A Discussion with Dr. Wesley Hogan on Documenting Social Movements

Wesley Hogan of the Duke Center for Documentary Studies gave a Brown Bag talk on Monday, April 17. Documentarian Chris Colbeck interviewed Dr. Hogan before her talk. You can watch a clip of the interview here, and a transcript of  rest of the interview follows.

Interview with Dr. Wesley Hogan from The Southern Documentary Project on Vimeo.

Center: “Would you mind giving us a preview of your Brown Bag lecture today and the inspiration behind the work?”

Dr. Hogan: “So a friend of mine named Dan Kerr is working within the
oral history tradition based on his work with homeless people in
Cleveland. He wrote a piece last year in The Oral History Review
around, ‘What are the roots of the radical roots of the oral history
tradition?’ Most of the people he cited were folks from the southern
freedom movement. People like Ella Baker, Myles Horton, Septima Clark.
And I got very interested in looking at how that impact of the freedom
movement in the South had impacted the larger national and
international development of the field of oral history. So what I will
talk about today is the beginnings of my exploration into that. It
wasn’t usually inside of university settings that this happened, but
in people’s movements in the South; the  Southern Tenant Farmers
Union, the populists in East Texas, the Civil Rights Movement, Black
Power, all the way through the Dream Defenders, the Black Lives Matter
movement today, and immigrant rights movements throughout the South

Center: “Can you shed some light on how the social movements of the sixties and those of today might be related, but also are very different with the technological capabilities of people now being able to communicate in an instant?”

Dr. Hogan: “So the thing that connects and links all of the freedom
movements that I’m looking at today are the drive for the ordinary
person or group of people to have a say in the conditions of their own
lives. The real difference, technologically speaking, is that in the
1960s for instance, they were creating small booklets with hand drawn
illustrations and a mimeograph to show people how the county voting
structure worked, what the tax collector did, and how to participate
in local and state and federal government. Today, young activists are
using Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter in ways that connect people
immediately and often times across geographic space. So somebody might
‘meet’ someone on Instagram, but actually where the real organizing
takes place and the real strength of today’s movements takes place is
just like in the sixties and in the thirties which is longterm
association, face to face over time. Many people from previous
movements say, ‘Oh you young people, you are using Twitter, you can’t
use it, it is really about face to face.’ And young people will often
times say, ‘Well, we are using both. We have the advantage of being
able to instantaneously share information and do research.’ Which were
much more specialized tasks in the thirties and sixties. It was a
niche specialty to be able to take a photograph or sometimes to type
or work a mimeograph machine. And today, everybody has those skills
and the information is immediately pass-on-able. But nothing replaces
face to face relationship building and organizing, so they are using
both techniques.”

“I feel like another really important component of this is that some
of the most harsh conditions that Americans face are southerners.
Whether it is labor, or race, or immigration, some of the most
difficult conditions can be found in the South and that is also where
some of the most creative responses to oppression are emerging. So, we
know now that the killing of Trayvon Martin sparked a nationwide
movement, but it was students coming out of historically black Florida
A&M that created the first nonviolent direct-action response and
occupied the governor’s office for thirty days in Tallahassee. And it
was only after that, two months after that, the #BlackLivesMatter was
born and the movement began to go nationwide.”

Center: “During your academic development and career, what drew you to documentary work and what inspired you to focus on various aspects of the Civil Rights Movement?”

Dr. Hogan: “I was a student activist in the anti-apartheid movement at
the University of Pennsylvania in the late eighties. I was intrigued
and challenged and was learning more than I felt like I was learning
in my classes, but after a while in the movement, I began to see a lot
of fracture and conflict. Even though the movement was aiming for a
more just and honest society, there were a lot of internal dynamics
that were confusing to me so I sought out older activists in
Philadelphia many of whom had been involved in the Civil Rights, Black
Power and antiwar movements. And they began to encourage me to talk to
a group of people from an organization I had never heard of, SNCC
(Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). I was a history major and
I could not believe I did not know about this group of young people
who had done so much to break apart Jim Crow. So I began to talk to
more and more activists and that drew me into an activist practice of
oral history which then I went to graduate school to learn more.
During my graduate training, I really had two sets of teachers; those
formal professors in graduate school and informal, more familial set
of relationships with SNCC activists and veterans who brought me into
a very different way of passing on what they called ‘informational
wealth,’  what they had learned from their elders, what they had
learned from their own experiences in the sixties, and what they
wanted to pass on to today’s activists.”

