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Using Oral Histories as an ‘Avenue to Difficult Truth-telling’

By Rebecca Lauck Cleary

Sarah Rodriguez engages with people through her work as an oral historian, honing skills such as honesty and empathy building. She also enjoys connecting with them over a meal, which is not surprising, given her job with the Southern Foodways Alliance.

“I like to meet people for drinks and a meal and to chat, so oral history is a good field for me to get into,” said Rodriguez, who grew up in Natchez and has spent time in Virginia and Georgia. “And because I work for SFA, it feels right to share my favorite meal, which is grits and grillades.”

In a stroke of luck, the SFA, housed at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, was looking for a new oral historian as Rodriguez was finishing graduate school. 

She became familiar with the alliance and its work a few years ago and realized she really liked foodways, even though her previous oral history work focused on gender and sexuality.

“As I got more into foodways research, I realized food is an interesting avenue to really difficult truth-telling because, for some reason, people are more willing to engage in hard conversations if it starts from a place of food, so I’m curious to keep exploring that in my work,” she said. 

“I think people are more willing to listen and be curious around food, and I’ve spent time talking with other professionals in foodways work about why that is, but we haven’t quite figured that out.”

Oral history can be a healing space to process difficult experiences, and having someone meet the interviewee where they are emotionally can be validating, but also challenging for the interviewer.

“It forces you as an interviewer to be super accountable to your own mental well-being because you aren’t doing anyone any favors if you are traumatizing yourself and not taking care of yourself because you stop being able to do the work,” Rodriguez said. “You have to take care of yourself in order to take care of others.”

For the past few months, she has helped Mary Beth Lasseter, SFA interim co-director, to clean up the alliance’s digital files.

“Right now, we are wrapping up some projects including one on a Louisiana-based king cake baking tradition and some kosher BBQ work,” Rodriguez said. 

Since SFA works best when working collaboratively, having her new ideas as part of the planning meetings will be valuable as the alliance programs for the coming year, Lasseter said.

“Sarah Rodriguez has experience not only in collecting oral histories, but also managing other oral historians and archiving interviews,” she said. “Her skill set matches the needs of SFA’s oral history program, which routinely works with oral historians in the field and has begun building an academic archive for our documentary work. 

“As SFA’s lead oral historian, Sarah will have the freedom to select projects and themes she wants to explore. She’ll shape the future of our oral history program, and I look forward to seeing her invite new voices and perspectives to SFA work.”

As she puts the finishing touches on a few other projects, Rodriguez has been nurturing the seeds of an idea incorporating her past research with the work of the SFA.

I wrote my M.A. thesis on sex work in Natchez and there was a famous brothel run by a woman named Nellie Jackson from 1930 to 1990,” she said. “There are a lot of bars and restaurants that are sites for this type of industry, particularly for sex workers who did not have a house or a brothel that they worked out of, so I am curious about what kinds of relationships start forming between the people who work at these establishments and sex workers who use it for their business?”

Rodriguez earned her master’s degree in history, with a public history emphasis, from the University of West Georgia and a bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in economics from William & Mary. She learned to do oral history work at the William & Mary LGBTIQ Research Project, the University of West Georgia’s Center for Public History and the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta. 

Before joining SFA’s team in October, Rodriguez worked at museums and led neighborhood food tours in Richmond, Virginia.

“I started undergrad briefly thinking I would go into pre-med, and I took a biology class at the same time I took a history class, and quickly decided I didn’t want to take any more biology classes,” she said. “I started doing oral history work in 2016 and I realized oh, I like this, and I’m good at it and I even like the more tedious parts of it – the transcribing and processing.”

Last fall, she attended the Oral History Association conference in Los Angeles, where the theme was “Oral History as/and Education: Teaching and Learning in the Classroom and Beyond.”

She said it was a very open type of space, where people talked vulnerably about their work.

“I think oral history is a field that is conducive to those types of conversations so it made sense that the practitioners embody that was well,” Rodriguez said. “There were multiple sessions where the presenters were not afraid to start crying and it fit into the context of what we were talking about. 

“We specifically addressed the idea of if you are interviewing someone who is telling you a really traumatic story and they start getting emotional, what happens when you start getting emotional as well and not being afraid of that dynamic popping up. It’s about figuring out how to navigate when you yourself as the interviewer start to get emotional and in some ways that is part of really difficult truth-telling and it comes with the territory.”


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