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There is no doubt that the single most important factor in the constitution of an interview is the questions posed by the interviewer. Inevitably derived from a set of assumptions about what is historically important, the interviewer's questions provide the intellectual framework for the interview and give it direction and shape. For especially articulate narrators, the questions are a foil against which they define their experience. Good interviewers listen carefully and attempt to more closely align their questions with what the narrator thinks is important. Nonetheless, more than one interviewer has had the experience described by Thomas Dublin as he reflected upon his interviews with coal mining families: "Once, when looking over photographs with Tom and Ella Strohl [whom he had previously interviewed], I expressed surprise at seeing so many pictures taken on hunting trips with his buddies. When I commented that I had not realized how important hunting had been in Tommy's life, he responded good-naturedly, 'Well, you never asked.'"*

Yet the questions asked are not the only influence an interviewer has upon what is said in an interview. Like narrators, interviewers have social identities that are played out in the dynamic of the interview. Narrators assess interviewers, deciding what they can appropriately say to this person, what they must say, and what they should not say. Thus a grandparent being interviewed by a grandchild for a family history project may well suppress less savory aspects of the past in an effort to shield the child, serve as a responsible role model, and preserve family myths. And I described above how my own social identity as the upwardly mobile granddaughter of Polish immigrants created a particular emotional subtext to interviews with Polish cannery workers.

The following two interviews with the same person, one conducted by an African-American interviewer, one by a white interviewer, present a stark example of the way the narrator's response to the social identity of the interviewer shapes the interview. The narrator is Susan Hamlin or Hamilton, a former slave in South Carolina. These interviews were conducted with her under the auspices of the Federal Writers Project (FWP) in the 1930s. Both interviewers worked from a common set of questions that included personal history, work experiences, education, diet, and the master/slave relationship. With instructions about how to render former slaves' dialects in writing, FWP interviewers took notes and then summarized their interviews. Read the two interviews, paying close attention to the interaction between Hamlin/Hamilton and each interviewer and to the way she recounted her memories of slavery to each of them.

Source for exercise drawn from James W. Davidson and Mark H. Lytle, After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection (1985), 183-193.

Interview One

Interview Two
Interview One with Commentary Interview Two with Commentary