A cultural anthropologist from the “Southeast Side” of Chicago whose family is still living the half-life of deindustrialization three decades after the mills shut down. A community organizer, journalist, teacher, actor, and musician who also writes poetry in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A day laborer in Oakland and Baltimore who while waiting for work was taking field notes as a sociologist. And a daughter of the Arky part of Arkansas reporting on poverty in the Ozarks.
These are the four winners of the Working-Class Studies Association’s awards for the best work of 2013. Together they ably represent our diverse field both in subject matter and method, as they focus on different parts of working-class life while insisting on combining direct observation and experience with book learning and the wider contexts it can bring to immediate experience.
Christine Walley’s Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago won the Association’s C.L.R. James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences. Now an associate professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Walley was 14 years old when the steel mill where her father worked was the first of a series of mills and related factories that shut down in Southeast Chicago. Employing ethnographic and other anthropological methods, she recounts her family’s and neighborhood’s history across a century of industrialization and deindustrialization, revealing stories that counter and undermine what she calls “the hegemonic narrative” of the immigrant and working-class experience in America.
Judges praised Exit Zero for “its combination of rigorous critical enquiry and vivid personal reflection.” One judge said: “We have many books on deindustrialization, but this one stands out for the effective way it uses family memoir to demonstrate what was lost.” Another judge, more elaborately, explained: “Methodologically, this is a great example of someone working within a particular academic discipline . . . but recognizing that . . . disciplinary expectations for research are too limiting to honestly describe a class-inflected situation” – and went on to praise Walley for the way she dealt with “the tension between the expectations for a certain kind of articulation in academia, and the directness, or even bluntness, of working-class vernacular.”
Walley and her husband, Chris Boebel, have nearly completed a documentary film, also titled Exit Zero, which covers some of the same stories in a different medium. It will be released sometime in the coming year. For other activities around the book and the movie, see The Exit Zero Project web site.
Hakim Bellamy is the first-ever poet-laureate of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and his first book of poems, Swear, won the WCSA Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing. Bellamy is well-known in Albuquerque as a community organizer and journalist and is now a teacher, musician, and actor as well as a poet. Swear was published by Working-Class Studies pioneer John Crawford’s West End Press.
Many of the poems in Swear are fiercely political, as Bellamy comments on current events, taking special inspiration from Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement. But his politics are wide-ranging, including a vivid protest against public school budget cuts that eliminate the arts:
you excommunicate us from your classrooms
because we are not your trinity
of science, math and history
we are the intersection
crucified on your standardized “X”
. . . . .
you make lamb out of your flock
sentence them to seven deadly periods
and a hot lunch
In the section “Letter to Hip Hop,” which contains a third of the poems, Bellamy celebrates the presence of poetry in public space:
so the poet left the sanctuary
back to the curbside pulpit
both have to be louder than the traffic
WCSA judges praised “the strong and uncompromising voice of this poet” and “poems that directly confront the social conditions and spit out rebellion.” One judge simply said: “Bellamy’s depiction of the class divide is a punch in the gut.”
The WCSA John Russo & Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences went to Gretchen Purser for her article in Labour, Capital and Society, an interdisciplinary journal, published in English and French, that “provide[s] an international mix of perspectives on labour struggles.” The article, “The Labour of Liminality,” details the practices of day-labor corporations in “a well-entrenched, multibillion-dollar industry” that makes its money by making work ever more precarious for “a predominantly homeless, and formerly incarcerated, African-American workforce in the inner cities of Oakland and Baltimore.” As part of her research, Purser worked as a day laborer in both cities. She draws vivid portraits of and testimony from day laborers as they wait, sometimes fruitlessly, to be transported to a few hours of poorly paid work. Purser is now an assistant professor of sociology at Syracuse University.
Monica Potts’s cover article in The American Prospect, “What’s Killing Poor White Women?” won the WCSA Studs Terkel Award for Media and Journalism. The article builds on a study that found that while most Americans are living longer, the life expectancy of white women who have not completed high school has declined by five years, from 78 years to 73. The researchers do not know why this has occurred over the last two decades, so Potts went to northern Arkansas, where she grew up, to talk with the numerous white women without high school diplomas there. One of the judges said of Potts’s article, “The story of Crystal Wilson is gorgeously told and I like the way the writer weaves together the narrative with study findings.” Others praised it as “very moving,” “powerful, sensitive, and forthright” and for showing “the ways in which poverty can impact all aspects of life.” You can see more of Potts’s work at The American Prospect.
The high quality and variety of the numerous entries for this year’s awards testify to the growing importance of Working-Class Studies as a field. As our award-winners do, most of our entries challenge “hegemonic narratives” in a society that often denies the existence of social class while routinely overlooking, stereotyping, and/or reductively simplifying working-class life and experience. We have a long way to go to right the balance, but these books and articles provide road signs on the various paths forward.
WCSA Past President