The theme of the 2023 summit of the AASLH, the American Association for State and Local History, is "I, Too, Am America," inspired by the poem of the same name by Langston Hughes. Every year, the conference offers workshops, interactive sessions, and networking around a common theme. Historical archives and societies around the US gather to develop a common understanding of those themes, the better to forward their missions to serve communities by connecting people to their past and present to make meaning. This year's theme anticipates the United States Semiquincentennial in 2026. The goal is to reimagine American identity as we commemorate the nation's 250th birthday. This theme is especially resonant to us here at Memria.
What is now the United States of America has been home to many unique cultures, histories, and identities. Its ideal, though we tend to fall short of it, is to include all people seeking opportunity in life, irrespective of their legal standing, demographics, or personal beliefs. The phrase "I, Too, Am America" encapsulates the inclusive aspiration of America, which extends beyond gender identity, age, income, color, ethnicity, region, education, or documentation, and encompasses everyone who lives, works, and contributes to American society. This bold statement challenges us to reflect on our past, present, and future interpretations of American history, and underscores the vital role that archives and local history societies play in preserving and promoting a more inclusive definition of American identity.
Archives are repositories of historical records that hold invaluable insights into the past. They house primary source documents, such as letters, diaries, photographs, newspapers, maps, and other records that provide a window into the diverse stories and experiences of people from different backgrounds. Archives serve as custodians of collective memory, preserving the stories and contributions of all members of society. They are essential in challenging traditional narratives of American history and shining a light on the stories of those whose voices are often overlooked or marginalized.
Local history societies, on the other hand, play a crucial role in collecting, preserving, and interpreting the history of their communities. They are often formed by local residents who are passionate about their heritage and seek to uncover the stories of the people who have shaped their communities over time. Local history societies engage in activities such as oral history interviews, collecting artifacts, curating exhibits, organizing educational programs, and promoting research and scholarship on local history. Audio storysharing can amplify all of these efforts. Recording the voices of community members creates spaces for diverse voices and perspectives to be heard and fosters a sense of community and belonging for all members.
"I, Too, Am America" challenges us to rethink how we interpret American history. It urges us to move beyond the traditional narratives that often focus on the accomplishments of a select few and to embrace a more inclusive approach that acknowledges the contributions of all members of society. Archives and local history societies can play a pivotal role in this endeavor by actively seeking out and preserving records that reflect the diversity of American society. By collecting and preserving the stories of people from different racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation, age, and socioeconomic backgrounds, archives and local history societies can help create a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of American history. This is where storysharing comes in.
Moreover, archives and local history societies have a responsibility to engage with their evolving audience. As the demographics of America change and the definition of American identity continues to evolve, archives and local history societies must adapt to ensure that their collections, exhibits, and programs are accessible, relevant, and inclusive to all members of society. This includes reaching out to underrepresented communities, actively seeking out diverse perspectives, and creating safe spaces for marginalized voices to be heard. Archives and local history societies can serve as platforms for promoting dialogue, understanding, and empathy among different groups, and for fostering a sense of shared history and identity. Audio platforms such as Memria make this easier by facilitating immediate, accessible options for capturing stories to provide depth and perspective for the archive and the community.
The phrase "I, Too, Am America" represents a bold statement that challenges us to embrace a more inclusive definition of American identity. Archives and local history societies have a vital role to play in this endeavor. By collecting, preserving, and interpreting records that reflect the diversity of American society, and by engaging with their evolving audience in a meaningful way, archives and local history societies can help shape a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of American history. Part of this understanding is strengthened through audio storysharing. Narratives become living records, connecting listeners to storytellers across time and distance with the immediacy of the human voice. They can foster a sense of belonging and community for all members of society, and promote a more inclusive and united vision of America that embraces the contributions of every individual.
Storysharing via audio storytelling is critical to this work. Projects like I AM A STORY, The Freedom Story Project, and Our Community Stories are vital in helping to give voice to those stories that often go unheard. It also provides an opportunity for people of all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life to connect on a deep level and share their experiences with each other. By listening to shared stories, we can gain a better understanding of our own histories as well. Furthermore, these stories can serve as a source of inspiration for future generations. By sharing their stories with each other, people are able to gain a better sense of who they are and where they come from. The result is a stronger connection to the past that helps bridge the gaps between cultures and strengthens our humanity. Together, they provide an opportunity to explore the stories of the past and their relevance to our lives today. By creating safe spaces for diverse voices to be heard, we are able to gain valuable insight into how we can shape a more inclusive and equitable future so we can all proudly say, “I, too, am America.”