Emerson Collective and Columbia University Launch Jacqueline Woodson’s New Oral History Project, “I See My Light Shining”

Over the next year, 10 distinguished writers and storytellers will capture oral histories and artifacts from hundreds of elders from across the country.

February 23, 2022

Editor's note: This article has been updated on July 29, 2022 to reflect ongoing developments on the project. 

The Columbia Center for Oral History Research and the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics is partnering with the Emerson Collective and Baldwin For The Arts to support acclaimed author and 2020 MacArthur Fellow Jacqueline Woodson’s new project, I See My Light Shining: Oral Histories of our Elders. Through Baldwin For The Arts, a group of talented and award-winning writers will be deployed to conduct oral history interviews with people in various regions of the country, capturing unrecorded memories and life experiences before these stories are lost to history.

“From aging Civil Rights activists to Native American tribal leaders, to survivors of Stonewall, many stories remain untold or beyond the grasp of museums and institutions,” Woodson said. “When these elders pass away, their records and accounts may go with them. Our project seeks to fill these gaps before it’s too late.”

Woodson will guide the project creatively and has selected the cohort of 10 writers who will collect these histories, which will be housed in the Oral History Archives at Columbia University, one of the largest oral history collections in the world.

We are pleased to announce this remarkable group of Baldwin-Emerson fellows:

  • Natalie Diaz
  • Eve L. Ewing
  • Denice Frohman
  • Caleb Gayle
  • Robin Coste Lewis
  • April Reign
  • Carolina De Robertis
  • Ellery Washington
  • Renee Watson
  • Jenna Wortham

Each fellow will conduct approximately 30 interviews with people in targeted geographies across the United States, from New York City, to the American Deep South, to the Greenwood District in Tulsa, to Native American reservations in Arizona and New Mexico.

Those who are interviewed will also have the opportunity to have their family archival records preserved, including photographs, letters, and additional ephemera. The product will be an archive of approximately 300 interviews, alongside other media and documents, made available publicly and online, and with the potential to showcase the power of inclusive storytelling on various platforms such as museums, multi-media art, and podcasts for public understanding.

The project is funded by Emerson Collective, an organization dedicated to creating pathways to opportunity so people can live to their full potential.

Columbia will serve in a curatorial and advisory capacity, adapting its longstanding expertise in oral history practice to help Woodson bring forth her vision. The work at Columbia will be co-directed by Mary Marshall Clark, director of the Columbia Center for Oral History Research, and Kimberly Springer, curator of the Oral History Archive.

"Our collection is distinguished for the inclusion of all those who shape our world, not just ‘Great Men.’ We have and continue to build an archive that includes a vast array of histories so that current and future generations learn lessons from our times," Springer said. "That’s why we’re thrilled to support Jacqueline in a project so consistent with that spirit."

“We could not be more excited to work with Jacqueline to support her extraordinary vision and the gifted writers she has chosen to carry out the oral histories. The scope of this project  is breathtaking. Our world will be better with the collection and sharing of these rich historical stories,” Clark said.

To kick-off the project, the fellows took part in a series of oral history training sessions that will be led by Columbia’s oral history team. The interviews have commenced and will be completed by April 23, with the goal of making the project accessible in the libraries and online no later than December 2023.

“We see such great promise in this project, and the partnership with Jacqueline and Columbia,” said Anne Marie Burgoyne, Emerson Collective’s managing director for philanthropy. “It has the potential to produce something lasting, not just in the records and recollections gathered, but in creating a new model for the preservation and inheritance of previously neglected histories.”