Written V. Oral: The debate over which is more accurate

What do you do when you have no written documentation of how slaves were treated, yet you tell their story? Well, the first thing that you would do is see if there are any descendants  of the slaves living and in the area that would be willing to tell their story. When you find out that there are and they are, what do you do with the history that they give you?

Here lies a problem that some sites have to deal with on a regular basis, especially when the history that descendants have may not be the most pleasant. The thing about oral histories is that unless you were there, they are hard to verify. But just because a history is not written, should it be dismissed? I don’t think so and I would hope that there are others who think the same way. What we can’t gain from written document, we may be able to gain from those oral histories that¬† are passed down. However because some of these oral histories portray the owners of the site in a negative light, we are quick to dismiss their truth for a history that better suits our purposes.

But why is that? Why can’t we accept what is given to us in the only way possible? And who is to say that written document can be trusted any more than oral histories? I’m not saying that we should go and take every oral history given to us because it may not be truth. That’s fine. But what I am saying is that histories that have not had the pleasure of being written down should not be dismissed. Does that mean that you have to use them? No. What it does mean is that they should be investigated and given the same due process that written histories are given.

When someone finds documentation, typically they do not go with the first piece that is found. There is the hunt for another piece of evidence.¬† Why is it when it comes to oral histories, we don’t do the same? There is a certain respect that should be paid to family histories that aren’t recorded and sites should acknowledge that, not with dismissal but with further investigation. Who knows what those oral histories can lead to? It may not be what they claim, but it could lead to something that has yet to be discovered, adding on to the history of a place.


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