Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Robert Coles, October 24, 1974. Interview B-0002. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The uses of oral history

Coles discusses his fear that the field of oral history would become too institutionalized and that, consequently, it would not live up to its full potential. Ultimately, Coles argues that oral history should do not only promote understanding about the experiences of certain groups of people, but rather that it should be used to provoke some sort of social change.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Robert Coles, October 24, 1974. Interview B-0002. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Because the direction is going into something else. This field is going to become as instutionalized as all those dull, pain in the neck historians that we all can't stand, we're sitting there going over the diaries of the nobles of the fifteenth century and their mistrisses, called ladies-in-waiting or whatever. I mean, there is the same tendency. All institutionalized developments have this sinful side to them. Jeremiah 8 or 9 talks about the brutishness of knowledge. And we are capable of that with that machine and with what we will do with it and we will start getting as arrogant as the next guy. First of all, we will mark those we are rebelling against, where they are a pain in the neck. I know some of them, you all do, and I agree with you, some of you who may have that feeling. Then it will go into something else and we will start getting into techniques, just the way you got this guy in Vienna who was kind of a little nut saying, you know, God, and he came up with all these ideas. He in one moment, called it "a mythological theory of instincts." That's what Freud said about the twenty-four volumns, the basic writings. And the next thing you know, there's this international Messianic movement with organizations and accreditations and it goes on and on. Well, that is the way it will flesh. And that is what happens as things get into something else. Well, O.K., you can say, "We've got to do that. We've got to correct against madmen and anarchists and kooks and everything else. We've got to get discipline, rigor." And after all, this is a university, God save us, we know that, and there has to be a program PhD. in this and LSMFT and everything else, and get all this going … well, of course, but that isn't, if you will excuse the expression, what has that got to do with human existence? It has to do with an ark of human existence. I don't think that a migrant should be held responsible for all that. I think that if you want to go and talk with some migrants moving up here from their way to Lake Okeechobee to the great state of Maine, and picking some tobacco leaves in the eastern part of North Carolina near Wilmington, you are entitled to go there and spend a few weeks without a machine and they began to understand a few things about yourself and and maybe feel very awkward and nervous and maybe even acknowledge some anger toward those people. No one acknowledges anger toward migrant farm workers who is a card carrying liberal. No one has said that they are a pain in the neck and they drive me out of my mind and they won't say anything and furthermore, at times they are even arrogant with me, in their own way. And hospitable and crude. Crudity cannot be acknowledged among migrant farm workers. Only among working class whites, like Archie Bunker. You have a question?
Yes sir. I think I see a deeper confusion than you do, because I would like to dispense with a lot of the institutional repression that you are talking about, but it strikes me that there is something in human beings, apart from machinery and institutions like state universities, which is repressive too, because, you know, you go in and you see these people and you make, I assume, a very sincere effort to talk with them and know something about them and give them something of yourself and have an experience which should be better for both of you, and then you write a book, which is an institution, and the book is written to make other people aware of these people that we ignore. But, I am assuming that you are hoping that we will get some institutions cranking up to go see about them. Or is your goal more or less just … you don't want us just to know that there is a plight out there, you want us to do something about the plight.
Well, this is a philosophical problem for me, because I see nothing but chaos, misery and tragedy in the world and my own ways of coping with that are repressive, you know, I put those on somebody else. So, where do you or I get off trying to tell somebody else what to do about his problems?
Well, I would suggest, if I may be presumptious, that you don't only see chaos and misery, that you also see nice things, and you know some nice people and there are times when you feel that you are not exactly the worst person in the world, and anyone who is sitting here going through what you are going through and describing it, clearly is not a murderer or a thief, in a way, I mean, you know, you have a conscience and you worry about the world and you worry about this. So, that also has to be pointed out. Now, as far as what I do, I do this in order to make … yes, to write books, I do it not only to make other people hopefully understand a little, to help them to understand, I also do it in order to advance my person … I do have some need, if you want to call it need, I want to write. I've always wanted to do that. If a psychoanalyst gets great pleasure in going into my mother and father and all that as basis for it, so be it. I can only pray for their souls, but that would be one part of it. And the other part of it is I do it to feather my cap for a writer to get books … I mean, as a personal … and you can go into all those words, egoism, narcissism, you know, and it goes on and on, which is certainly part of this. Drive, need, all those words. I would hope that there is a political dimension to this, it isn't only a matter of understanding, it is a matter of political and social change. One is interested in seeing these things lead to a social revolution, maybe even. God forbid, even the end of the existing system. So, there's that ….
I would be interested in a social revoltuion, too, but I just don't want to see another person get hurt because of some idea that I have allegiance to. I'm just sick of doing that.
Well, you're right and many of us who worry about the difficulties are not the kinds of people that lead the Long Marches or maybe even start the American Revolution. We're not the ones that go dumping tea or … to make this a respectable conversation … we are not the ones that go dumping tea in the Boston harbor. We are the ones who write pamphlets at best. Or books. As far as the Nixon tape thing, there are many people in this country who aren't interested in the Nixon tape thing. They don't read Anthony Lewis in the New York Times I assure you. They are not particularly interested in what the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books, the New Republic or whatever has to say about the Watergate business. In fact, they haven't got the slightest interest in Watergate at all. Most of the people that I have worked with would fall in that category. What they are interested in is the fact that it is very hard to buy food now, because it is getting higher and higher and the dam bills are getting worse and worse, and many of them are having to worry if they are going to lose their jobs and many of them have never had very many jobs. And they are not going through what we are going through, namely, you know, reading the transcripts and this Daniel Ellsberg, who to them, I assure you, is a non-descript, isn't known at all. And they are not thinking about, "Well, gee, I read this guy in So-and-So Journal, and oh, my, I really think that he has got it right on."
What I mean was maybe a fear even more. Hearing that somebody had been taped, and you know, this ….
No fear that I have seen, yet, really. No fear. Fear of, not particularly me initially, although … fear of where the hell this is all going to end. I mean, with their own lives. You know, when you are facing the very real fears that these people are living with in Appalachia and among the sharecroppers in Mississippi, among tenant farmers, among migrants, among urban working class people, worrying about, you know, "Will I get there in time? Will I be docked ten minutes? Five episodes of this and I lose my job even by the union contract." With those kinds of fears, you know, one doesn't have to worry about this kooky doctor and his machine. I mean, he's on whatever trip he's on, but believe me, there are other things to be worried about.