Black Women Oral History Project
Reviewed by: Asma N.
Review started: February 14, 2021
Review finished: April 29, 2021
Data and Sources
- Online archive of digitized materials
- Sources include digital images, audio, transcripts, and biographies from 1976 to 1981
- Research Guides on the Black Women Oral History Project and African American Women
- The Black Women Oral History project conducted interviews with senior Black women of cultural distinctions in literature and politics for example
- 72 women were interviewed about their backgrounds, careers, accomplishments, traditions, and identity (race and gender)
- Oral histories were transcribed and digitized, and biographical content was written to accompany each
- The Black Women Oral History Project presents information through digital exhibitions and viewers
- Biographic copy information on interviewees
- Research Guides
Digital Tools Used to Build It
- The Harvard Library Viewer
- Hollis for Archival Discovery (powered by ArchivesSpace)
- English (primary language)
The Black Women Oral History Project is a digitized biographical collection about incomparable women like June Jordan, Florynce Kennedy, Pauli Murray, and Dorothy West and their contributions to American culture. Each woman featured was interviewed between 1976 and 1981, and transcripts of their oral histories have been digitized for online exhibitions by Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library.
Some archival pages contain subtle limits on the viewership of certain material. For example, an archival page for activist, lawyer, and spiritual leader, Pauli Murray carries users to Harvard’s archival repository, Hollis, which outlines collection details that address access restrictions and governing use, which determine what and how much information is available at a time.
The Black Women Oral History Project made me think about the preoccupation with technology in oral history and how, because of it, we’re able to interact with first-hand accounts of memory despite the systemic and citational obstacles that made it difficult at different points in American history.
I found the least amount of restriction to the transcripts of Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West.
First, I was taken to a Viewer page for West, which simulates an online experience that I associate with a museum. It’s isolated (there wasn’t a waiting room or queue from my observation), quiet, and the original transcript appears in good condition with supportive modalities for its display. I had a purposeful and uncomplicated engagement with the material and without ads and brand content for the collection.
I also ‘returned’ from West’s Viewer page with information about the genesis of the project. The first is that it was assembled by institutional and philanthropic partnerships, and chaired by Black women oral historians, which solicited from me two thoughts.
The first was about the cultural traditions of Black women and how it is used to facilitate memory in this project. The Black Women Oral History Project is responsive to the citational and systemic obstacles to Black women’s oral histories by locating, recording, and directly attributing the voice of Black women to their experience in text (and image).
It is also a narrative memory project, accomplishing this from within the Western academy. It made me contemplate whether this relationship is apparent and valuable to the user and their perusal of the collection—which is my second thought. It is painfully commonplace to misconstrue subject with subjugation, which disproportionately inflates the relational role and presence of power as seen in cinema, museums, and the Western intellectual centers that record experience in America. Voices pushed to the margins have been lost or dislocated from their contributions and narratives by and within the academy before. However, the project’s methods, administered by Black women biographers and historians, read as responsive to what’s complex about entrusting memory to institutions of all distinctions.
The historians of the project appear—in text—to address the anxiety about trust in West’s transcripts by following her sparkly flow and contributions. The dialogue isn’t filled with leading questions or those with fidelity to the historical context at the expense of the subject. An example can be found on seq. 15 of the Viewer, where West recalls a memory at the time of the interview (which is held over tea) with project biographer and cultural figure, Genii Guinier. West explains how she became aware of herself in an anecdote about “milk” and “white coffee” in London. The dialogue eventually segues into the memory behind her text, The Wedding, which narrativizes Black middle class sensibilities and how racial complexion can predicate that membership in the American context. The “milk” memory, which is extended into “white coffee,” doubles as a cultural metaphor that Guinier seems to access through her membership as a Black woman herself. Guinier’s methods and the potential use of her insider voice help to express the unsubtle dimensions behind this dual memory about experience and culture. It’s less about Guinier’s co-signs and more about how her methods enable us to see what might have gone unexplained or objectified by biographers and historians without cultural membership at the time of interviews.
The women featured in the collection dedicated most of their careers to social justice and American cultural centers. Some women began their work as authors, poets, and so forth based on personal motivations that became essential to critical causes outside of them. Some figures came into parts of experience and acclaim in the opposite direction of that or through a combination of both. In any case, what truly distinguished them, in and apart of American culture, is located in their recollections and responses that capture their subjectivities. As West wrote, “I am rather a reticent sort, but I am intensely interested in everything that goes on about me” (seq. 9).