Wandering Magicians and False Accusations

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?

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3 Responses to Wandering Magicians and False Accusations

  1. Olivia Henley says:

    The story about the man going to jail after the claimed attack reminds me a lot of “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. As soon as I read that sentence in your post I had flashbacks immediately.
    I completely agree that these things seem fantastical and that these stories are hard to grasp. I have no idea how to relate to these stories. I feel myself looking back through Harper Lee’s story now though, to gather an idea for what I’m dealing with. It was a novel and these stories are brief, but perhaps we just have to imagine the backstories and other events that aren’t mentioned or left out either because the interviewer wouldn’t have had time, or because the events were ‘too mundane.’
    I wouldn’t look at it as tricking ourselves into understanding, just adding context and our own understandings to sort of allow the stories to become real to us. Does that make any sense?

  2. Gabriella Bulgarelli says:

    I loved your approach to the false histories. I think it’s so true that it’s hard to see where the information could trace provenance from. Is this what the interviewer has truly lived through? has it been changed, re-organized, etc? There’s really no way to know. I feel like this, as you said, makes them disjointed in terms of their presentation but also in terms of relating them to our own lives. The narratives are so powerful that even a non-skeptic can see them as fantastical. I have some handwritten margins in my life histories as well and they make me intrigued on so many echelons, however the most important/striking realization I had came through a remark from Dr. Rivard–WHO’S HANDWRITING IS THAT? Is it the interviewer, his editor, his friend who is also an interviewer? some random higher-up? I think the fact that we don’t know who to attribute the handwritten comments to (in some cases) increases the mysterious/fantastical nature of the narratives even more.

  3. Zachary Hughes says:

    I found myself having many similar thoughts this week. Each sensational tale has a writer with a unique point of view driving the narrative. I was shocked by some of the dialogue and wish there was more information out there about the authors of these folders. While the stories are entertaining and give us a better understanding of culture back in this period, I am left with many questions regarding the privilege given by this series to the authors who ended up writing them.
    Are all of the authors white? What kind of persons were they compared to the person of interest? I am interested in uncovering ways to translate the processes and opinions that guides all of these stories using metadata.

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