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How to Uncover Diverse Voices for Research and Teaching
African American studies professor Marcia Chatelain shares strategies for discovering overlooked perspectives in primary source archives
By Courtney Suciu
Marcia Chatelain, researcher, author, commentator and professor of African American studies at Georgetown University, says she is motivated by “trying to find the story that doesn’t emerge so easily.”
This means stories like the experiences of Black girls and teenage women who were part of the movement of African Americans from the southern U.S. to northern urban areas like Chicago in the first half of the 20th century. But, while researching her book South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration, Chatelain discovered the challenge of finding materials that revealed Black girls’ perspectives of their own lives.
Secondary resources provided observations and expectations of Black girlhood by various institutions and organizations, but Chatelain wanted to hear from the girls themselves and understand how the intersection of gender, age and race were reflected in their experiences, and contributed to the transformation of social dynamics in the city.
As Chatelain consulted the work of sociologists like E. Franklin Frazier, author of The Negro Family in Chicago and The Black Bourgeoise, she realized the unpublished interviews Frazier referenced had to exist somewhere. So, she went straight to his papers and discovered a trove of primary source documents that shed light on the hopes, fears, desires and experiences of Black girls and teenage women, in their own words.
By directly referencing the letters and interviews found in archives, South Side Girls put the spotlight on a historically overlooked and undervalued population, bringing new layers of complexity and understanding to a pivotal time in American history.
For her next book, Chatelain chose a topic that also seemed obscure – she wanted to investigate Black capitalism and the role of McDonald’s fast food restaurants in African American communities. Without access to the McDonald’s corporate archives, Chatelain needed alternative pathways to discover relevant insights and information.
For example, examining Historical Black Newspapers revealed relationships between Black activist organizations and the burger chain, such as franchise locations with Black owners, or sit-ins and boycotts that were targeted at other restaurant locations. This led Chatelain to consult archives such as the SNCC or NAACP papers for evidence on the role of McDonald’s in the civil rights movement.
The result was her latest book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, which has been lauded by The New York Times as “a smart and capacious history… This isn’t just a story of exploitation or, conversely, empowerment; it’s a cautionary tale about relying on the private sector to provide what the public needs, and how promises of real economic development invariably come up short.”
In a recent ACRL Choice webinar sponsored by ProQuest, Chatelain shared how her approach to research evolved in the process of writing her books, and how she uses primary source materials to teach her students how to ask questions that surface perspectives not traditionally “considered important or valuable enough to be included in secondary sources.”
“[Researchers] don’t give voice to the voiceless,” she said. “Everyone has a voice, and with the right resources, we can amplify the words and experiences of those who weren’t considered important enough to be heard.”
Watch How to Uncover Diverse Voices for Research and Teaching: Strategies with Primary Source Archives featuring Prof. Chatelain to learn more about using primary source documents in research and learning.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu