As the immediate past president of the Working-Class Studies Association, it was my task this year (and also my pleasure) to organize the association’s annual awards process. As this year’s organizer, I was caught up in the logistical and clerical tasks related to the process, and so it wasn’t until I sat down to write this post that I considered this year’s award winners as a group of texts. When I finally had the opportunity to step back and think about them as a whole, I noted several threads and connections that reveal that a focus on work (or the lack thereof), workers, place, and protest continue to preoccupy scholars in the field.
The winner of this year’s Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing is Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields, by Mike and Ruth Yarrow, with photographs by Douglas Yarrow, published by Bottom Dog Press. The book is comprised of “found” poems created by the Yarrows based on interviews conducted during the late 1970s with Appalachian coal miners (both men and women) and their spouses. In her author’s statement, Ruth Yarrow explains that the book “is written as found poems because Mike realized that the interviews revealed strong emotions, rhythmic phrases and vivid storytelling skills that could be poetry.” One judge noted that though the interviewees’ voices are edited into poems, “they retain their authenticity and power.”
Great effort is made here to document and preserve the work and the voices of the workers and their families in this time and place. One judge wrote that these poems “beautifully convey life in the mines and on picket lines, showing the eloquence of the speech of working people. These pieces present the poetry of everyday life and present all the pain, resilience, bravery, humanity and aspiration of poetry crafted by poets. This book is a real and lasting contribution to working-class literature.” Another wrote that the book “captures both regional culture and working-class culture in all its emotional complexity through the competing voices.”
Geoff Bright’s “’The Lady is Not Returning!’: Educational Precarity and a Social Haunting in the UK Coalfields,” the winner of this year’s John Russo and Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences, also focuses on voices from coalfields, but in a different place and from the perspective of the children and grandchildren of former miners. Bright has been doing ethnographic research in communities around former coalfields in the north of England for the past decade, and a central argument of his research is that “the 1984-85 miners’ strike and its aftermath of pit closures are not matters of merely historical interest but are, rather, a continuing—if, more often than not, unspoken—affective context for the lived experience of thousands of young people within Britain’s former coalfields.”
In this piece, Bright is especially interested in community responses to the death of Margaret Thatcher as well as celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the 1984-85 strike. Focusing on young people’s involvement in both, Bright sees evidence of a renewed political consciousness oriented to the future, a consciousness that seeks to come to terms with and work through the social haunting caused by the deindustrialization of the region. Praise from the judges included this assessment: “This essay is absolutely fascinating and breaks new paths, I believe, in developing methodologies for working-class studies scholarship and for comprehending the impact of the horrors and suffering caused by class society over generations. . . .I am thankful for this essay. It was a joy to read. For an academic article, it was a real page-turner.”
The aftermath of deindustrialization is also the subject of this year’s winner of the Studs Terkel Award for Media and Journalism, Christine Walley and Chris Boebel’s film Exit Zero (based on Walley’s 2013 CLR James Award-winning book by the same name). The focus of the film is the collapse of the steel industry in Southeast Chicago, which shaped multiple generations of Walley’s family. The daughter of a longtime steel worker, Walley became a class straddler when she left home, earned her Ph.D. and became an academic, but in this project she returned home to engage in autoethnography.
One judge praised the film for telling a “complex, gripping, and surprising story that makes it clear that deindustrialization, in the forms that it took, and in the ways in which workers were treated, was not inevitable.” Another judge wrote of being “moved by this remarkable combination of family story and its strenuous relationship to deindustrialization. Steel made this family but also tried to destroy it in the end. Nuanced and balanced portrait of a family’s history, [it] avoids sentimentalizing a working class family and community.”
The focus on place represented in the winners of the first three categories extends to the first of two winners of this year’s CLR James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences, Julie M. Weise’s Corazón de Dixie: Mexicans in the U.S. South Since 1910. Wiese’s work is an important corrective to the mistaken notion that Latinos’ presence in the U.S. South is a relatively recent phenomenon; as the title of her book indicates, that presence can be traced back over the last 100 years. Wiese’s book tells the story of Mexican migration to New Orleans, Mississippi, rural Georgia, the Arkansas Delta, and Charlotte, NC.
One judge notes that “At first glance, a reader might be deceived into thinking that Corazón de Dixie is not necessarily a working-class studies text. It is in fact a deeply intersectional history, concerned with ‘the regional and national politics of race, class, and citizenship’ as related to the Mexican-American immigrant experience; the politics of work, and work’s relationship to how one develops a sense of U.S. belonging on both her own terms and the terms of powerful others, resonates from every page of this book.”
The CLR James Award is also being given this year to Ann Folino White for her book Plowed Under: Food Policy Protests and Performance in New Deal America. White’s book focuses on Depression-era protest and activism around food and farm policy. Among the many reasons that this book stood out among the nominees this year was for its interdisciplinarity. As one judge noted, “The book has a remarkably inventive and interdisciplinary methodology, and it takes a diverse but coherent look at the multifaceted questions of labor, food production, and the relations of class, race, and gender during the Great Depression, questions that have lasting implications for today’s world.” While there is an extensive historiography on the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act, her treatment of responses to the AAA as performance is unique—White herself is chair of the Department of Theater at Michigan State University.
Gregory Rosenthal’s dissertation, “Hawaiians Who Left Hawaii: Work, Body, and Environment in the Pacific World, 1786-1876,” is the winner of this year’s Constance Coiner Award for Best Dissertation. Like many of this year’s award winners, there is a strong emphasis on place in Rosenthal’s study, and like Weise’s, Rosenthal’s work is deeply intersectional. The judges of this award all noted Rosenthal’s focus on the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, and gender in the 19th century Pacific World. One judge wrote “What I found exciting about this project is the way Rosenthal frames his study of an overlooked piece of working-class culture and history so clearly through an analysis of how class, race, and gender shape and are shaped by work, capitalism, and global interactions. I appreciate, too, Rosenthal’s attention to the classed, raced, and gendered bodies of workers and to representations.” Another judge wrote, “Without ever using the word ‘intersectionality,’ this dissertation deftly shows how class, gender, race, ethnicity and basic power relations were intimately fused yet distinct amid the economic forces of the 19th century Pacific World.” Rosenthal completed his Ph.D. at SUNY Stony Brook and is now Assistant Professor of Public History at Roanoke College.
I invite you to track down and check out these texts; you won’t be sorry for doing so. In an election year here in the U.S., it seems as though everyone has re-discovered the working class, but what these works show is that many of us have been thinking about the lives and experiences of working-class people for some time now, in ways that are complex, nuanced, intersectional, and that make connections across academic disciplines.
Christie Launius, Past President, Working-Class Studies Association, Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh