Obits as Primary Sources

It’s back to school time and I am in teacher mode.

One of the ways I have prodded students over the past several years to understand how historians study the past is to have them analyze primary sources.  Put simply, primary sources are documents of some sort that provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence.  Examples include personal journals, legislative hearings, census records, emails, newsletters, photographs, and oral histories.

I like exposing students to original documents in a hands-on manner, be they yellowing newspapers or correspondence written in old-fashioned cursive.  I especially want students to get their fingers dirty.  After all, they’re digging into the past.

In the assignment, I have them to apply what are called the “6 Cs,” a tool I learned from Claudia Calhoun, my colleague when we served together as teaching fellows for Professor Joanne Meyerowitz’s “Women in 20th Century America” course in grad school.  I’ve since found that this is a commonly used approach for analyzing primary sources, though there are others.  The key is to try to understand a source on its own terms.

The 6 Cs are Citation, Content, Communication, Context, Connections, and Conclusions.  Citation asks Who created it? When? What type of document is it?  Content asks What does it say or show? What is the gist or main idea?  Communication asks What is its point of view? Who was its audience?  Context asks What was occurring at the time it was created? What ideas were in the air?  Connections asks How does it link to other texts? Does it confirm, contradict, or add nuance to what you already know or have learned?  Conclusions asks Why is it important? How can it be interpreted?

After outlining the 6 Cs, I have students apply them to a particular document, describing their task as follows:

In the first paragraph, discuss the Content, Citation, and Communication aspects of the document.  In this part of the exercise, your aim is to simply describe the text in a “just the facts” manner.  Indeed, you will be marked down if you go beyond summarizing what the document says, if you go beyond giving the details of its creation, and if you go beyond identifying perspective and audience.

In the second paragraph, discuss the Context, Connections, and Conclusions you draw from the document.  In this part of the exercise, your aim is to interpret the text, in effect turning it into a source for understanding history.  Here, you need to discuss how it relates to contemporaneous conditions, how it might link to other texts, and how you deem it to be significant.

The exercise is meant to give students experience probing primary sources, like a prep cook readying fresh-picked vegetables before they move on to writing essays and commence to cooking.

To demonstrate the value that I find in the assignment, as well as show the usefulness of obituaries to doing queer history, I’d like to employ the 6 Cs to analyze the obits for two people already recognized on the main Michigan LGBTQ Remember site.  These are individuals I never met personally, so only know (and can only know) through surviving evidence not personal memory.

The cover story marking the death at age fifty-two of Anthony Garneau appeared in Cruise magazine on March 6, 1991.  It is a standard published obituary written by Phillip O’Jibway.  In summary, the story told of Garneau’s upbringing in Oakland County, his stint in the Navy, and his career as a grocer before detailing his eighteen-year ownership of the Detroit bar Gigi’s and his longtime involvement in the Detroit area gay community.  O’Jibway wrote from a gay point-of-view for a decidedly gay readership.

At the time of this obit, the AIDS crisis was ravaging gay and bisexual men nationwide and in Metro Detroit.  The two local organizational movers and shakers—Affirmations and the Triangle Foundation—were still in their early years.  Bar life in Detroit remained a thriving enterprise.  Garneau’s obit connects to other obits associated with Gigi’s, and particularly to other bar owners such as Bobby Calvert, Donna Chartier, and Michael Crawford. all of whom Garneau would likely have known.  It links, as well, to a Gay Liberator article from January 1972 about an attack on lesbian customers in the Gigi’s parking lot before Garneau acquired the bar.  The extended obituary provides important background on a longtime proprietor of the second longest operating gay bar in the Michigan.  As a piece of writing intended for public consumption, it is perhaps more guarded than a personal letter or a diary entry, but its celebratory tone conveys the affection and appreciation that customers and friends had for Garneau and others who pioneered gay ownership and created lasting commercial LGBTQ institutions.

The short obituary for Alice G. Miller ran in the Flint Journal on February 23, 2012 and simultaneously on the paper’s website via MLive.  It recounted the date of Miller’s death at age eighty-nine, the date of her planned memorial, and facts about her work life at a GM Ternstedt plant, her UAW membership, and her ownership of a photography business.  The obit also listed her survivors.  The exact authorship is unknown, though probably her daughter or other next of kin.  The type of document is specifically a death notice, a form of paid advertisement arranged through the funeral home, in this case the Lawrence E. Moon Funeral Home.  Its audience was most likely her family, friends, and co-workers.

Miller died three months before President Barack Obama announced, in the midst of the 2012 campaign, that his views had evolved and he had come to support same-sex marriage.  Miller’s obit links with the obit and personal papers of Ruth Ellis, though this connection is possible due to another link that is not readily apparent.  Twenty years before her death, on August 26, 1992, Miller and her then partner Margaret Lorick sat for an oral history interview in Flint with Roey Thorpe and discussed their attendance at the house parties Ellis and Babe Franklin held in their Detroit home.  (The cassette recording of the interview is housed in the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell.  The interview was cited in Thorpe’s essay “A House Where Queers Go,” published in the collection Inventing Lesbian Cultures in America).  By the time of Miller’s death, she and Lorick had parted, and her lesbian life is not evident from the Flint Journal notice.  The omission may confirm a level of discretion common among LGBTQ people of Miller’s generation, among African American LGBTQ people, among Flint LGBTQ people, or among some surviving children of same-sex relationships.  At the same time, even the brief death notice adds to what we know about attendees of Ellis’s now-famous house parties and the geographic reach of Ellis’s social network.

Ah, the revelations to be found in seemingly mundane sources!

Tim Retzloff



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