I always am going back to stories. My reimagination of the American South would be a chance to really hear each person’s story, because I feel when you sit and you hear a narrative that comes from somebody’s own point of view in their own voice, you connect with it and you see yourself in their stories.
Courtney Rivard, Ph.D. is the Director of the Digital Literacy and Communications (DLC) Lab and Teaching Associate Professor in English & Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Her interdisciplinary work brings together Composition and Rhetoric, Digital Humanities, and Feminist Studies to study the rhetoric of history as it unfolds in the space of archives. By focusing on the intersection of digital protocols and the rhetoric of archival structures, such as categorization, indexing, and tagging practices, she interrogates how notions of race, gender, and national belonging are produced in and through archival spaces. Her work can be found in College Composition and Communication, Rhetoric Review, Digital Humanities Quarterly, and Settler Colonial Studies. She is currently working on Voice of a Nation: Mapping Documentary Expression in New Deal American--a digital manuscript on the Southern Life History Project, a New Deal initiative that documented the lives of everyday Southerners with special attention to marginalized voices during the Great Depression.
As Director of the DLC Lab, Dr. Rivard leads the development of the lab as a space for innovation in digital pedagogy and digital storytelling. Recently, she received a Lenovo Instructional Innovation Grant to bring gaming pedagogies into Humanities classrooms through the creation of the Greenlaw Gameroom.
Stories, Crisis, + Survival
Melody: Welcome to Southern Futures. I'm Melody Hunter-Pillion with the Center for the Study of the American South. I'm a former broadcast news journalist and current doctoral student in public history. Through distinctive storytelling and humble listening, Southern Futures seeks solutions for the issues in our region. We're having conversations about place and about the future. Our guest for this episode is Dr. Courtney Rivard, Director of the Digital Literacy and Communications Lab and teaching associate professor in English and Comparative Literature here at UNC. She studies how narratives, stories influence notions of Southern identity, and how that unfolds in the space of archives. Hello, Courtney.
Courtney Rivard: Hi there. Thank you so much.
Melody: Courtney, your current project explores depression era narratives, the way these stories persuade society, how we preserve those stories, and also how those stories shaped our memory as a community. Your project, “Voice of a Nation: Mapping Documentary Expression in New Deal America,” recovers the history of the Southern life history project. And that's part of the Federal Writers Project, along with the WPA slave narratives and the Southern Writers Project.
Courtney: It is really about a shift in the way that people were thinking about capturing ideas of stories, and how those stories could be made to be authentic and represent kind of everyday people. In the 1930s, as the Great Depression was unfolding and people were trying to recover from that, there was a real kind of shift in how people captured stories and ideas of what “real” meant, “what did it mean to really real like, how could you capture real authentic life?” and people turn to those stories as a way, in particularly in southern life, History Project is a way to kind of clear create social change, that if only people could hear stories of people that were like them, and how life and the complicatedness of life and the complexity, then maybe that could affect change, that could get people motivated to hear those narratives, hear those stories—here's the way they resonate with their own lives and how that might change and kind of face the problems that were plaguing the South in the country as a whole. Some of the kind of amazing writers who came out of that time, like Zora Neale Hurston. At this kind of time, where we were trying to re-envision what the United States of America meant, in the backdrop of fascism coming across Europe. The United States wanted to, or many progressives in the United States, wanted to think about ways that American pluralism could be celebrated.
Melody: Courtney, when I look at the era that you are studying, the Great Depression, some of the events we're seeing from that era seem to be in play again. You mentioned the rise of fascism in Europe, then and now, where we see a health crisis and then other unrest here in the States, then and now. So perhaps, not repetition exactly, but a different version of issues that we have seen in the past.
Courtney: Yeah, I mean, certainly living through this moment of pandemic and now the responses and very real ways of protest for inequity and racism—these, I feel like when I go and working and reading the life histories, it feels very much that it resonates that folks were grappling with how to be and live in this these moments of extreme hardship where everything that they thought they knew was feeling like it was changing. In what I feel, looking at a historical approach and trying to understand and make sense of our time by looking at history, which is, you know, what historians are concerned with, right, like how can we learn from the past. And what I find particularly profound about the life histories is that they reveal a really complicated story. And these stories, if you read them, can help you to be a humble listener, because you have to listen through the complicated complexities of the writer and see what that exchange may have been like, between the interviewee and the power involved and telling one story to someone who you may or may not know. And just kind of through it all, there's hope and there's resilience, at the same time, that there’s struggle. And I can imagine how these stories, even when I read them today, make me feel, you know, more sympathetic and empathetic with the folks that were telling their stories and makes me want to better understand. And so, I think the stories that we tell today, I hope, have that same impact.
