Relation of "Community of Memory" and History

Mohammad Jamshidi
Translated by Ruhollah Golmoradi

2019-08-06


Oral history in Iran is based on two models of compilation; either an interview is fully implemented and is committed on paper, or it is formed by the editor with his or her taste in form of narrative. Many works have also been published in these forms so far. But in our country, there is one aspect of oral history that has been concealed and it is methodological aspect. In other words, oral history for us has been usually - if not always - important in itself and has been less used as a tool for data collection and analysis. Obviously, here we expect sociologists. They have to apply such a method and collect data through the method and analyze the data. In such an encounter, although we will achieve some of the truth, our goal is not to gain the truth. In this way, we seek to understand patterns that, although mistakenly, have consolidated mentality and understanding of a particular group, community, or specific society. With such an approach one can understand mentalities, how they are formed and role of ideology - as Althusser uses it - in shaping such narratives; in summary, one of the most important goals of such an approach is to understand (Verstehen). Purpose of selecting, adaptation, and summarizing book of Southern Farmers and Their Stories[1] is to introduce one example of this approach. The whole effort of author of this book has been to reach boundaries of community of memory[2] among rural peasants of the South.

Industrial development and expansion of mechanization in the 20th century changed lives of Europeans and Americans. One area that has undergone such change has been agricultural system. Technology came into their lives, transforming all their relationships, from traditional farming practices to culture and ethics. This book is a narrative of modernization by those who have been most influenced more than all and have been listened to the least. In this book, strong relationships of memory and history emerge: "History and memory convergent and construct each other in memory communities through a continuous process, a process in which common meanings are recollected and interpreted and emerged with masterful alchemy." "Southern Farmers and Their Stories" provides a case study of how ordinary people - in their daily lives - use their memories on personal and national pasts. This is done by examining stories of the southern peasants about social and economic developments that they experienced in the twentieth century.
Melissa Walker uses memory as a category of cultural and historical analysis to gain insights into ordinary people's experience of "historical change." She seeks answers to three questions: "First, what experiences do form the "common understanding" of southern peasants of the South about the past? Second, how do they recall rural transformation? Third, what does give us forms of their stories on change about this question: How do people use past memory and knowledge to build a global understanding of the world in which they now live?
She does not seek the details of the stories but recurring patterns of their narratives. In fact, she seeks to discover boundaries of community of memory of the southern villagers. She says that by studying interviews with southern villagers in other states, she has come to the conclusion that people across the south share a similar mental map of boundaries of community of memory.

Community of memory is a term coined by Robert Bellah and his colleagues to describe communities that reconstruct a shared past. Indeed, community of memory is process of building boundaries of a group; and, as Edward Ayers puts it: it is an "inherently" political phenomenon and involves definition of "we" against "they", whether this "we" is nation-state, an ethnicity, an organization or a family. Groups build their community of memory by talking together, by creating a shared understanding of the world in which they live and characteristics that separate them from others. Over time, and after frequent conversations about shared experiences of the shared past, community of memory emerges.
The Southern villagers also drew boundaries of their community of memory by telling their stories about their shared past- about nature of living in farm and work. In this study, Walker interviewed 531 people. 399 of the interviewees were white and 132 were black. There were 244 men and 287 women. Most of the interviewees were born before 1930. Her interviews were collected from 14 states, with North Carolina, Texas, and Alabama, respectively, had the highest frequency of 118, 79, and 60. Interviewees were those who had had to leave lands. They had all lived in the suburbs, at least part of their life. A quarter of the interviewees were African-American. More than half of them had not attended in high school.

In the first chapter of the book "The Three Southern Peasants Tell Their Stories," she deals with life story of three of these peasants. In this chapter, she focuses on autobiographical stories of these three peasants and understanding what agricultural transformation meant to them. All three were born in 1910s and all worked to the last of their life. The narrators talks of where they were born and in what conditions they lived, to national and transnational events, such as World War and the Great Depression. Walker said: The three southern peasants told story of transformations with their different approaches. One is fundamentally unaware of national events and never mentions effective events such as the Great Depression and World War. His story is story of a self-made person. The other only produced for necessities of his life and never thought of expanding his business or specialize his career for supporting his family more. He emphasizes that "privileges and limitations imposed on them by race and class" have shaped experiences of each peasant in a specific way.
The second chapter is titled "Rural Southerners and Community of Memory". Walker explains in this chapter: "Although the narrators did not publicly state their belonging to a "community of memory", but existence of repetitive stories in their oral narratives demonstrates the shared experiences that form boundaries of that community. In a community of memory, stories are retold and a sense of shared history and identity is created. She also argues that theme of self-sufficient families is more often seen in oral narratives of villagers. She defines self-sufficient families also as families that themselves satisfy their living and necessities by working at home and in production.

