We are all familiar with the phrase, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” For most of us, our passions are separate from our careers/jobs. Although I love what I do, the idea of combining the two never occurred to me–that is until I sat down with my first interview participant for my project “History Before Us: The Jim Crow Era and Slavery Through Their Eyes.”
Mr. William Sturdivant of Anson County, NC has 103 years of experience on this earth. I will never forget his first words prior to the official start of the interview. Sitting up in his wheelchair, Mr. Sturdivant looked me in the eyes and said, “Young man, I am about to talk to you about things I haven’t talked about in over 60 years.”
From an early age, I learned to respect and appreciate my elders. Mr. Sturdivant understood the objectives underlying this project; however, his initial statement had me stuck. The therapist in me tried to figure out its meaning. Of course I felt honored to be the recipient of his narrative, but at that moment I realized how much more is possible, and required, as I continue this project. Halfway through the interview, my technical training as a licensed counselor became a part of, not apart from, my passion for oral history.
Mr. Sturdivant shared a difficult and painful story about his friend, Jim Collins, an African American man who was threatened to be killed by a white man and later hung. An eerie silence hovered over the interview area after Mr. Sturdivant shared that story, and this pivotal moment allowed me to utilize my empathy and active listening skills.
Knowing when and how to respond to traumatic events assures the interview participant is comfortable enough to continue. If an interviewer lacks these skills, any oral history gathering project will be short-lived.
During the remainder of the interview, I did not try any therapeutic modalities or interventions. I used open-ended questions, empathy, and unconditional positive regard, which makes me appreciate the 103 years of his life experiences.
Mr. Sturdivant provided direction for subsequent interviews, namely, how to present timely questions and obtain responsible responses. Through his unintentional guidance, I learned a strong and healthy marriage between my clinical training and passion are possible. Returning to the cake analogy, all of this cake has caused a cavity, which forced me to the dentist before my next scheduled interview.
In summary, this process allows me to marry my passion for people, for helping people, and for learning about history. I shoulder a large responsibility, one for which I am well suited, but nevertheless a challenge. The challenge is to capture history and impart the information into the racially-charged narrative of today.
Thank you, Mr. Sturdivant!