Melody: We're talking about stories and narratives. So, these stories in the Southern Writers Project that you're looking at, Courtney, were collected throughout the south, including North Carolina. Please share some of those stories with us.
Courtney: Yeah, I will. So, I’ve chosen two stories to share with you today. Aaron, of all the stories that the life histories that I could discuss, I wanted to kind of bring it back home to my home, which is in Durham, which was just a short drive away from Chapel Hill. So, I'm going to share one from Durham and then another one from Chapel Hill.
And the first story on life history I'm going to talk to you about is of Ava Hardinson, who's from an East Durham cotton mill, and a lot of folks know Durham, because of tobacco but they don't know as much that there was really strong mill industry and there's a lot of tension that was going on during the 1930s between agrarian kind of notions about needing to work the land in the idea of industrialism and what that meant for life and culture in the south at the time. In the story of Ava Hardinson is actually a little bit of a migration story as well. Her family was in Wilmington, which is on the coast of North Carolina, and her husband worked as a boxcar carpenter for a railroad. And he was in a union. And he was feeling like the working conditions were just not right, not just. And so, he joined in a union strike, and that resulted in his family basically being ousted from Wilmington. And so, he ended up in East Durham Mill. And the story is by a writer, who by the name of Ida Moore, and she was actually graduated from Winthrop in South Carolina and then came to teach so she was a school teacher, turned federal writer.
And this is how Ida Moore quoted Ava Hardison, she says this,
“My life has been hard by doing what seemed to be right. Me and Otis will live at the mill, as long as we can get work, I guess. And I don't mind it at all. If you could get regular work and good wage, I just assumed be here as anywhere else. But my boys hate it. And I pray for the day when they'll be able to find something else to do.”
I'm going to read one other story and this again is from Chapel Hill. And this story was written by William O. Foster, who actually was a graduate student studying history at UNC Chapel Hill at the time. And this is a story of Virgil Johnson, who's a tenant farmer in Chapel Hill, and he's living on the same land in Chapel Hill and it's actually interesting in that it's near Piney Mountain—folks might know where that is not really a mountain, here in Chapel Hill—but I often ride my bicycle by there. It's a very beautiful farmland. And he's living on the same land that his parents lived on but as slaves, under the same family that own the land and used to own his family. And this is what he says. And he's talking about feeling like the land is like a powerful place. But he's struggling really hard with getting enough to pay for himself because he's a tenant farmer and for his family, and he had planted a bunch of crops of cotton, but the boll weevil, which is this kind of parasite, had taken it he only got one, one bale. But in his story, he's still feeling like really strong and resilient and you can see this power in his voice. But he switches in his story, and he starts to talk about other larger political issues and I feel like this really gives insight into his life. He says, and I quote,
“No, I don't vote. I used to, until I fix the franchise up. About 40 years ago, I was voting and they passed a law making the voters explain the constitution and they put in the grandfather clause. I couldn't fit in with that. Knew it was just an excuse to keep us from voting. And I ain't voted since. If I was to vote today, I'd vote for Roosevelt. I don't care if he's a democrat, he helps the poor man and the farmer."
Melody: Listening to Virgil Johnson, in fact, listening to both of those stories, Ava's also is really powerful, especially when we think of politics and social issues. Virgil's, though, for me is really striking and his words could be something someone says today.
Courtney: Exactly, yeah. And that's what these stories are right, hat there was a time of intense hardships and people fighting for social change and just trying to live, right, and be and have a family. And that's the power of stories is you find yourself in these stories and try to look to the way that they had demonstrated power and the way that you can do that as well.
Melody: When you talked about Virgil Johnson, and you ride your bike by the land that he was talking about, is it a different experience for you now, when you pass by that same land now that you know this voice and the words that are connected to it?
Courtney: I always see these mailboxes that kind of announced Piney Mountain Road. And now, when I go by there, I can't help to, like, see the land and think about, think about the stories that lived on that land, right? And I just kind of go by it, and it feels intense. Because all the stories that have been told, all the struggles that have been had, and now, you know, I can ride my bicycle by it, but it helps me to keep me a little bit grounded, right, to not just keep on flying down that hill once I get to the top, but to think, think about all those people before that have struggled and have made life happy and difficult. But they existed there.
Melody: Okay, searching multiple archives is not easy work given the different finding aids, keyword searches that are unique to each archive. Courtney, what are the methods you're using in your work to make it easier for all of us to find stories like Virgil Johnson's, stories that would otherwise be silenced?
