“I hope for peace and sanity — it’s the same thing.”
– Studs Terkel.
If I had to pick one thing, I think that what my favorite-favorite people in the world most have in common, is that they are the ones who tell the best stories. This is true of musicians, artists, playwrights, journalists, novelists, good friends even. It doesn’t even matter if the stories “belong” to them, it’s in the telling. It is in their particular gifts, the ways in which they get you to connect to the story.
I’m talking about this because Studs Terkel died on Friday.
An amazing guerilla journalist, archivist, historian and most importantly – an ORAL historian. Oral history is so very vital and as much as I LOVE the very artistic and creative ways that some people choose to tell or show stories, there is something to say for straight-up history, the realities that comprise our humanity. As important as cultural identity through many art forms, is cultural identity through the sharing and passing on of the stories of “real life” – just in plain old words. This is why I listen to This American Life and haunt the StoryCorps website, and check PostSecret at 6 am on Sunday mornings. This is why I love documentaries.
Studs extracted stories from diverse populations of people at many important times in our nation’s history and he spoke about their stories in his radio show and told their stories in his books. He would interview them and had a certain magic in the ways he got people to talk incredibly frankly and openly about some very personal and sometimes painful matters. He assembled their stories (in their own words) into books like very powerful literary mixtapes. All flow together, each of his books giving the reader amazing perspective as the stories relate to topics – on the Great Depression, working, poverty and class, and race.
I was going to tell you about the first time I read one of his books, a photocopied version of American Dreams: Lost and Found – out of print, but given to us by a professor that believed it was too important to disappear into obscurity. And I could bore you with a lot of academic talk about his other books. How Studs, along with hundreds of people and their stories helped to shape my views about poverty, class, race and modern progressive politics.
I’m not going to do that, because this is not about me. If you don’t already know Studs, I want you to go get to know his work and join me in remembering him and celebrating his legacy now. Especially this week.
I recently read this piece in the Huffington Post from last week, where Studs shares his views on Obama’s campaign. (He hopes that Obama wins by a landslide, but urges him to remember being a community organizer and wishes that he would be a little more progressive).
How nice it would have been for Studs to see Obama elected? How much nicer if we take the opportunity that I believe Obama is basically offering – a time in our country to get out and be more progressive. This could be the beginning of working for change in a climate that supports actual progress. It only starts with the landslide.
I hope you will go listen to Studs speak. There are several recordings of interviews online. Listen to his excitement and passion and hope. Here are a couple streaming options I found quickly online (I haven’t listened to them yet)… but I have heard him speak several times on public radio and you do need to hear him talk, even just to hear his marvelous voice. Here’s one on Democracy Now! and another on Leonard Lopate.
Go read his books because they will not only give you a lot to reflect on, but they will inspire you to keep on looking for more ways to listen to other peoples’ stories. As many as you can. Look for their visual stories in art. Listen to their stories in music. And their spoken and written histories. Pay attention. Be thoughtful and open. Especially to people who you are told or somehow believe are “not like you”. Be curious. Always.
“My curiosity is what saw me through. What would the world be like, or will there be a world? And so, that’s my epitaph. I have it all set. Curiosity did not kill this cat. And it’s curiosity, I think, that has saved me thus far.”