The third chapter is called "Memory and the Nature of Transformation." Walker points out: Despite the shared memory among villagers of the South, their accounts of transformation differ according to gender, class, race, and especially generation. Description of peasants who spent their teens before World War II and those who spent their teens during and after World War II is profoundly different. The pre-war generation told simple stories of transformation. They regard poor economic and technological situation as main causes of agricultural transformation of the South and expulsion them from lands. In fact, this generation ignores complex and complicated nature of society and does not include political and economic system in its analysis. They are often silent about other agricultural transformation forces, including America's integration into competitive and global market for agricultural goods, structural changes in domestic production, and federal agricultural policy changes. In contrast, narrators who spent their adolescence and teenage during and after the war, describe about vast forces that have reshaped agriculture. These explanations of change are multilayered, complex and have subtle points.

The chapter five is called "The Present Shapes Stories about the Past." Most of the time, mistakenly, we assume that the present tense is not involved in past stories, while usually our present position, inevitably, influences our narrative of the past. As David Thelen puts it, "People shape their recollections of the past to fit their present needs." One cannot tell stories about the past without reference to the present. After new events, we constantly return and reinterpret the past; the peasants' interpretations are no exception too. Since modernization had had a profound effect on their lives, they used their memories as to be a powerful critique of modern life. Their values ​​and beliefs, rooted in their farming life, provide a pretext to critique today's world.

This chapter examines three of the ways that narrators believe the past was different from the present: the material conditions of daily life, the way values ​​were instilled in children, and the nature of community life. Here narrators talks about the past, the past where there was no technology and all the burden of farming was carried by human beings. In this chapter, most of the narrators emphasize hardships of the past, but they still love that world and say, "We didn't know anything about the comfort that electricity generates and we were happy with what we had, but we're better and live easier now than the past. We live in the past." "People were closer together. They were more intimate." Some of them believed that technology is a flower, which, of course, has thorns. They are aware of the help that technology has given them, but believe that an acceleration and speed have also entered their lives, which is not pleasant. One narrator says, "When we talk about these things [pre-technology life] with today's kids, they can't even imagine."
In the final chapter, Walker concludes her research. Southern Peasants had shaped a community of memory centered on specific characteristics of farm life: self-sufficiency, rural job ethic, resistance in hard times, committing to mutual goal, dependence to farm and community, and relative equality of rural people. In their storytelling around this community of memory, they sought to show what distinguishes them from others. Those who were born before World War II saw mechanization as a major force of agricultural transformation and rarely remembered anything about the impact of the agricultural industry, the world market, and federal government's intervention on agricultural transformation. On the contrary, those who were born during and in the post-war years saw the situation more complicated. They criticized the federal government for its agricultural policies and also emphasized role of global competition and powerful companies of agricultural industries. These peasants also used their stories to critique modern life, as a lesson to young people. As Iwona Zarecka says: "Much of memory work is done "for posterity." ... A specific vision of the future frames the utilization of the past."

Studying how people use memory and how to link individual memory to a broader past has the potential to give researchers new insights into the past. For example, the same case study about relationship between memory and history is able to illustrate one of the most mysterious aspects of agricultural history in the late twentieth century: Why did small peasants fail to organize themselves for encountering the "bigness" process of agriculture? The stories of peasants show that their group interests are by chance and accidentally. Anthropologist Miriam J. Wells puts it, "One of the reasons historically undermining desire of peasants to organize is diverse and ambiguous motives of their economic situation." The reasons of peasants are complex, but oral history narrators provide clues that confirm Wells' words.
The narrators give further insights into the factors that prevented them from being organized. They failed in the process of bigness, because many did not see it as a threat until it was too late! Another factor deterred peasants from being organized is intensification of individualism, which is symbol of modern and American peasant families.
 

 


[1] The 324th-page book of “Southern Farmers and Their Stories” was published by University Press of Kentucky in 2006. Author of the book is Melissa Walker, born in 1962 and a professor of history at Converse College in Carolina. She teaches on fields such as The New South, the American Revolution in the South, women’s history and African-American history. She has several writings. “All We Knew Was to Farm: Rural Women in the Upcountry South, 1919-1941” is her first book that won Willie Lee Rose Award as the best book in Southern history written by a woman. She is also editor of the agricultural part of the Southern Encyclopedia of Culture.

[2] https: //muse.jhu.edu

 



 
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