An Effective Oral History Interview with African Americans

by Char McCargo Bah | Jul 2, 2009

Many genealogists are under the impression that all oral history interviews are the same. In most cases they are when you are asking questions using the five adverbs: who, what, when, how and where. But for most ethnic groups, you must know about their cultural norms and taboos in order to have an effective interview.

When interviewing African Americans, you will be dealing with three major groups: the elderly rural population, the elderly educated population and the non-elderly population.

The rural elderly African American population born before the 1940s believed that children were to be seen and not heard. This group in many cases does not openly discuss intimate relationships with men and women especially those outside their age group. This group comes from an era where adults were treated respectfully. The interviewer must be aware of the cultural norms and the taboos of this group to do an effective interview. You must have established a relationship with this population prior to an interview, and contact the person several weeks or even months before conducting the interview. Address the interviewee by using Mr., Mrs. or Ms. It clearly shows respect for that individual. Have brief telephone conversations with the person about their family members and life in general. Once you think your conversations are getting a little longer each time you talk to them, start asking specific questions about some of their family history.

After you have established some connection, then you want to start some genealogical research prior to setting up your oral history interview. You want to provide your interviewee with census information about their family. Additional documents like the interviewee's parents' marriage license will impress the interviewee - making the interviewee more open to family questions during the interview.

Now it is time for you to set up an appointment with your interviewee. By this time, you would know what type of interview equipment you will be using to interview the person. For the elderly population, I find that it is better to use a small tape recorder. Using video equipment is a major distraction for this population. They are usually conscious of their appearance, or they are afraid to say something wrong in front of the camera.

When you arrive for your interview, the interviewee is more receptive if you bring a small gift. This gift could be a house plant or something small that shows your appreciation for your interviewee for taking their time to do the interview. Right from the beginning, you'll know how the interviewee feels about you, especially from African Americans raised in the south. If you are invited to the kitchen table then you've been accepted as family. The formal living room is usually designed for guest but the kitchen is the area for family conversations, particularly the elderly southern population and those who have a southern background. After you have interviewed the person, stay in touch with the interviewee. Remember your interviewee on their special day - birthday or the anniversary date when you interviewed them. Sending them a card will truly establish a lasting relationship.

The educated elderly population also has its cultural norms. Education is a great accomplishment and the ones that hold professional titles want you to address them by their professional titles, for example, Ph.Ds and M.Ds. This population does not need to have a preexisting relationship with the interviewer prior to the interview. They usually do not have time to engage in many telephone calls. This group will probably need one or two initial telephone calls before setting up an interview. But be aware, you must have prepared yourself by doing preliminary research before interviewing this population - know some information about their family and the environment they live in. Being professional is very important to this group and going to the interview ill prepared, will only yield little information for the interviewee. This group usually maintains a semi-formal relationship unlike the rural elderly population. It is less likely you will be invited to the kitchen table. At the end of your interview, do not forget to send them a thank you card.

This non-elderly African American group grew up exploring the world and asking numerous questions. They are less likely to be addressed in a formal way and less likely to have strict cultural norms and cultural taboos. This group is more like mainstream America and is more likely to entertain numerous interview questions.

Are Oral History interviews the same for all people? I believe that an effective Oral History interview must be based on the interviewer's knowledge of the interviewee's culture. The question an interviewer asks must be based on the interviewee's cultural beliefs and the interviewer must be careful not to offend the interviewee when it pertains to cultural taboos.


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