Making Moonshine: Thick Histories in a U.S. Historically Black Community



SUMMARY In 1999 Union, Virginia, was officially recognized as a “historically black community” by the National Register of Historic Places. A short history was written in connection with official recognition—a narrative that is “accurate” as far as the facts are concerned but which reflects very little of the histories that Union's African-American residents narrate themselves or, indeed, how history is shared among them in the first place. This article focuses on one historical narrative—the Moonshine Story—that did not make it into the official history but which was shared with some frequency among Union residents. Ethnographic research demonstrates that the social space in which people share knowledge determines not only what information is exchanged but how. In formal interview settings Union residents offered narratives that echo the structure and form of Union's official history. In informal settings, however, residents produced “thick” histories—three-dimensional and dynamic narratives that are continually produced, that are patently conscious of their relationship to the present, and that affirm a shared sense of community among the speakers.