The Off Season: Recording the voices of 2020…

Picture from the past: Eleven-year-old Demetra Jones does needlework on the porch of her Hardin County, Ky., cabin in 1916. National Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. 

Someday, in the not-so-distant future, another generation will be searching archives, glancing through museum glass, and wandering art galleries in an effort to understand what Hoosiers faced during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.

If you think that idea is far-fetched, that the virus is simply here and now, that no one in the future could possibly be interested in our everyday lives, keep in mind that history happens in real time and involves average people; we are a part of it, whether we want to be or not.

Writers and teachers and documentary makers, and hopefully, our community and political leaders, will in the coming years lean on the accounts of what we did and said, how we faced the virus and recorded our struggles and triumphs in emails and diaries, in photos and videos, even through works of art and posts on our socially-distanced media. We may now be in a global fistfight with fear and our own biology, but what we say and do will be important to those who come after us, even though the dust of years may settle over it.

When I was in school, history came to us mostly through textbooks and by reading historians’ revised views of what happened and why, but even then — and later as I taught — I came to rely more on the diarists, the letter writers, on the words and images of common day-to-day folks who knew they were living in extraordinary times.

My students liked lessons most when they involved doing a little digging themselves, sometimes in the photos housed at the Library of Congress, sometimes in the attics of their own grandparents. They read letters written by desperate children during the Great Depression as the youngsters begged Eleanor Roosevelt for clothes and food; they sorted through images of young boys and girls — some not yet 8 or 9 — who worked in coal mines and picked cotton in the years just before the Great War; they saw aged snapshots of the main streets of their own small towns in days when now-empty storefronts were thriving businesses. It’s history…

The Indiana Historical Society understands that. The repository of millions of such accounts and records dating back to the 1830s, the IHS is already asking that Hoosiers send them the impressions of our own lives as we face COVID-19.

“Right now, we are all grappling with a unique historical moment as we respond as a state, nation, and world to a pandemic. At the Indiana Historical Society, we want to add your story of how you and your family are understanding and experiencing the current “new normal,” a recent IHS press release says.

The Society is asking Hoosiers to send their writings, photos, drawings, paintings, and short videos to collectingcovid-19@indianahistory.org. In other words, we have a chance to leave a record for future generations to see and hear as they try — just as we do — to make sense of the past.

“Items in our collection let us hear the voices and see the people from our past who are living all the ranges of human experience and emotion. Through the items we collect, we can understand their joys and disappointments, as well as their achievements and failings. And yes, we can even understand the seemingly dull tasks of everyday life — what the weather was like, the neighborhood gossip, or what someone ate for dinner,” the IHS adds.

A few years ago, in what was, ironically, an e-learning lesson I prepared for my students for a planned day away from the school building, I asked a group of juniors to digitally thumb through a massive collection of Progressive Era photographs stored in the Library of Congress. I asked the students to select one photo, document its origin, then write a bit as to how they felt about what they had seen — what lesson from history they had learned.

I did the assignment myself, selecting a picture taken by the great Lewis Hine, one of our greatest photographers of social justice. It is of an 11-year-old Kentucky farm girl, Demetra Jones; she is sitting on the steps of her Hardin County cabin doing needlework. It is 1916.

Her father told Hine, “She’s the only farm hand I got. She helps a lot in the field work and house work too. Is good in school, 5th grade.”

The pandemic of 2020 will leave its mark on history, and years from now, textbooks — either digital or on paper — will tell the story. But, in these remarkable times, our own voices can be heard and our faces seen.

Contact Mike Lunsford at hickory913@gmail.com; his website is at www.mikelunsford.com. Get more information about the project at: https://indianahistory.org/telling-your-story-documenting-covid-19inindiana/?utm_source=delivra&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=COVID%20Collections%20Initiative&utm_id=39313636.

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