Talking History – A Crowdsourced Spoken History

Seniors have amazing stories to tell. I’ve had the good fortune to hear a few of them. The stories of seniors alive today are literally the history of their generation. The history of their time on this planet. As their voices go silent, we lose those stories forever at a time when we have the capability through technology to capture them and preserve them for posterity. Talking History is a project I have envisioned to create a video archive of the oral histories of seniors. Each history would be a series of video interviews of seniors telling their life stories and in the process relating the history of that generation.

We love to hate on social media. It is cat videos and memes. What someone had for lunch and GoT spoilers. But it is also, for better or worse, a constant first draft history. It is a history of how we live, how we work, what we think and feel at any moment, how we react to any event, tragedy, global, or local. It is a history of where we travel, our politics, how we spend our leisure time, our happiness, our pain, our sorrow. Literally almost everything in our lives.

Future generations will know more about how we lived as a people and what happened during our lives than any previous generation. They will hear and see it in our own words; in our text messages, photos, audio, and video. Via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, websites, forums, and how we search the web. It is archived and searchable. But today this is largely a history of young people because many seniors are not familiar or comfortable with technology and social media.

In our the past the daily lives of most humans throughout history and pre-history, had to be unearthed in archeological digs. Told through what we found of the tools they used, the food they ate, the homes they built. We have very little literary, less pictorial, and zero video history from early history. From later history we have letters and other correspondence. Like those immortalized in Ken Burns documentaries of the Civil War.

Right now we have a wealth of living, but undocumented history in the memories of the most senior people living among us which will not be with us forever. This first started to crystalize for me a couple years ago after going to a family reunion for my mother’s side of the family in Chicago. At the reunion one of her cousins presented a video which was a series of interviews with the oldest members of the family. In the video they told us who they were, how they were related to the rest of the family, how they made their living, who they married, who their children and grandchildren were. They told us the history of our family. Afterward almost everyone, including older members of the family, even those featured in the video, talked about how much they learned that they did not know about our family. About who was who, and how we became the family we are.

Soon afterward I visited my father in California and around a discussion of whether expired food was safe to eat out of the refrigeration, my father told me, probably not for the first time, about living in a one room house with his father and five brothers. How they at times had nothing to eat for days at a time. And when they had the opportunity to eat something, if they had expiration dates at the time, which of course they didn’t, it would not have been a consideration. They ate what they had at the time because it was all they had and they didn’t know what, or if, they’d have something tomorrow.

That story lead to other stories of living in the Jim-Crow south. One in particular was of being hired by a white man to do yard work and then being told after he’d done the work that he was not going to be paid as promised. He was yelled at and told get the hell out now. He literally had no recourse. Not by law or retaliation. A black man could not go to the police against a white man at that time in the south. And he would not tell his older brothers for fear that they would retaliate in a way that could literally put their lives in danger. So he walked away. In the south then, this was not an uncommon occurrence.

During that same visit my dad called his older brother for his birthday. His brother was 93 at the time. My dad passed me the phone to wish him a happy birthday as well. Little did I know that a simple birthday wish would result in an hour plus long conversation, during which I got not only a history of my father’s side of the family that I was not expecting, but a history of WWII. At 93 his brother remembered names and details of how family members were related that my father who was 10 years younger could not. But I also learned for the first time that this uncle and another were part of the greatest generation and that both had served in WWII in the South Pacific. I learned about what it meant to be what would have been called a Colored or Negro soldier fighting for freedom, but from a state where he was treated separately and unequally under the law. He fought for our nation’s freedom and when he returned to Alabama, he could not eat at the same lunch counter, drink from the same water fountain, or attend the same school as a white soldier who served beside him.

This perspective may be more relevant than ever at a time when Nazis are marching openly in the streets of our cities. To hear from the generation who fought to a world war against Hitler and the Nazis. As extremists march with torches and openly brandish weapons on our streets to keep confederate statues in our parks, to hear the perspective of those who suffered under Jim Crow. Segregation is the legacy of the confederacy that survived till the later half of the last century. Within the lifetimes of many of us living today. Not that long ago.

To hear these stories from the people who directly experienced them and not from the pages of a textbook has impact that words from a second-hand party could never have. I started to think about how connected our generation was to the rest of the world and to the future through technology and how that technology could be used to preserve the stories of the generations before us. How we could choose to temporarily turn our cameras away from ourselves and onto those who came before us. That doing so could be the most unselfish act of the selfie generation. And perhaps our duty to those who come after us.

Not long after I had the good fortune to hear the stories of other friends parents. One friend whose mother was forced to leave Poland during WWII and flee to Russia. Who spent years in Siberia. Who also spent time in South African and England, and finally immigrated to the US, becoming one of few female physicians in this country. And the experiences of a friend’s father who immigrated from Mexico and worked in the LA area and Southern California many years ago, who crossed paths with the musician Carlos Santana before he was very well known. This is a literal treasure we cannot afford to let slip away.

All the participants have to do is spend time with the seniors in their lives. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives. Friends, coworkers, acquaintances, or even people you may not know that suspect may have an interesting story. Someone you can introduce yourself to. Ask their permission to take out your camera and take video. Then ask them about themselves. Who they are. Who they were. What brought them to this point in their lives. Where they were and what they saw and felt in different points of history they lived through. And then upload the video and add it to the archive. The most interesting parts of which could later be combined into histories of particular events from different perspectives, possibly a documentary series.

It is a chance for social media to be more than selfies and pictures of your lunches, dinners, and drinks. More than cat videos and memes. Not that any of that is not also awesome. But a chance for social media to be something that literally shows us not who we are, but who we were and where we came from. A chance for social media to literally define us for posterity.

The archive will consist of:

1. A Youtube channel for the video repository where people can upload and share their Talking History videos.
2. A Talking History website with links to the Youtube channel monetized by ads.
3. Setup a google adsense account, and other means to monetize the website.
4. A Talking History Facebook Page.
5. A Talking History Twitter Page.
6. A Kickstarter Page for Talking History, and for a film documentary based on the repository.
7. A GoFundMe page for Talking History, and for a film documentary based on the repository.
8. Research and seek grants for Talking History, and for a film documentary based on the repository.

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