Bertold Brecht, Public Housing, and Oral History

By Purdy, Sean | The Oral History Review, Summer-Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Bertold Brecht, Public Housing, and Oral History


Purdy, Sean, The Oral History Review


In "Questions From a Worker Who Reads," Bertold Brecht writes evocatively of how the history of ordinary people is forsaken in favor of the stories of kings and emperors. "Every page a victory. Who cooked the feast for the victors? Every ten years a great man. Who paid the bill? So many reports. So many questions." (1) I always keep this poem in mind as I interview former residents of Regent Park public housing project in Toronto, for it is their stories that have been marginalized, dismissed, or neglected in the history of the welfare state. If the state and middle-class reformers were responsible for establishing public housing, one might well ask: But who lived there?

My interest in oral history comes from a deeply held intellectual and political belief that ordinary people play a central role in determining their own histories. Oral history is the principal means of recovering the memories of those people, such as public housing tenants, who did not figure in the great political debates of modern times but who nevertheless occupied important social and political spaces in their own right. What were their thoughts and opinions on state programs? How did their actions affect state formation? How did they live the welfare state? So many questions....

Yet there is also a close personal connection to my interest in the oral history of the working class. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood bordering a public housing project and my mother has lived in public housing for ten years. I have been active in the trade-union movement, first as a shop steward in the United Food and Commercial Workers' Union and later in the British Columbia Teachers' Federation. Listening to grievances--a poignant form of story and memory--is the first responsibility of a shop-floor representative. Campaigning on union issues, I visited other workplaces, listened to and often debated workers about critical issues. At university, I immersed myself in strike support campaigns, anti-racist activities, and the anti-Gulf war movement. Participating in and writing about a strike by food-service workers at my university for the alternative press, I realized that pat sound bites and clever press releases did not do justice to the stories of these workers. I conducted interviews with the strikers, talked to and learned from them on the picket line, celebrated and commiserated as their struggle ebbed and flowed.

This experience brought home to me what Staughton Lynd calls "oral history from below" where the activist researcher "accompanies" the "world of the poor and working people as a theatre of action." (2) There is no pretence to objectivity in this form of oral history practice, yet it allows the historian to get at many of the memories and stories, facts and developments, as well as affirming the voices of the marginalized. As many oral historians have noted, I found that the strikers were often surprised at the suggestion that they had an important story to tell. Through the process of oral history, they became aware that they were in fact the ones "who built Thebes of the seven gates." (3)

My awareness of the importance of listening to ordinary people's accounts of history was reaffirmed when I began to study academic history seriously. I decided to write my Ph.D. thesis on one aspect of a major development in modern Canadian history, the formation of the welfare state. …

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