Personal Storytelling as a Way of Humanizing History

When one is given an overview of historical events, such as in classroom setting, one can feel a certain amount of distance from the past. The telling of the personal stories of those who have experienced historical periods, or events, can allow those who have not to experience them through the memories of those that have. In this way, history can be humanized for the listener. They can develop a greater sense of personal connection to it, and a greater sense of its value.

I have chosen to post a story from The Moth which is itself a good example of how a broader historical context can be filled in, and explored, by the telling of a personal narrative. With this story, the context is Western Europe during, and after, the Second World War. The teller of this story is a woman who was a young girl at the time. Her tale deals with her separation from her mother which was brought about by German occupation and the Nazi Party’s treatment of  Jewish people. Through this story, and others like it, listeners are able to better understand the human part played in broad historical contexts, that can otherwise become abstract.

For a further resource, below is a link to the introduction of an article the deals with personal narratives from a historian’s point of view.

– Ian L-S

This entry was posted in Embodying a Story from your life/Sharing Family Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Personal Storytelling as a Way of Humanizing History

  1. Quin Rich says:

    The political importance of the personal narrative in teaching history is grounded in its ability to establish an alternative interpretation/perspective to the dominant historical narrative, and in elaborating the specific effects of positionality on the differential experiences of individuals and groups throughout history. For example, the stories of a Cherokee person and a US soldier regarding the Trail of Tears offer very different accounts of the events of that period of US history. However, in assessing different personal narratives, it is important to remember the power relations inherent in the standpoints of each of the tellers, as not all stories are equal. The stories of the oppressed, for example, are likely to be more representative of the situation than those of the oppressor. To this end, Howard Zinn’s account of the experiences of the natives peoples in A People’s History of the United States, taken from the account of a sympathetic priest, is far more likely to represent the full extent of the horrors perpetrated by colonizers than is the account given by Christopher Colombus to the Queen Isabella of Spain. Additionally, the personal narrative can provide perspective and narratives that just otherwise would not be heard. In order to have full, just, and remedial view of history, it is necessary to challenge the dominant accounts of events, and the personal narrative offers one such way to accomplish this.

  2. roshard13 says:

    Ian, the story that you were able to find was really powerful and provided us with a strong example of personal storytelling and its ability to allow others to experience history through memories. I was drawn to commenting on your piece because I am taking a course in which we are currently discussing reparations for slavery, and a common precedent that is often drawn on by supporters of reparations are those which were paid for the Holocaust. During our debates, the general rebuttal against reparations that is often made is that Slavery ended over 150 years ago and the effects of enslavement, which must be differentiated from anti-black racism, are no longer felt or dealt with by former slaves or their decedents. Though the Holocaust was a separate and very different historical event, I found my self to be provoked by Flora Hogman’s story, which so powerfully illuminates the continued struggle of an individual and family affected by a historic act of oppression. Even though Hogman admits that her memory of the Holocaust has started to fade, she describes this occurrence as a sort of coping mechanism which helped her to distill the pain. It caused her to only remember her mother as a distant ghost, trapped in clouded memory with the cathedral orphanage that she use too identify as the cause of her suffering. Though this personal narrative becomes a very inspiring story about a woman who has begun to seek out her dispersed family and reconcile her unjust past, it is full with so many simultaneously important messages. The fact that she was has been able to find her lost relatives and learn more about her mother has immensely helped to heal and empower her. But what did it cost to do all of this? It required money to travel the world in search for her family… It required even more fiscal and educational resources to know how to effectively identify the missing links… I took hope that reconciliation was even possible, something that required someone-else recognizing and affirming that she was wronged and deserve to be compensated (i.e. her American cousin)…What I am trying to say here is that this personal narrative speaks life to the stories that are often lost within our knowledge of history and its affects on us today. I truly believe that if if someone were to share a similar story—illuminating the comparable struggle faced by descendents of former slaves—in my class at Amherst, a number of students would reconsider their argument against reparations.

    P.S. Quin I appreciate your comment, which touches of the politics of memory and how personal narratives not only help to humanize and vitalize history, but to also provide an alternative perspective and interpretation that help to challenge dominant and often manipulated accounts of history.

  3. Megan Howard says:

    After listening to Flora Hogman tell her story, I find myself desperately wishing that all my history classes had been taught through personal narrative. When I hear numbers of people or names of places I cannot even begin to imagine, my mind has no idea how to categorize or even sift through the information. Most times, I am all too quick to put these histories on a back burner. I can’t think about them because any mention of people in numbers larger than 200 is far outside my own lived experience, too far to empathize with. I have struggled all my life with this inability to comprehend what these histories mean, have meant, will or should mean, and now I see why. When I hear a personal account such as Ms. Hogman’s, I cannot help but be empathetically pulled into the story and experience. It also makes me think about just how many people have lived through this same event and had a vastly different experience. Personal narrative seems to be a way to reach out to others and make them feel, care, understand, even if this understanding is only momentary or a piece of the truth, the ability to communicate and empathize the human experience is incredibly important and under-acknowledged. Often I find myself wondering why people are so apathetic. People, myself, anyone I have ever met seems to be apathetic about any experience we cannot directly relate to. However, as humans we live so many of the same experiences, many never vocalized. When Ms. Hogman described the terror at having her name label ripped out of her clothes, what that might mean about her identity, who she was as a person, I understood. The struggle for identity location is one that every human goes through. Now I suppose my question is, are people truly as apathetic as they appear? Or is it possible that the ways in which we attempt to translate knowledge and experience are structured to make us forget and detach. If I history classes threw out text books and switched to a broad, even contradicting variety of personal narratives, I think people would have a better chance at grasping some understanding, social awareness, and solidarity with humanities past.

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