Summer Institute Reflection Series | Using Oral Oral History to Uncover the Hidden Narrative

Front cover of  The Earth, the City, and the Hidden Narrative of Race , by Carl Anthony

Front cover of The Earth, the City, and the Hidden Narrative of Race, by Carl Anthony

By Jourdan Sayers, Summer Institute 2015 Alumnus

When I was on staff at New Village Press, Carl Anthony’s manuscript for The Earth, the City, and the Hidden Narrative of Race landed on my desk. This was Fall 2015, just a couple months after completing the Summer Institute in Oral History at CCOHR, and Carl’s story struck me as not just one that I needed, but one that might help countless others recognize the power of their own stories in constructing a forward-looking story about humanity’s and the planet’s future. In his manuscript, Carl had shared what was essentially a memoir and a treatise, but at moments in the original manuscript these two elements read as disjointed. The rest of the press’s staff agreed that both his story and knowledge needed to be proliferated, so we got Carl on the phone.

When talking with Carl, you immediately get the sense that he is full of wisdom and that this wisdom is deeply embodied. He’s gathered knowledge through everyday life, and importantly, his everyday life has been that of a young black boy in segregated Philadelphia, then an activist and non-traditional student in Protest Era Harlem, a self-guided travelling student of architecture in West Africa, and leader of the Environmental Justice movement in California’s Bay Area. He’s also been a brother, father, mentor, and friend to many. His wisdom cannot be divorced from these experiences, so we decided to embark on a cross-country phone-based oral history project in which we—Carl, my colleague Erasmia (Mia) Gorla, and myself—would together identify the linkages between Carl’s experiences and insights, traversing the interpersonal, political, academic, and cosmological.

The structural editing and narrative enriching that ensued included the addition of an opening framing chapter called “Origins.” It begins:

The year of 1963 was significant for the civil rights movement. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. had been arrested and jailed for protesting segregation and had written his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” All over the world, people’s eyes were fixed on their television screens as Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor directed firefighters and police to use fire hoses and police dogs against African American children who were peacefully seeking to integrate Kelly Ingram Park. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech were the most high-profile events, but there was local organizing and education going on all over, including in New York City, where I was working with the Harlem Education Project (HEP). Nevertheless, several activists took time off from their organizing, boycotts, and protests in New York to join my brother, Lewie, in taking youth from HEP on a five-hundred-mile journey to Acadia National Park in Maine to see a solar eclipse.

Lewie was sixteen months older than me. Growing up, we were about the same size, so people often thought we were twins. But I knew better. He could always run faster and fight harder than me. He had a way with girls I couldn’t even imagine having. He could do math problems that I didn’t know how to do. I remember once when I was in second grade, he punched me because I didn’t know how to do long division. For the most part, though, he looked after me when we were out in the world together and did what he could to soften the situation when our dad treated me harshly. 

Lewie had done coursework at Drexel Institute of Technology and Haverford College, but had not completed his degree. Still, he managed by age of twenty-five to finagle his way into a job as an assistant to Dr. Martin Schwarzschild, a famous astrophysicist and professor at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Studies. They were studying the evolution of the sun and the birth and death of stars. 

Lewie came up to New York from time to time, and we enjoyed long conversations while walking. We would walk for hours—sometimes from the Lower East Side to Harlem and back. For some time, I urged Lewie to join me in New York, but he was not much interested in moving nor in the civil rights movement in general. Finally, when he learned that we had organized the tutoring program bringing students from colleges and universities throughout the region to help young people in Harlem with their studies, he agreed to come; he loved to share what he was learning about the sunspots, stars, planets, and galaxies with anyone who would listen. 

