of “social distancing”. This policy was imposed in early March, it is the reason students cannot return to school, and workers cannot go back to work. In theory social distancing ensures that the virus will not spread rapidly, but the consequences of this policy are still relatively unknown in terms of how it will affect the local and national economy, or the mental state of those of us now confined to our homes. In terms of oral history, social distancing makes the interactions between the interviewers and the narrators seem incredibly distant.
An example of this is the interview that I and my partner Corbin Landrum conducted with Vietnam veteran Gary Bell, who graciously agreed to share his story with the class. By definition, I have “met” Gary Bell. During our two-hour interview he told detailed stories about his time in Vietnam, his experience coming home, and the long lasting effects the war has had on his life. While I now know all of this information about him, and even spent a considerable amount of time training to give interviews and writing out specific questions, I have never seen Gary Bell in person. I have no idea what his voice sounds like except through the speakers on my laptop. I have no idea how tall he is, what his mannerisms are like, how he uses his body language, and I was never able to shake his hand to thank him for participating in such an important aspect of the true recording of oral history. Even though he told his experience to me through his own words, because it was told through technology, his story still feels as though it is a relic of history, rather a story told by a human being. This is all due to the crisis of Covid-19.