As I read through the life histories, I found myself forgetting that they were the real stories of real people. One woman’s husband shot himself in the chest. One man was a wandering magician who accidentally killed his duck by leaving a rubber band around its mouth. One man went to jail after a white woman claimed that he attacked her, because the people in the neighborhood didn’t “like for colored people to own land.” These people’s lives are supposedly ordinary, and yet they all have factors that seem almost fantastical. They show how remarkable the everyday can be. I felt like both the interviewers and the interviewees were speaking directly to me from the past; reading through these pieces was such a strangely intimate experience with people I had never met.
Each life history has its own personality. Some of them are told only through the words of the interviewee. Some of them are told through the blatantly biased lens of the interviewer and include extensive, judgmental descriptions of the interviewee and his or her living conditions (such as when one interviewer describes Bonnie the hairdresser: “She was feline—agile and vigorous”). Some of them have difficult-to-read handwriting in the margins, handwriting that we must decide whether to somehow include or simply leave out. Folder 370 has a concerning phrase scribbled in pencil on the front page: “If it can be proved that anybody ever wrote a letter like this, I will recommend,” and then it’s hard to read the rest. This note, although tiny, could mean the difference between the life history being true and the life history being fictional; and even if the factuality of this life history is in question, does that matter? Each life history, although the interviewers were given the same outline, ended up highly unique, and each one will have unique issues as we begin to work with them. How can we all work together to resolve these distinctive issues? Should we try to come up with one set of standards for things like handwriting in the margins, or is each life history so unique that it would be difficult to come up with such standards?