The Power of Oral History

For one month between December 2002 and January 2003, I was fortunate to travel to Cape Verde for the first time to do research. Talking to elders who I assumed were strangers, I soon discovered family among them.  In the process, I uncovered layers of my own identity.

I visited sites I had only read about. I heard stories that helped me understand the meaning of sodadi. I experienced morabeza and amizadi. I came to see the meaning of what it is to be a Cape Verdean woman. It is difficult to find words to explain how I—a third generation Cape Verdean American—felt during that visit. The origin of the values that framed my life became crystal clear. I felt at home with people that shared my sensibilities, my rhythm, my pride. I witnessed the complex politics of skin color, language, island, and class in the archipelago.  I learned more about my family and myself in that short visit, than any book or classroom experience could have ever taught me.  Like the barku in this photo, the journey served as a tool that transported me to a different level of understanding and yearning.


A little girl who grew up in a small, Cape Verdean enclave in Onset, Massachusetts, listening stories about “the old country,” returned there with increased motivation to capture snapshots of history.  In particular, I wanted to hear and record our elders’ stories as told by them, in their own Kriolu voices.  This is because of the fact that in some cases, the historical narratives I collected contradicted all I thought I knew and understood about the history of Cape Verde—which I had read in US-published monographs and a few limited sources in Portuguese.  This underscores the power of oral history and folklore.  It demonstrates the importance of the medium for capturing and preserving “first-voice” narratives that contest the secondhand interpretations of others who may or may not be a part of our communities. This is particularly important in the case of the telling of history of the oppressed (by those who represent or have the same privileges as the oppressor).  It’s something I learned in studying African and African-American histories, which were born out of that very dilemma.  I became convinced of the urgency of this work, and my commitment to developing an oral history project based on this experience was born.