When I tell people about the Facing Project, they often say, “Oh, it’s like an oral history project.”
“Sure,” I say, not really knowing exactly what an oral history project is. Well instead of continuing not to know J.R., my co-founder of the project, and I are taking it upon ourselves to learn about the tradition and execution of oral histories.
So I’m reading Studs Terkel’s autobiography, Touch and Go. Terkel won a Pulitzer for his book The Good War, which is an oral history of World War Two.
He was in his 90s when he wrote Touch and Go and so far it’s filled with rambling references of people and topics that I’m not familiar with, but I’m enjoying his philosophy of writing about the average Joe.
Here’s how his autobiography begins: “I have, after a fashion, been celebrated for having celebrated the lives of the uncelebrated among us; for lending voice to the face in the crowd.”
Terkel is more interested in other people than himself, so it will be interesting to see how the rest of his autobiography goes. He made it his life’s work to shine a light and give voice to those we often take for granted.
Another passage seemed appropriate to share this Memorial Day. He writes:
“Who are they, these etceteras of history, hardly worth a footnote? Who are they of whom the bards have seldom sung?
Bertolt Becht, in a series of questions, put it this way:
Who built the Seven Gates of Thebes. . .?
When the Chinese Wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch?
When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army?
When the Armada sank, we read that King Philip wept.
Were there no other tears?
That’s what I believe oral history is about. It’s about those who shed those tears. Or laughed that other laugh, during those rare moments of rebellious triumph. Consider some of these heroes of our day…
Memorial Day is a day where we celebrate the uncelebrated, those who shed those other tears, and laughed those other laughs.
To all of the men and women serving our country, Thank You. You all deserve to have a writer like Studs Terkel writing your life story.