As a special activity, Lewie decided to organize the field trip to Maine so kids from Harlem could view the rare and amazing phenomenon of a total solar eclipse. A total eclipse occurs when the moon passes between sun and earth, completely blocking the sun. About six times per century, a total eclipse of the sun is visible in rare locations within the United States. Lewie filled up three vehicles (including a panel truck and a Volkswagen bus) with young teenagers and adult chaperones. One was a young Stokely Carmichael,[1] who was working with HEP. On July 20, 1963, the mixed-race group of fifteen young people from Harlem arrived at Maine’s Acadia National Park in a three-vehicle caravan after a five-hundred-mile journey. Lewie felt this would be a powerful and unforgettable experience for them. It may have been memorable as well for the New Englanders who noticed the uncommon caravan along its way.[2]

As the silhouette of the moon began to edge across the face of the sun, members of the caravan had been forewarned to look away. If you looked directly at the sun during an eclipse, you would damage your eyes. The young explorers hastily mounted several homemade pinhole cameras and crude homemade filtering devices (made of exposed photographic film) to watch the remarkable event. As the eclipse began, the temperature at Acadia National Park quickly dropped by twenty to thirty degrees. The wind began to howl; the flowers in the fields closed; and the birds abruptly stopped singing. Waves of alternating shadows and light passed across the land. Then, it became “night.” Stars twinkled brilliantly in the sky. A ring of fire surrounded the black disk of the moon as it passed directly over the face of the sun. 

Soon, the eclipse was over. The wind ceased; the flowers opened, turning back to face the sun; and birdsong resumed.

What I love about this section is that it breaks chronology to contextualize moments within each other and speaks to the fullness of human experience, including the profound influences of the people around us. In 1963, people all over the country were engaged in Black community building and civil rights struggles, and Carl was doing his part in Harlem. Activists kept fighting and also kept coming together in awe and reflection. The Earth kept revolving around the Sun, and the moon kept revolving around the Earth, and occasionally these paths still intersected. In the initial manuscript, the eclipse scene was written as a rather small event, with much “larger” events obscuring its importance, but in our second interview with Carl, he made a connection that we couldn’t ignore:

I would say that during the 1980s, particularly the second half of the 1980s, I increasingly experienced disconnect between the kind of vision that I was pursuing for myself in my professional work and the actual reality of what these images were suggesting to me at both the subconscious level and then, even more, at a conscious level. And this produced in me a really great crisis. [...O]ne of the realities that I had to confront was the way in which I had internalized the racism that had kept me locked into a vision of myself that was self-marginalizing. So I didn’t, for example, think much about the larger universe, even though my experience of the universe went way back to the beginning of my elementary school experience in the 1940s, and my brother’s actual interest in astrophysics also rubbed off on me — we were always in constant argument. But as I got more involved in the Civil Rights movement and whatnot I had tended to disregard some of those things. And so I conceptualized myself as a person who had been discriminated against and whose ancestors had been enslaved, and I was not really as clear as I could be about how I was carrying that burden by actually articulating that to myself. So what happened was I experienced this real great crisis and I began to think, I needed to conceptualize myself in a different way. And I saw how much the African American people, along with all the people on the planet, were the end product of 13.7 billion years, and this little narrative that came out of the slavery and exploitation of people was really only a small part of a much larger story. And I needed to reclaim that story as being a central motif in my own development.

As the three of us reflected on the importance of this cosmological orientation, we realized we needed to bring readers on the journey of how Carl developed this perspective, even if those gears had been put into motion back when Carl, much younger, couldn’t yet know how these experiences would shape his reflections as an elder. Mia and I had not thought of asking Carl specifically about the eclipse trip, but using oral history methods—sticking to open-ended questions; encouraging tangents, asides, and breaks from linearity; doing our research as interviewers before the interview but saving the fact-checking and date-chasing for afterwards—made space for these kinds of explorations and unanticipated connections, ultimately enriching the book’s narrative.

 

**The Earth, the City, and the Hidden Narrative of Race launches in New York City at the New School on November 15, 2017, 6-8PM, and at Bluestockings Bookstore on November 16, 2017, at 7pm. **


Jourdan Sayers is a first-year doctoral student in Environmental Psychology at The Graduate Center, CUNY. He has worked at New Village Press and the Design Trust for Public Space. His research interests include queer geographies, community formation, and everyday solidarity economies.