The Columbia Center for Oral History Research (CCOHR) is proud to present the Summer Institute Reflection Series, a platform for all Summer Institute alumni to engage with how the topics and methods covered during Summer Institutes have influenced their work. The bi-annual Summer Institute brings together oral historians, scholars, activists, and others for two weeks of advanced training in the theory and practice of oral history. Reflections can take any number of forms, from essay to collage to multimedia. CCOHR encourages all who are interested to contact Sam Lutzker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Rozanne Gooding Silverwood,
Summer Institute 2017 Alumnus and Oral History Master of Arts Student
On April 29, 2015, my mother passed away. On that same day my daughter received an email informing her that she had been accepted into Columbia University’s Oral History Master’s Program (OHMA). Needless to say, she delivered her news with a complicated burst of joy and grief. That my own email inbox remained empty only added to her awkwardness, as we had both applied to the program. My official acceptance into the program’s BA/MA program would not arrive for another week, due to some bureaucratic snafu. But there were no hard feelings. I had my hands full with settling my mother’s estate and tending to my grief. Besides, I required two more years of undergraduate studies before I could officially begin as a full-time OHMA student.
A month before completing my undergraduate degree, I received an email from The Columbia Center for Oral History Research (CCOHR) announcing its 2017 Summer Institute. Although I had planned on taking the summer off before jumping into full-time graduate studies with OHMA, after reading the Institute’s theme Oral History and Aging: Transmitting Life Stories of Being and Becoming Across Cultures and Generations I immediately drafted my letter of application. Fortunately, there were no bureaucratic snafus, and I received the acceptance email within days. The workshop topics had excited me enough to abandon the fantasy of a laid-back summer. Such workshops as “Life Stories Told Near the End of Life” and “Oral History without Memory” suggested that I might finally make sense of my experiences with my mother in the year before she had passed away. As my mother’s health and memory declined, I had happily sat and listened to her stories and songs. But the heartbreak was unbearable for her and for me when she would encounter gaps in her memory. Although the experience had been fraught with intense and complicated emotions, when I applied for the Summer Institute I had assumed enough time had passed that I would be ready to examine my mother’s final year through the lens of oral history.
The Institute’s guest speakers, experts on aging and memory from the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center and oral history’s rock stars, like Alessandro Portelli, Linda Shopes and Doug Boyd presented the latest scholarship of their respective fields. And the Institute’s participants came from all over the globe and represented a wide spectrum of oral history interests and genres. But as engaging as the daily sessions were, I would drag myself home at the end of the day and collapse in bed, not so much out mental exhaustion, although there was that too, but from the emotional weight of memory and loss. I missed my mother terribly. And I kicked myself for the lost opportunity to preserve my mother’s stories. I began to question whether I was even cut out to be an oral historian.
Fortunately, I found my footing by the second week. And I recovered my shaken confidence when Nyssa Chow presented her multimedia oral history project Intersecting Histories: The Story of Her Skin (for which she received the 2017 Jeffrey H. Brodsky Oral History Award). Ms. Chow breaks oral history frontiers with a format that combines audio recordings with film, still images and text. But her narrators, three generations of her Trinidadian matrilineage, pushed me to think beyond my limited concept of individual life histories to see how oral history can be intergenerational and inclusive. Ms. Chow’s presentation, in concert with all that I had been learning in the summer institute, helped me see that my mother’s memories had never been lost, they were still living—embodied within photographs, letters, archival documents, and even in the voices and bodies of her descendants.
Following the CCOHR Summer Institute, and before beginning full-time studies at OHMA, I took off the remainder of the summer for some self-care. I spent some of that time in the basement, sorting through the plastic bins and cardboard boxes of my mother’s genealogy material—family Bibles, photographs and assorted archival documents extending back over seven generations. I am now putting these visual texts and documents into conversation with the recorded memories about my mother’s life and death as told to me by my three daughters and cousins. And since my eldest daughter is now a certified oral historian, she is helping me add my own voice to an intergenerational memoir that I hope to produce for my OHMA thesis. I know that my mother, as a genealogist and family historian, would be proud that her granddaughters and daughter have assumed the mantle of her legacy. And as I embark upon this precious fieldwork, I have OHMA and the CCOHR Summer Institute to thank for helping me recover not only my mother’s voice and memories, but my own.
Rozanne Gooding Silverwood, ethnographer, photographer and life-long learner comes to the OHMA 2017 cohort from the Columbia University School of General Studies. Graduating summa cum laude with an undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology, her research of her family’s archive of 19th century documents and genealogy records, literature and photographs culminated in an auto-ethnographic thesis on indigenous identity and belonging entitled “The Indigenous Uncanny: An Ethnography of Erasure and the Resurgence of Chickasaw Identity.” She has presented her work to both native and non-native audiences, at gatherings of her fellow citizens in Chickasaw Nation and at academic conferences concerned with public history.
Ms. Gooding Silverwood seeks to apply the skills and ethical perspectives from the OHMA program to a prospective project “What Makes Us Chickasaw?” By posing questions about indigenous identity to Chickasaw citizens and persons of African ancestry who are the descendents of Chickasaw Freedpeople she hopes to further dialogues about non-juridical forms of belonging and reparative pathways that might address the historic harms of her Chickasaw Nation’s slaveholding history.
Along with her continued research of indigenous issues, Ms. Gooding Silverwood's academic focus also extends to more personal projects, such as the one described above.