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Ten Years Later: A Q&A With Mary Marshall Clark, Director, Columbia Center for Oral History

September 09, 2011

For many people, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks promises, as FDNY lieutenant Adrienne Walsh recently told New York magazine, "to be huge. An end point of sorts." We will always remember, Walsh added, but "the city can't stop." And life goes on.

Mary_marshall_clark_2011 Collective memory, in all its mutability, is the specialty of Mary Marshall Clark, director of the Columbia (University) Center for Oral History. When we first spoke to Clark, in 2003, she and her colleagues were wrapping up their work on the September 11, 2001 Oral History Narrative and Memory Project. That project eventually became part of the larger 9/11 Oral History Project, which comprises more than nine hundred recorded hours with over six hundred individuals. Many of the accounts gathered for the project have been collected in After the Fall: New Yorkers Remember September 2001 and the Years That Followed.)

Earlier this week, we asked Clark about the project, the difference between the mainstream media's version of 9/11 and the individual stories collected by Clark and her colleagues, and what has changed over the last ten years in the way individuals construct meaning out the events of September 11.

This is the fourth in our series of Q&As with executives and thought leaders in the field about the meaning and impact of 9/11. (Click here for our Q&A with Gordon J. Campbell, president/CEO, United Way of New York City; here for our Q&A with Lorie Slutsky, president, New York Community Trust; and here for our Q&A with David R. Jones, President/CEO, Community Service Society of New York.) Check back over the weekend for additional 9/11 reflections.

Philanthropy News Digest: What has the September 11th Oral History Narrative and Memory Project done to preserve the events of 9/11 for historians, scholars, and others?

Mary Marshall Clark: We at the Columbia Center for Oral History have conducted nearly one thousand hours of interviews with around six hundred people on the effects of September 11, 2001, as event and aftermath, on the city as a whole. We began our work in the immediate aftermath of September 11 and went back to those we interviewed in 2001 in 2002 and 2003. We interviewed additional people in 2004 and 2005, when the project officially closed. The scholarly value of these interviews lies in the fact that the project was interdisciplinary in nature. Peter Bearman, sociologist and head of the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy at Columbia University, was critical in establishing the intellectual framework and methodology for the project, teaching oral historians how to think about conducting interviews in the present and how to widen their curiosity to include people who might not be in their personal and professional networks.

The life histories we took with people at the site and people dispersed throughout New York City -- immigrants, Muslims, Afghans, Sikhs and Latinos -- together form a living quilt of memory that shows how 9/11 was perceived distinctively by New Yorkers. We conducted life histories that demonstrated how differently 9/11 was experienced by people according to class structures, ethnic and national origins, immigrant history, proximity to the towers and those who lived at a greater distance but might have been vulnerable in other ways. It is too soon to describe our archive, now fully accessible and available to the public, as a collective memory of New York City over the last decade. But we believe that along with other distinctive and important oral history projects like Ruth Sergel and Pamela Griffiths' Voices of 9.11 Project, we have created the basis for an oral collective memory of the last decade that can serve historians and others for the next fifty to a hundred years.

PND: Is the mainstream media's version of 9/11 different from the version, or versions, you're hearing in individual oral histories?

MMC: The mainstream media cannot contain a collective or even social memory of the events. What it is good at is highlighting individual stories, usually those that revolve around dramatic escape, dramatic loss, or highly personalized stories of recovery. Peter Bearman, co-founder and co-director of the Narrative and Memory Project, was especially interested in how the mainstream media might tempt people to talk in formulaic ways about the tragedy, and made it possible by securing an emergency fieldwork grant from the National Science Foundation to get out into the field quickly before that happened.

We agreed that the life history method is the finest way to mine the rich diversity and multi-generational history of New Yorkers, and that approach worked against a sound-bite or greatest-hits approach to telling stories. As we invited people to tell their stories of origin and personal development before and after their 9/11 story, the temporal and geographical span of the interviews was a large one. To give you an example, one of the Afghan cultural leaders we interviewed began his personal history by reaching four hundred years into the past, in his effort to establish the historical context in which the story should be listened to and interpreted.

PND: What, if anything, has changed over the last ten years about how people construct meaning out of the events of 9/11?

MMC: We see both subtle changes and more profound changes in individual life stories. For those who experienced extreme loss or injury, of course there was change and struggle. But we also see tremendous resilience and recovery, especially for those who crossed lines of social difference to embrace Muslims, Arab Americans, Sikhs, Latinos, and people of lower-economic status who were very affected in the aftermath. In many ways, New York recovered more quickly and effectively than we could have anticipated. This is no surprise, as it is a global city made up of refugees, immigrants, and sympathetic people who embrace difference as a natural part of daily life. And individuals, institutions, and organizations worked extremely effectively with each other to help those in need.

Strange as it may seem, it is still too soon to say what 9/11 meant to the city as a whole. We asked questions we knew were important to this generation. We hope those were the right questions, but we also hope that we have collected the kinds of narratives that can answer the questions of the next generation.

PND: When we last spoke, you said that new technologies such as e-mail did not pose a threat to oral history. With the advent of social media, do you still feel the same way?

MMC: I do. Twitter doesn’t impress me or scare me. The process of telling, face-to-face, in uninterruptable ways will never be replaced by the social media, not in a city like this one.

-- The Editors

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