Courtney: For me, in particular, digital humanities methods and quantitative methods can help in loosening and tracing what seems to be a silence. And that's part of what our project is doing with the Southern Life History Project. What we're trying to do is to use quantitative methods to, what we call, reading the archive at a distance. And that doesn't mean just at a distance but using the close readings that are kind of bedrock of methodology of humanities, together with using the affordances of digital methods. The project that I'm working on, and I must say that it's a collaborative project with Dr. Lauren Tilton and Dr. Taylor Arnold, who are both at the University of Richmond, each life history has been digitized. So, what we're doing with the Southern Life History Project is two types of computational practices. One is mostly kind of just a basic metadata analysis. We can think of that as kind of categorizing data, the same way you do when you want to find a Netflix movie, right? “What type of movie do you want?” So, it's kind of like, “what type of data do you want?” The occupation, the race, sometimes the gender of the interviewee, and then they give, sometimes, a couple of keywords that they found were helpful with the interview. And so, we've used that metadata and apply to all of the life histories and so then this list allows us to think about larger questions. So now we can map these and say, okay, “which of these life histories occurred in Durham or in Chapel Hill? How many of these were women? How many more women writers?” And we're doing a couple different forms of text analysis. We're able to look at all the words instantly, of all the life histories. And what becomes really interesting with this is that we see that different writing styles were employed for different types of interviewees. And what it demonstrates to us, which is really powerful, is that African American interviewees were predominantly written with written dialect. Toni Morrison calls this eye-dialect. And what this means is, it's the kind of purposeful misspelling to demonstrate the otherness of the interviewee. And so, it's so powerful that it actually clouds our ability to see the other topics that African American interviewees are speaking about.
Melody: I'm understanding the materials that you're reading for your profession and your research. But I also want to know, on a personal level, what types of things are you reading now are stories that you find that you're going back to time and time again? Would you read something for us and tell us why you selected this?
Courtney: I really love Southern Cultures. I actually use this journal all the time in class. The quick passage that I would like to read for you here today has to go back to the central concern that I'm always thinking about, which is archives and the power of archives to tell stories and then what stories are allowed to be told.
Karida Brown and this is titled “On the Participatory Archive: The Formation of the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project.” And so, she's telling her story of doing her doctoral research and she is really interested in actually going back to her own communities and her own family's stories of kind of migration experiences from the coal mines of Kentucky. And when she's there, she's kind of struggling with her home discipline and sociology. And she's finding, like, “that's not working.” And she, she says that it has this chilling ability to sterilize the experience of the people she's talking to. And she’s totally about faces and starts to pursue oral histories. But when she does that, she realized she has all these materials, it should be in an archive, but aren't there. And so, she actually teamed up with the southern historical collection at UNC to create a participatory archive. This is a really, really powerful type of archive because it gives ownership and power to the people who donated material. And so, she's talking about, in this passage, the way that she's feeling when she's listening to people's oral histories, who have migrated out of the Kentucky area. This is what she says:
“As time went on, it became clear to me that they shared a collective sense of urgency to preserve their history. In their archive, their memories, their nicknames, their performances and rituals, remains a unique and rich history that lies virtually untold. Now in an age where the reality of finitude is ever present in their consciousness, many of them lay awake at night, wondering if the traces that they left will, a scholar Michel Foucault puts it, ‘be erased like a face strong and sand at the edge of the sea.’”
Yeah, in finding new ways that challenge traditional notions of the way archives should be, to make those stories known in a way that they want them to be.
Melody: Folks who want to read more of Karida Brown’s article, visit southerncultures.org. I want to wrap up the show with some thoughts from you, Courtney, on how you personally and through your work how you reimagine the American South.
Courtney: I mean, I always am going back to stories, like my reimagination of the American South would be a chance to really hear each person's story because I feel like when you when you sit and you hear a narrative, that you know comes from somebody's own point of view, their own voice, that you connect with it. And you see, as I said earlier, yourself in their stories, and that creates a connection. Because you see how connected our lives are and that at the end of the day, we all really want the same thing right? A safe place to live.
Melody: Well said, Courtney, thank you for a delightful conversation. For our listeners, we appreciate your interest in this program. Be sure to join us for next episode. For executive producer Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery, associate producer Ellie Little, and sound editor Mark Meyer, I'm Melody Hunter-Pillion. Southern Futures is a podcast powered by the Southern Futures initiative, a new collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences, UNC Libraries, the Center for the Study of the American South and other units of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Southern Futures, reimagine the American South.