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Gain An Edge: Telling The Stories Of Our Nation’S History

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Dr Tracey Thompson

As the nation’s key centre of learning, University of The Bahamas offers higher education opportunities for Bahamians while also offering resources to explore the impact of our country’s rich history.

The university’s Oral and Public History Institute, guided by guest writer Dr Tracey Thompson paints a vibrant picture of our legacy.

Dr Tracey Thompson is a graduate in History of Yale University, the University of Saskatchewan, and the University of Toronto. Her interests centre on African and African Diaspora History and on Philosophy and Methodology of History.

She began working at University of The Bahamas in 1990 as Assistant Librarian for Oral History. Because of her passion for research and for preserving Bahamian history, in 2013 she was appointed director of “From Dat Time”: The Oral & Public History Institute at the University of The Bahamas. The mandate of “From Dat Time” is to document the historical experience of Bahamians and project it to the world.

What could be more pleasant than to sit with a community elder and to hear what people did and thought and talked about in days gone by? When you open your mind and spirit, what could be more inspiring than to learn of how people dreamed dreams for themselves, their children, and their communities and found ways to push past obstacles to make their dreams come true?

What could be more bruising than to learn of how people abused other people and destroyed the hopes of generations? If you sit and listen often enough, if you do it in line with certain standards and protocols, and if you have it in mind to test what you learn, to link it to information that you get from other sources, and to weave it all into as accurate a picture of some corner of the past as you can make it, then to listen and learn in this way amounts to doing Oral History.

In oral history, gaining knowledge is the goal, but relationship lies at the heart of the process of interviewing elders. Out of relationship – nowhere else – comes your story. Deepening that relationship, protecting the integrity of it, and acknowledging the weaknesses that might impair it are central to working successfully. There are certain skills to learn of a technical kind, having to do with recording interviews. There you want to make sure, if you work alone, that you really do know how to use your audio recording devices, because your project cannot survive the loss of sound. You want to make sure as well that you use two devices, because malfunctions and mistakes do happen.

In addition, in order to outfit yourself fully, there are skills to learn of an intellectual kind. Those skills mark the science, craft, and art of doing any branch of history. They have to do with acquainting yourself with scholarly and public conversations, framing questions, projecting and testing hypotheses, interrogating evidence, and presenting conclusions. But it is out of relationship – not out of technical or intellectual skill – that comes the network of people who will guide you to the individuals who can teach you what you want to know. Out of your relationship with the individual speaking on the porch comes your answers.

Doing oral history is hard work. It is not leisure and not play. Chasing elusive narrators can be toilsome. Interviewing elders, while fascinating, is draining. Transferring, organizing, labelling, and storing recorded data is tedious. Doing research in archives takes time. So does weighing data and integrating it into an extended narrative argument. Knowledge and skill are important, therefore, but so is patience: patience enough to work for hundreds of hours before pieces of a puzzle start to form a pattern. And everything that is done calls for precision.

The misspelled label, the forgotten citation, the careless inference – they waste time, waste energy, or undercut the integrity of the story.

Having said that, however, the time spent and the care taken feel worth it when you count the impact of the process and the value of the product. There is the exhilaration of making sense of what has taken place and why. There is the peace of seeing more clearly the collective story from which you emerge. There is the pleasure that comes from crafting a disciplined and well-told story. There is the satisfaction of helping to break public silence about people and times and places.

That silence suffocates us. It plays a part in separating us from one another. It plays a part in separating us from a moral order of justice, equity, civility and harmony. If so pernicious a silence should be broken, what can be more valuable to our community?

“Gain An Edge” is a weekly collaboration of the Lyford Cay Foundations, Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute and University of The Bahamas aimed at promoting a national dialogue on higher education. To share your thoughts, email gainanedge@tribunemedia.net.

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