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Rachel Louise Martin

I published my first story when I was in the 8th grade. I wrote it because I wanted to understand the life and experiences of a man I’d never known.

I grew up in rural Tennessee in a tiny enclave a few miles east of Murfreesboro, home of Middle Tennessee State. The first major intersection on the way into town was a four-way stop. The 96 Food Mart sat on one corner, dispensing gas and chips. A small trailer rested kitty-corner from the store. At night, a single light shone through the trailer’s kitchen window. It wasn’t a bright light like the incandescent lamps that burned around our house; it flickered dimly like a candle or a gas wick. I’d lean my head against the sedan’s backseat window and wonder about the people living inside.

One day, the intersection was clogged with police cars and ambulances. I looked over toward the trailer as we passed. A single pair of dirty white tennis shoes sat in the middle of the street. A few days later my mom saw the obituary in the Daily News Journal, our local paper. The man who lived in the trailer had been crossing the street to visit the Food Mart. He’d been hit by a car and died on the scene. My first story was about him, this person I’d never known but spent many hours imagining.

I still chase people’s stories today.

I have been an oral historian for 13 years. I completed a PhD in women’s and gender history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. While there, I collected 70 interviews for my dissertation, Out of the Silence: Remembering the Desegregation of Clinton, Tennessee, High School. I was also a research assistant with the Southern Oral History project where I collected and processed interviews for the Long Civil Rights Movement Initiative.

Today I combine my love of stories with my training in interviewing and research. I have published essays in O Magazine, the Atlantic online, CityLab and Narratively. “How Hot Chicken Really Happened,” an essay for the Bitter Southerner was included in Cornbread Nation 2015: The Best of Southern Food Writing. I also collected and curated “Making Eyes on the Prize: An Oral History” for the Ford Foundation. Some of my work can be found here.

I think of oral history and audio storytelling as being akin to music. The basic building blocks of our narratives are solos: one voice telling its story. Such narratives capture our attention and grip our hearts. As soon as more voices join in, the music of the past becomes more complex. Some people have held onto perspectives that harmonize, differing only by gradations of nuance, but more often, the various voices are in discord and disagreement. This is often the most troubling part of memory, but it can also be the most revealing. There is power in the complexity of our stories, in the melodies, harmonies and descants of the piece. That is where the beauty and the truth lie, where I find the stories waiting to be told.