In the TED Salon talk “How we’re honoring people overlooked by history,” which was posted earlier this summer, New York Times obituaries editor Ana Padnani discusses her project to revive and re-examine lives that were neglected by the great newspaper’s section for posthumous biographies. As I listened and watched this smiling woman give a good-natured, slightly humorous explanation of her work uncovering the stories of women and people of color who deserved more attention than they got, I knew both the exhilaration of accomplishing this myself, as well as the other side of what she’s talking about.
I also work to uncover neglected stories, ones that are either lost and forgotten or that had not yet received attention. I began writing I Just Make People Up about artist Clark Walker in 2004, and when it was published in 2009, it was the first and remains the only book on his life and five-decade career. Similarly, The Life and Poetry of John Beecher was the first full-length biography and critical analysis of that social-protest poet, writer, and journalist; published in 2009 as well, it was the only one until Angela Smith’s Here I Stand was published in 2017. Most recently, Closed Ranks contains the only full-length account of the Whitehurst Case, an unresolved police-shooting controversy in Montgomery, Alabama from 1975, ’76, and ’77.
Bringing lost or neglected stories into the light can be really rewarding. I’ve had the wonderful privilege of interviewing people who had never been interviewed before about their involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Some of those interviews are held in the late Gwen Patton’s archives at the Trenholm State Technical College library. I’ve also been able to work alongside public historians to collect interviews from two of Montgomery’s underserved historically black communities, Madison Park and Newtown. Those interviews are being made available to public by Auburn University and the Montgomery County Archives, respectively. Access to those interviews is free, exactly the way it should be.
However, I also know what Padnani did not share: the emotional tightrope-walking that neglected stories require of a researcher-writer. Unlike engaging with prominent subjects who are accustomed to the limelight, the people whose lives are tangled up in lesser-known stories can be reticent, hesitant, or suspicious, and some even refuse to participate, especially those minor characters who aren’t proud of their roles. Some key players can also look at a writer excited by the re-discovery of a lost tale and see a shyster and a profiteer, a suspicion that can lead to mighty struggles both during and after the project. Sometimes, friends, family, neighbors, and church members – who know nothing about public history, writing, or publishing – create unrealistic scenarios where millions of dollars are earned while the subjects themselves are denied a share of the profits. Finally, there are a scant few who, perhaps out of embarrassment or an inability to cope with the attention, even sabotage the eventual end product by quitting near the end, shying away from post-publication press, and telling their own friends to reject what has been written.
Efforts like Ana Padnani’s (and mine) are picking up steam again in a twenty-first century culture that wants to unearth buried perspectives. The Equal Justice Initiative is conducting its research on lynchings and other racial violence, not only compiling the results institutionally but seeking to have markers placed publicly. SUNY-Binghamton’s Center for the Historical Study of Women and Gender is working on publishing the Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States (for which I wrote an entry about an activist-teacher from Alabama). The deep-digging research and careful writing are important, not because the publications will earn money – they generally won’t, though works like Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Dangers have caught on – but because lesser-known stories are just as much a part of our history as the widely circulated ones.