Lemon Swamp is also an outstanding example of oral history. Historians often experience frustration when traditional historical sources don't answer all of their questions. No matter what they do, historians simply cannot convince an old diary in an archive to speak about something that its author ignored. In the case of more recent history, however, historians can use oral history. Although it may seem easy to interview someone, it is actually quite difficult. There is always a danger of "leading" the interviewee--imposing your own structure or ideas on the subject's life, memories, or views. It is also possible to lead the subject away from vital issues which then remain unexplored. It is easy to miss subtleties in what is said or to assume that the individual is either representative or exceptional. In this case, the relationship between interviewer and subject contributes to both the depth and shape of the interview and the spaces left within it.
Lemon Swamp is a good example of the ways that these relationships play out in oral histories. Unlike most traditional oral histories, this "Carolina memoir" contains not just the subjective reflections of the subject Mamie Garvin Fields; it is also, as the interviewer Karen Fields has said, "the outcome of an extended conversation, it involves our two subjectivities, not hers alone." Karen Fields has not just recorded her grandmother's story, but also shaped its telling and, ultimately, the story her grandmother told.
2) What does Lemon Swamp suggest about the collective nature of African-American survival strategies in the South?
3) Early on, Karen Fields tells us that Lemon Swamp is the story of "women of strong personality making the order of a close community their business." What does she mean by this? What does the memoir tell us about the nature of African-American community?
4) What does Mamie mean by "uplift" and why is it important?
5) In a famous essay, Southern historian C. Vann Woodward has said, "The ironic thing about these two great hyphenate minorities, Southern-Americans and Afro-Americans, confronting each other on their native soil for three and a half centuries, is the degree to which they have shaped each other's destiny, determined each other's isolation, shared and molded a common culture. It is, in fact, impossible to imagine one without the other and quite futile to try." How does the nature of Mamie Fields' experience reflect Woodward's thesis?
6) What does this "Carolina memoir" tell us about race relations and the structures of race (what Mamie Fields calls her "sociology" lesson) in the South over her lifetime? Think about this in broader terms than black and white.
7) Karen Fields describes her grandmother's memoirs as being about "proud men freeing their wives from 'work out.'" What does Mamie Garvin Fields say to us about gender roles among Charleston African-Americans of her generation?
8) Keep in mind the connections that Lemon Swamp makes between race and class and gender. Why have questions about the gender of women of color taken on such importance in public policy in the twentieth century?
Several resources for womanist studies.
The Institute for African-American Studies at the University of Georgia's Womanist Homepage.
Valley of the Shadow.
Virtual Antebellum Richmond.
African-American History and Culture (Library of Congress Manuscripts: An Illustrated Guide).
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for History 286 (American Women's History), The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to email@example.com
Fall Semester 1997. Last modified: Tuesday 26 August 1997