Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The many planets of an oral history archive: transcribing Joyce Easley's oral history interview

Sharla transcribing Joyce Easley's oral history interview

Sharla Biefeld is a junior Bridging Disciplines scholar at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in Women's and Gender Studies and Psychology. She is a Human Rights & Archives intern with TAVP this semester. Read more about Sharla in the Meet the Interns post!

This post is the third 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. 

The many planets of an oral history archive: transcribing Joyce Easley's oral history interview
by Sharla Biefeld

I inserted the video into my disk drive, placed headphones on my ears, and opened a blank word document; then a tape began to play and the once silent headphones buzzed with conversation, and the blank page began to fill with the story of Joyce Easley’s life and her experiences as the wife of Charlie Brooks, Jr., the first person executed by lethal injection in the United States.

My recent job for Texas After Violence Project (TAVP) has been to transcribe Joyce Easley’s interview, to write the abstract for her interview, to format the final transcript, to choose select video clips to feature on her narrator page, and to eventually load the full-length interview onto the TAVP archive at the Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI). Every single step of this process is an important one. Transcribing the interview is the first step in getting Easley’s voice heard by a larger public. Next, formatting helps it conform to certain conventions, facilitating its legibility, and uploading it onto HRDI will broaden access to her story.

The first step in this process, transcribing Joyce Easley’s interview, has been an extremely enriching endeavor.  Through this interview, I have been able to not only hone my skills as a transcriber and learn how an oral history archive is compiled, but I have learned why an oral history archive is vitally important to understanding human rights. 

I could have read the transcript of Brooks’ trial, or read newspaper articles where Easley and her sons were quoted; however, none of these options would have allowed me to hear and understand Easley’s voice in the same depth that an oral history interview allows.

One way that Easley’s voice opened my eyes to the importance of a human rights archive was though her natural rhetoric of questions. Throughout her interview, not only is Rebecca Lorins, the interviewer, asking questions of Easley, but Easley is also asking questions of Lorins and future viewers. Her questions are compelling in the way they highlight the tension between "rights" and "law."

For example, Easley poses this important question that has troubled her for over 30 years:  
I’m a law abiding citizen. I’m not stupid. So why is one going to go forty years and they’re going to kill my kids’ father? When both did the same thing, one gets to live and one gets to die. You tell me what is equal about that. What is just about that?

Listen to Joyce by clicking on the TAVP Soundcloud clip

As I sat transcribing this, I was disturbed by this question, because I had no answer for her. I wished I did, but I didn’t. I don’t think anyone has the answer, and that is why these questions are so important. No one has an answer, and yet supposedly “justice” is the only reason the death penalty exists. When there is a question as to whether justice was served, and families suffer, what is the point of the death penalty?

As if she understood exactly what I was thinking, Easley adds,

Does that makes sense to anyone? If it does, well, you're not on the same planet I'm on.

Listen to Joyce by clicking on the TAVP Soundcloud clip

This quote touches on the heart of why I find oral history archiving compelling and important. 

While we all live on the same planet, we experience different lives. Many people do not have the same experiences as Easley or Brooks, yet an oral history archive offers all of us a few hours of living as someone else, of learning what it is like on the “planet” that is someone else’s experiences.  This understanding allows us all to see the consequences and effects that laws and policies have on other people’s worlds.

Note: Joyce Easley's full-length oral history interview will be released during Summer 2014.

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