Monday, March 3, 2014

Same story; multiple perspectives: truth in oral history

Jordan at the TAVP office,
transcribing Keith Brooks' oral history interview.

Jordan Weber is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin and a TAVP Human Rights & Archives intern this semester. Read more about Jordan in the Meet the Interns post! 

This post is the second in a series titled Digital archives internship (also tagged as Archiving the death penalty), where TAVP interns publish their reflections on processing the TAVP collection. Check back for future posts. 

Same story; multiple perspectives: truth in oral history
by Jordan Weber

For the past several weeks, I have been working on transcribing the comprehensive interview with Keith Brooks, the second son of Charlie Brooks, Jr., the first man to be executed by lethal injection in Texas in 1982. The story immediately drew me in, because the Brooks family is based very near to the neighborhood where I grew up in Fort Worth. I was extremely interested in learning about the history of my own community and the ways in which this history influenced how the Brooks family, as members of my local community, interpreted Charlie Jr.'s past and their family's sense of place within our social and legal institutions. 

Listening to Keith describe the intimacies of perhaps the most defining event of his life--the legal state execution of his own father--was an extremely moving and valuable experience for me as a student, human rights advocate and member of our greater local community. 
But my exposure to the Brooks' story did not end there. I was asked by my colleague, Sharla, to help her audit the interview with Joyce Hazzard Easley, Keith's mother and the ex-wife and good friend of Charlie Brooks, Jr. Whereas Keith was able to shed light on the events surrounding the legal proceedings of the Brooks case, and the actual execution itself, Joyce was able to provide incredible historical context by describing both her early relationship with a young Charlie Brooks, Jr., as well as fascinating insight into what life was like for people like Charlie and Joyce growing up in the segregated South. 

Furthermore, through discussions with my supervisor Rebecca and my own independent research, I began to learn more and more about the case--its technicalities, its goals and its deficits. As my understanding of the Brooks family and their story continued to develop, my understanding of the truth--of what really happened during the crime, case, and execution--became muddled by the multiple, and sometimes conflicting, memories of who Charlie Jr. really was and whether justice was truly served.

I realize that this is a common dilemma for all oral historians. With so many perspectives and narratives all attempting to retell the same story, how can the oral historian, or researcher, journalist or investigator, ever really find the truth that lies at the heart of the story? 

Since my initial frustration with this seemingly insurmountable task, I have realized that it is not the duty of the oral historian to reveal the truth. The oral historian must facilitate the space in which the story is told--or, according to some oral historians, "co-created." 

In the end, oral historians must accept every interview as some piece of the larger, subjective truth in hopes that the real story can be understood from not only one viewpoint, but from all relevant and applicable perspectives. This new vantage point on truth in oral history is something that I will carry with me in my journey through this project, and will inform my own idea of the dynamics of human rights in our complex world. 

Note: Keith Brooks' oral history interview will be available for listening and viewing at the TAVP archive this month.