Last month I revealed my love for "History as seen by the 'average' person." I told about some of the historical programs I do from that viewpoint. One of those historical programs I just did was followed by the announcement that next month the group would be looking at and writing their oral histories.
They got it right.
(Warning: This month's article is "text-y." To help you scan the ideas I've resorted to
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For too long history was viewed as something only about famous people or huge looks at historical events. The only problem is that's not really "where the rubber meets the road." That common saying provides a perfect example of what I mean.
I live in Michigan, a state that for roughly a century has been intertwined in the auto industry. People like Henry Ford and union leaders like Walter Reuther are important. The Industrial Age and the role of the automobile are important, too. BUT, but, but... (Sounds like a motor, doesn't it?) There's so much more to help us realize what the auto industry means in our own personal lives.
I mentioned Walter Reuther as an example, but his wife, May, had a more personal view of the attempts on his life and also died with him in the same plane crash. She and members of the Ford family don't really qualify as "the 'average' person", but it gets us a bit closer to taking our eyes off the famous names of history and inside a "huge historical event."
Here in Michigan the auto industry touches everyone directly or indirectly so much that there's yet another common saying here that starts "When General Motors sneezes..." How that sentence is finished apparently has included everyone from "the nation" to "Madison Avenue" to "Detroit", but I've heard it most often as "Michigan gets a cold." Because of our state's huge dependence on all three of the major U.S. based auto companies, we keep hearing about the need for diversification, but we're still far from it.
George Santayana said, "Those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it" -- another common saying. Bring it to the homes of any Michigan family who has worked for the auto industry and you start to see the importance of "History as seen by the 'average' person."
- Will there be differences between the family who had a salaried employee and a family who had an assembly line worker? Yes, but there will also be some amazingly similar concerns and benefits.
- Will there be differences between someone who lived through the boom days in a town like Pontiac and someone living there today? Definitely. They are almost totally different worlds.
- What about the families who lived through the two weeks of the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37? There are major differences of point of view. I'm not going to give links -- there are so many! --, but if you Google "Flint Auto Riot" you can find a good introduction to the topic.
- While you're at it, check to see how long a family was involved in the auto industry and if there has been a moving away or staying with it for younger family members as they choose their own careers.
- General Motors used to be nicknamed Generous Motors. Try saying "Generous Motors" as a conversation and historical memory sparker.
- Ask your oldest family members what they remember about specific times and events.
- From older times we have journals and letters.
- If possible, make a video of them talking about it so the person's voice and manner also are preserved. Thank heavens video might preserve something lost in a world of email, tweets, and texting.
- Of course the trick is to preserve such audiovisual history in a world that goes from 16mm to VCR to DVD to . . . I just hope "the Cloud" and places like YouTube continue to be accessible because current history is being preserved in a way dependent on technology.
Other place-related memories:
I've been using Michigan's auto industry as an example of "History as seen by the 'average' person", but in places like Pennsylvania it might be steel, for Miami it might be tourism, while for rural areas it might be farming or ranching. Look at what is special in an area. I'm currently working with playwright, Jacqueline Salter, towards her premiere of "Business with Friends." I look forward to directing her play that started as a one-act called "Blacklisted" within a trio of plays about the entertainment industry. "Business with Friends" actually is more than just the way Hollywood was affected by the House Un-American Activities Committee. As the play's subtitle says: It's Not Personal, It's Just Business. Southern California in the 20th century was the quick, mainly white, fox that jumped from silent films to talkies to color to becoming ruled by business to . . .
Of all things, a blog called Writers Who Kill also looked at the way to present history. The writer of that blog about mystery and crime fiction lives in Washington, D.C. It's a town loaded with historical sites and museums, but she found it was necessary to look at specific incidents and people to bring history alive. She found that history as dates and memorization and encyclopedic facts were a turn-off, whether in taking a young relative to see the city or in writing fiction. (The comments on that specific blog post are also revealing about how Teaching to the Test works against developing historical interest and what has worked.)
Speaking of what works with children, the Magic Treehouse series is mentioned. I could add the American Girl books and some of the other series it inspired like Dear America. What those books have in common is putting the reader into the thick of history as it happened with a young character having some differences due to where they were in history, but still having so much in common with the reader. As a bit of my own history, I remember a review when the American Girl books first appeared. It criticized the books as static and uninteresting like the dolls. Prior to that series, you could hardly pay young readers to take a book of historical fiction off the shelf! I wonder what that reviewer would do if given a chance to get in a time machine and buy into the company producing American Girl products?
For my own part I'm going to close with a repeat of my favorite book for inspiring a look back at both your own and others view of oral history. Donald Davis's book, Telling Your Own Stories, is fun and an easy way to start. You can also click Oral History on my sidebar for other posts on this topic. For additional topics to use in exploring Oral History, go to my website for Story Starter Suggestions.
Yes, YOUR History Is Important.