Who and what is to be considered African American history and culture? History is commonly defined as the summary of a people’s past, often captured as a story with particular people and events coming to the fore, and culture broadly describes the ways in which people live and structure their lives. The characters who enjoy the spotlight of history are partially decided by the archives, because they hold the vast array of primary source material on which the many accounts of history are based. While the archive is a major site of contest, the audio collected over the life of the Studs Terkel radio both illuminate the stories of history and endure as artifacts of culture in its own right.
This topic, “African American History and Culture,” contains interviews that engage the range of protagonists who frame the stories of African American history as well as the melangé of creators influencing and expanding the culture. These characters are astoundingly diverse. Some, like Maya Angelou, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, and Harry Belafonte, are considered to be the giants of African American cultural production and historical progress. Their collective legacy often makes up our notion of twentieth century Black history, and their work often creates the canon of African American music, literature, and drama. But what is so incredible about Terkel’s archive is his reaching beyond the giants to engage people one may hesitate to consider authorities on matters of history and culture. His interviews with every-day (and only less-acclaimed) people, people whose voices are too often neglected, contain just as many moments of tenderness, passion, and all the vulnerability that all of his interviews have a way of bringing forth.
While the content of these interviews span so many topics and the subject matter ranges from broad commentary to clarifying questions, Studs brings the same curiosity to each interview. This encourages seemingly minor details to be illuminated, making each vignette so unique. For example, some of the interviews start with a discussion of the artists’ “beginnings.” These beginnings usually point to their own inspirations, be they events, people, or driving force, and they remind us to contextualize what we are hearing. While other archives address and engage these local, national, and international events more exclusively, Studs creates space for his interviewees to decide how they want to frame the journey to their work. This is crucial because the 1960’s is often regarded as an explosive climax of socio-cultural and political energy for Black Americans. This archive contests such a narrow, linear development of African American history because it evidences the turbulent, triumphant, major, and minor legacies that would continue to affect the protagonists of a new era. Terkel’s archive shows that people, famous or not, act and react with the world around them in the business of love, activism, art, and everything in between. By capturing archiving this fullness, he expands the American collective memory and captures the diversity of the African American milieu.