University of Rome professor tells tales of US history

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Alessandro Portelli spoke in the TSU Pavilion to a completely full room. Behind the chairs, students sat on the floor to listen to him. JESSICA PINEDA / Daily Titan
Alessandro Portelli spoke in the TSU Pavilion to a completely full room. Behind the chairs, students sat on the floor to listen to him.

It was more than 50 years ago that Alessandro Portelli came to Westchester High School as a foreign exchange student from Italy.

On Tuesday he was back in Southern California, now speaking about his experiences as an oral historian in America at the Center of Oral and Public History’s annual Hansen Lecture series.

Portelli, now a professor of American Literature at the University of Rome – La Sapienza, learned from the people of Harlan County, Kentucky, a place known for labor activism. Its history has been retold through works such as the 1976 documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. and Portelli’s 2012 book They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History.

As an adult, Portelli found himself in America again, staying with Barbara Dane, blues music’s “great white hope” who dropped her career to sing political songs and protest music.

Dane introduced Portelli to folk songs written by the wives of coal miners rallying against capitalism and coal mine bosses.

Eventually, folk songs led him to Harlan County, a place in America where all of the country’s history happened more dramatically. From industrialization to today’s drug problem, this region felt issues in a more concentrated way, Portelli said.

It was also a place where a Canadian documentarian had been killed for not respecting the locals and their land. Harlan residents were weary of people from New York and Chicago that had come to study the locals.

“Being a foreigner, I did not come from a culture that stereotyped them,” Portelli said.

Portelli met different characters and captured their history, like Granny Hagar, whose scarred body had the remnants of past labor struggles after being beaten down and had cigarette burns from coal company cronies.

“She had history literally carved into her body,” Portelli said. “The body was the text.”

It was also the place where he would find the mountains that were similarly scarred after coal companies had blown off their tops.

“I discovered a living memory that goes back to the beginning of history, to the first settlers,” Portelli said.

The Hansen Lecture Series was established five years ago to host nationally known scholars or practitioners in oral and public history. It was named after Arthur Hansen, Ph.D., former director of the Center for Oral and Public History, who was in attendance.

“A lot of the students have read his works and because he has really wide-ranging work both in Europe and here in the United States and for that reason we’re really thrilled to have him come join us,” said Cora Granata, associate director of the Center of Oral and Public History.

Granata and Portelli will be traveling to Oklahoma City on Wednesday with three Cal State Fullerton students to attend the National Conference for Oral History to host a panel based on an oral history project called “From Hitler’s Europe to the Golden State.”

They will use interviews from Europeans who lived through World War II and migrated to California.

CSUF student organizations like the Cultural and Public History Association (CPHA) and the European Studies Society also helped organize the event.

“There’s so much to learn from this one event in terms of social relations, how (people) interact with one another, how they fit in the broader scheme of our economy, our world,” said Raymond Ortiz, president of CPHA and a second year graduate student studying history.

The Center for Oral and Public History is a joint effort between the Department of History and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and it is the largest oral history archive in California.

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