This week has been pretty spectacular! Not only was it my birthday week, but I got a chance to have a well-respected poet named Droopy the Broke Baller lead me through his memories of D.C. — pre-gentrification, that is — and D.C. poetry. After walking around the U street corridor — home to the FAMOUS Ben’s Chili Bowl and flagship location for Busboys and Poets — and reminiscing about some of his favorite poetry / open mic spots, we enjoyed an impromptu happy hour to break bread and chat.
Not only did I have the pleasure of filming an AMAZING poet, storyteller, and artist, which was more than enough of a present for me. But, I received an even SWEETER gift: I was told something that made not only my day but my whole life! The poet said that he was grateful to have these stories documented for posterity. And knowing they’d go on and become something bigger than him was so appreciated. While all researchers believe that the work work they do is of value — to whom and to what degree, however, is never really known in the process. Honestly, I was just hoping I wouldn’t be a bother to my participants, for an artist’s hustle never ends. But to receive such enthusiastic assistance with this work, to hear that this project is personally meaningful to someone in the community, and to be reminded that the results could ensure that these untold histories live on — I ==mean, wow! It’s an honor I do not take lightly.
But, in trying to submit my study for ethical review and approval, I was taken aback by the edits that the review board’s representative suggested; I was prompted to remove the signature portion of my consent form, as it was deemed “unnecessary” to obtain this type of consent. I merely only have to invite an artist / participant and consent would be presumed. To be honest, I heard this was “a thing,” but to see it in writing bothered me. Has anyone else come across this? Thoughts? Reactions? Advice???
I made the requested changes and, of course, received approval. But now, I fully realize the onus for ethical treatment and circulation of oral histories is solely up to the researcher. To decide how best to reflect and protect a speaker’s words is also solely up to the researcher. And, to seek actual permission to incorporate a writer or speaker’s actual poetic content or personal stories is — once again — solely up to the researcher. Or rather, it is solely up to me???
Now, I’ve always felt the weight of being granted access into these poets’ lives — because poetic content is not just about words spoken or placed on a page but the experiences lived that inform such content. And, with that comes the responsibility to represent these artists and their work “accurately” (or rather fairly). But given the actual confirmation of an artist’s hopes that these stories will mean MORE than just fodder for research publication or professional accolades motivates me to ensure my chosen community is benefited by letting me into their worlds.
That said, I have seen many a’ folk in academia forget the reciprocity that is part of fieldwork. I have seen people choose projects, especially high profiled researchers, for its “cool factor” or potential to attract grant money — and never produce anything of value to that community. Even as a novice PhD student, that felt “off” to me. And I remember “clutching my pearls” when I heard the answer to my question of what inspired a certain professor’s interest in his field site — mind you I was prepared for a moving tribute or heartfelt reflection. I was thinking: “let’s get ready to CUE THE VIOLINS, release the doves and wipe the tears!” Well…that was until I got his answer: “money!” Simpy put and said without apologies. And even more disheartening, it was not even a breath later and he was moving on to the next “lucrative” project and vulnerable community.
I understand many of us have the best of intentions to make a difference in various chosen communities’ or participants’ lives, and sometimes we just get distracted or bogged down by life. But I caution researchers — and I say this to myself as I’m telling this to whoever out there — do not forget those who opened their homes, hearts, histories to us. Many people don’t need a promissory note of so many dollars or even access to academic fame. They just want their stories and realities to mean something — especially for those whose cultures have survived only orally.
Never underestimate nor undervalue the impact of collecting oral histories or documenting folklore. But also, be mindful of the gift of being entrusted with a person’s poems, stories, or songs. And do your absolutely best to treasure, protect, and RESPECT these texts — especially if the ethics of such work is solely up for interpretation. Take a moment’s pause to price your most treasured memories, QUADRUPLE that figure and, just maybe, you’ll get the idea of their worth to your storyteller.
I hope the products from my work will show a fourth of the appreciation I feel for what I have been privy to observe during this time. And today, in bringing this productive research week to a close by filming at the Open Mic sanctuary known as SpitDat, and hearing people pour out their soul in song and poetic verse, I just can’t believe how much fun and inspiring this work can be. Well, under the best of circumstances — because there are moments that are true tests. BELIEVE ME!
But today, I’m basking in the joy. Happy birthday me!!!