Center: “Technology has brought about the ability of nearly anyone to capture important footage that can shed light on injustice, spark social change, but these images can also have some unintended negative consequences. How do you address the responsibility of both trained documentarians and the average person on the street?”

Dr. Logan: “The ability of citizens to do documentary work and
journalism today on the environmental front, on the racial justice
front, on the labor front, is intense. Everyone who has access to a
smartphone can not only record something, but can instantly upload it
and share it throughout the world. This has created a totally
different environment within which documentary work is being seen. So
if you can imagine children as young as three and four seeing these
images of brutality over and over and over again, it can create a
completely different sense of safety or its lack, for huge numbers
especially for young people of color. Similarly, on the environmental
front, when young people are exposed over and over again to images of
environmental toxins, hazards, it can feel like the entire world is a
dangerous place. There’s no safe drinking water. No hamburger is good
to eat. So the best arguments that I have seen on this at the Center
for Documentary Studies at Duke really move in two different
directions. Some people bring forward a traditional sunlight, First
Amendment argument where you have to make sure that people are seeing
all of the possible work that is out there with an idea of
transparency and that the truth will eventually emerge. What is also
very important is for children under fourteen or fifteen, children who
are still not yet abstract thinkers, to really have a parent or a
guardian who can help them navigate. I think we are going to
increasingly see parents and guardians having to significantly
restrict access until children can develop those critical thinking
skills and abstract capacities because overwhelming evidence now shows
that this is just creating a very new and not yet seen sense of fear
and trepidation when young people move through the world. At the same
time, it has given people who don’t usually have access to the mic on
a national and international level an enormous sense of possibility
that they can share their experiences, their truths which have
heretofore been hidden with a much larger audience. So we have seen
ways that, for instance, Diamond Reynolds with Facebook live
broadcasting the interaction between police officers outside of
Milwaukee and her partner, Philando Castile. Her live broadcast really
fundamentally changed the parameters by which we debate these issues
around police and civilian interaction. So, I think it is a very
underdeveloped area of thinking. We need to do a lot more conversation
and sort of public policy debate. But I think it also is going to be
really helpful for parents and guardians if we give them some support.
These issues are happening faster than at any previous time in the
history of the world and so parents often times feel overwhelmed and
are not sure how to help their children understand this. So I think
that is one thing that documentary centers like that here and at Duke
can do is really to help people get a firmer grip on what children and
young adolescents can see and what might be better to help them
understand context before they are just exposed to it

Center: “Will documentary work eventually change our notions of what an academic historians is?”

Logan: “That is a real question today for historians who have been
trained in traditional methods and who are text based, who are now
finding themselves facing a world where people are reading fewer and
fewer monographs and are more drawn to a visual world both of still
images and moving images. So we are in a time of transition where
history departments and film and media departments are often times
approaching topics from very different angles of vision. I would say
some of the most exciting work I’ve come across as a fairly
traditionally trained historian is coming from places where there is a
powerful synthesis rather than a competition between historians and
documentarians. So we know the well-worn stereotype that each group
has of the other, but what is most powerful is when we can take really
well done historical stories that are put in a deep context and that
are researched into a multimedia context. One where people can be not
necessarily taken through a linear sequence, but on a multimedia
platform, might be able to look at a multiplicity of interviews,
podcasts, still photographs, and come back and develop some of their
own overarching narratives still and while being given access to some
powerful historical minds who have seen these patterns over long
periods of time and who are contributing also to the big picture
thinking that people have about events. Sometimes that is through
traditional monographs, but often times it is through documentary film
or short videos called ‘explainers’ or through photo essay. I think
that for people who value historical thinking, in either the
documentary or the historical world, these are really powerful and
good developments. We have more and more people exposed to historical
thinking and learning more about the history of their own past and
their own place, but also feeling like it is not enough just to know
what is happening now. That they need to be curious about how it got
to be that way.”