Walking onto Ansonborough Field right around noon, I'm blinded by a wide, metallic glare. I know where the glare is coming from — the culprit is an Airstream trailer outfitted as a mobile recording booth — but I haven't yet seen it for myself. When I finally get close enough, and the glare slides up the side of the trailer until it disappears, I'm struck for a second. The Airstream is, of course, a nod to our post-2000 love of vintage design, in addition to being perfectly shaped for the purposes it will be put to shortly. "StoryCorps" is emblazoned on both sides in bright orange. Oral history projects rarely look this snazzy.
That's because they rarely are this snazzy. I hate to admit it, but when I think of oral history — which is, don't get me wrong, one of the most fascinating subjects out there — I usually think of large, older women with long gray hair and hippie clothing trekking out into Appalachia or, alternately, eager young grad students with clipboards knocking on doors in neighborhoods they'd never normally frequent. It has an academic, maybe even clinical connotation that is completely at odds with what it is in actuality. Oral history is just another word for storytelling, and that's about as mushy a subject as you can get. Along with visual art, storytelling is one of the most basic expressions of our humanity. And that is what StoryCorps and its MobileBooths have managed to remind us of. They've taken oral history out of the musty social sciences library and put it back, dusted off and de-cobwebbed, in the hands of everyday people.
First, some background. StoryCorps collects stories and conversations from people all across the country. They do this by bringing two or more people who know each other well into one of their mobile recording booths (the Airstream), or one of the permanent recording booths in New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta. The participants, aided by a trained facilitator, informally interview each other about anything they want to talk about — their childhoods, grandparents, hopes and dreams, or whatever other stories they'd like to explore. Once the storyteller and interviewer have finished their 40-minute recording session, participants walk away with a CD copy of their interview. They also have the option of signing a release form to allow the interview to be archived at the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center, and to be considered for broadcast on the radio.
If you've ever heard the StoryCorps segments that air on NPR's Morning Edition, you know the capacity this system has for helping people open up about things that are difficult to talk about in regular life. Grown children of parents with Alzheimer's ask those parents if they're afraid to die. Veterans discuss the horrors of war. Spouses remember the joys and challenges of life as newlyweds. Parents share their deepest hopes with their young children. "It's really special because you get people's voices, not just their words," says Virginia Lora, the MobileBooth's site supervisor and a former facilitator. "My favorite setup is often the people who don't know each other that well, who aren't close in everyday life, like a student with their favorite teacher. They can talk about things, ask questions. Usually the teacher is mentoring the student, so that role is different, but here, they can come in as equals."
"This gives you the chance to say something for the record," says facilitator Erin Dickey, who's arrived in Charleston with the Airstream and two other StoryCorps staff members from Arlington, Va., the previous stop on their tour. Dickey and the booth's other facilitator, Olivia Cueva, work the recording equipment and help guide the interview as needed, asking follow-up questions or requesting details when necessary. "Mostly what we're there for is any kind of support, making people feel comfortable right off the bat," Cueva says. "We're also there to build in context. People who know each other well, telling stories that they've told forever, might not feel like they have to mention people's names, things like that. We're there to fill in the gaps for someone listening way way down in the future." Knowing that — that someone, whether a family member or total stranger, could listen to these interviews 20 or 50 years from now — seems to give people permission to discuss the really important things, Dickey adds. Plus, it's a rare gift to spend that kind of quality time with another person. "It's therapeutic to talk about your stories and your life, but also to take that time to really listen."
Here in Ansonborough Field, the first group to head into the booth is Mayor Joe Riley with his wife and two sons, who, we are told, ask their parents about their childhoods and their families growing up. After the mayor goes Dr. Millicent Brown, a Claflin University professor who is working on a project to identify the people who, when they were children, were the first to go into desegregated schools. She comes with a friend and high school teacher. Although StoryCorps mostly takes its reservations from the general public, both of these interviews were organized through outreach. "We want to make sure we get a good representation of the place where we are, not just one demographic," says Lora. "We reach out to community organizations of all kinds to let them know we're coming, and to ask people to come record their stories."
StoryCorps is especially proactive in recording stories for their four major iniatives: the Griot project, which records stories of African-Americans; the Historias project, which records stories of Latinos; the Memory Loss project, aimed at those affected by Alzheimer's or other memory loss disorders; and the September 11th initiative, which collects the remembrances of rescue workers and survivors of the attack.
Of course, the most important aspect of their work is to allow anyone, whether they fit into one of those boxes or not, to talk about and record their particular experiences. That's what I do late that afternoon, following an elderly man and two younger men I assume are his sons, or maybe nephews. For my storytelling session, I take a close friend. Though we start off a little slow (it takes a while to get used to the microphones), soon we're talking about what we thought of each other the first day we met, our siblings, even spiritual crises. It is, as Lora had told me it would be, easier than I expected. Dickey, who facilitates our conversation, is a silent but appreciative listener, and two or three times, when we've hit on something good, gently interrupts with a leading question to push us a little deeper. It almost feels like therapy. Not just the talking — the listening, too.
And though it seems a little counterintuitive for an oral history organization, it's the listening that's at the heart of this project. Just ask the facilitators. "I know I listen better," says Lora. "That's almost a cliché at StoryCorps, because listening, that's what we do ... but it really changes you."
StoryCorps' MobileBooth will be in Charleston until Nov. 17. To learn more or make a reservation, visit storycorps.com.