Miranda Mims, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture 2015-11-23 12:40:00
Schomburg’s Oral History Project on Black LGBTQ Individuals Collecting oral histories can be a delicate process. Concerns about personal information made available to the public are weighed against filling voids in the historical narrative. Many black individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) closely guard their private lives. But their stories have historical significance and research value, and our approach as archivists should take into account these conflicting needs. Collecting Historical Narratives The oral history project Legend in My Living Room helps to fill the silence in the historical narrative of black LGBTQ individuals. The project is the result of a collaboration between the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL), and SAGE Harlem, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of older LGBT adults. Souleo Wright, project coordinator for SAGE Harlem, and Steven G. Fullwood, assistant curator of the NYPL Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division and founder of the In The Life Archives (ITLA), collected the personal narratives of thirteen LGBTQ individuals of African descent currently in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. The narratives are now a part of ITLA, which has a mission to document and preserve cultural materials produced by and about LGBTQ people of African descent and was founded to address the lack of documentation of nonheterosexual black life in libraries and archival repositories. The idea for Legend in My Living Room came about when SAGE members visited the Schomburg. While viewing programs, photographs, books, and ephemera, a SAGE member recognized himself in ITLA. Fullwood and Wright then spoke with SAGE members about historical gaps in ITLA and how to address these gaps. The success of Legends is largely due to Schomburg’s partnership with SAGE. During the 1970s and 1980s, many members of the LGBTQ community were lost to AIDS and cancer, and with those losses went their personal stories. The bulk of Schomburg’s ITLA material is composed of secondary resources (such as books and magazines), but there is substantial research value in having firsthand accounts from individuals who came of age during a particular period or event. Working with an organization like SAGE, which already has strong ties with the LGBTQ community, was pivotal in connecting with those individuals who could tell their stories. Building Trust Wright and Fullwood thought the response would be enthusiastic when they first conceived the idea, but they met some resistance. “So many of the participants suffered a lot of pain in the past around their sexual orientation that having to tell that story or revisit those memories could be traumatic,” said Wright, who was new to SAGE when the project was in the beginning stages. For Wright, building trust with SAGE community members was key in assuring them that their stories matter. When the project officially began, members of SAGE were hesitant to make their stories part of the public record and available for research by anyone. One participant agreed to be interviewed but then declined, stating that his story was too painful to share. Wright stressed to interviewees that by contributing to the project, they were not only contributing to history, they were writing the narrative themselves. In the end, trust is what brought many of the participants to the table. Celebrating the Stories To commemorate Legend in My Living Room, Schomburg held a reception for the participants that was open to the general public. Contributors used listening stations to hear their recordings for the first time and received instant feedback from others who listened to their interviews. They were pleased to see how their stories were captured, processed, and made available to the public in a fast and positive way, which Fullwood and Wright felt was the crowning success of the project. These women and men felt celebrated by their community and were excited that their personal lives could provide inspiration for others. The interviews are now available for research at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
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