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Project Will Seek Black Oral Histories

A yearlong project to record the oral histories of everyday black Americans was launched Wednesday on Capitol Hill with Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and the nonprofit organization StoryCorps.

The StoryCorps Griot Initiative will take recording booths to nine locations across the country and work with radio stations, historically black colleges and local and cultural organizations to record about 2,000 interviews of black Americans.

At Wednesday’s launch, Rangel spoke about how the initiative would be one way to know more about the culture, songs and identity that were taken from African-Americans because of slavery.

“We can say we tried to piece together the plight of a people who had the strength to survive slavery, bigotry and torture and still make a contribution to this country,” Rangel said.

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, stressed how important the project is for younger generations.

“Children need to know desperately their history, to know their culture, to know their great legacy of struggle,” Edelman said.

During the yearlong tour, a 26-foot-long recording trailer will travel to Atlanta; Newark, N.J.; Detroit; Chicago; Oakland, Calif.; Clarksdale, Miss.; Memphis, Tenn.; Selma, Ala.; and Montgomery, Ala.

“I’m looking forward to going to the different cities [and] seeing the breadth of experience that America needs to see more,” said Jennifer Carr, senior coordinator of the Griot Initiative for StoryCorps who will be traveling to locations on the tour. “The cities we’re going to, each on their own, have incredible history for African-Americans and Americans in general.”

The initiative is a collaboration of the future African-American History Museum, CPB and StoryCorps, which has recorded thousands of oral histories around the country, along with the support of the Congressional Black Caucus. Lonnie Bunch, director of the African-American History Museum, said the project grew out of a series of conversations among the partner organizations.

“[Everyone] really was interested in making sure that history and culture is preserved,” Bunch said.

The word “griot” originated in West Africa and stands for the poet responsible for a community’s oral tradition. Griots also were responsible for transmitting stories throughout different generations.

“As families splinter … there’s this real desire to know your history,” Bunch said. The project “will help families know each other and stimulate intergenerational discourse.”

Anyone of African heritage is invited to reserve an interview time with a partner. Participants have up to 40 minutes to interview each other, guided by a facilitator, and will receive a CD copy of the conversation.

Another copy of the interview will be sent to the Library of Congress and could be broadcasted on National Public Radio, used for the project’s Web site or become part of an exhibit in the African-American History Museum, which is scheduled to open in 2013.

“It will be a great way for scholars to understand American life in the 20th century,” Bunch said. “As a historian I will be able to look back at this and say, ‘I want to show what it’s like to be a black family in the World War II era.’ … You’ll be able to go back and find that data.”

Project organizers are especially looking for stories from WWII veterans and those who lived through the civil rights movement.

StoryCorps, founded by radio documentary producer Dave Isay, began when he first gave two teenagers voice recorders to document their lives in Chicago’s housing projects. StoryCorps, which first opened two recording studios in New York City, has recorded more than 10,000 oral histories and has been traveling around the country since 2005.

“When you listen to these stories from people of all ages, all races and socioeconomic classes, they all boil down to three things: birth, love and death,” Isay said. “You realize there is so much more that we share in common than what divides us.”

Bunch said support from Capitol Hill has been essential in getting the Griot project off the ground.

“What is so impressive to me is that the CBC has said that it is important to remember … we are going to help through legislation and through this project to create opportunities so that African-American history isn’t lost,” Bunch said.

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