In her new book, award-winning scholar Blair L.M. Kelley shines a spotlight on the often-overlooked contributions of everyday Black workers through the lens of her own family’s story.
Q: Can you give us a brief synopsis of your book?
A: Beginning with the stories of my own ancestors and combining that with archival research, Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class (W.W. Norton) is a human exploration of Black working-class history. Beginning with the history of my ancestor, Henry, a blacksmith, then continuing using family stories and oral histories, my book explores the collective power present within the Black community. The book investigates professions — sharecroppers, washerwomen, Pullman porters, postal workers, household workers — but with an eye toward people’s everyday lives. Black Folk asks: What does it mean to be a Black working person? How do Black workers survive subjugation in order to create community? In the book I find some incredible stories — some devastating, some uplifting — but all of them have something to teach us about our past, our present and what’s possible in America’s future.
Q: How does this fit in with your research interests and passions?
A: I consider myself to be a historian of the Black experience, but I’ve never thought of myself as a labor historian or a union historian. So, when I was approached about the possibility of writing about the Black working class, I wondered if I was the right person. My editor asked me to think about framing the book from my own perspective as a scholar and a writer. I love the challenge of trying to figure out what happened in the past and what that past can teach us, so Black Folk was my answer to a challenging question.
Q: What surprised you when researching/writing this book?
A: The most surprising things were all the connections that I made, the threads that I could pull when telling the story. I started the writing process in what is now the middle of the book, with the chapter on maids and a focus on Philadelphia, and I was looking for an oral history that would dovetail with the kind of story I wanted to tell. I discovered an interview with a woman named Minnie Savage, which had been recorded decades ago. I realized that she was from the same place that my father’s family was from, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in Accomack County. And then I realized that she probably migrated within a year or two of my own grandfather. It was such a gift to have insight into her experience, and by extension, to know more about my grandfather’s experience. Then when I was looking for an oral history with a washerwoman, I discovered Sarah Hill, and then I figured out that Sarah was from the same small county, Elbert County, Georgia, as Henry, my three-times great-grandfather that I write about in the opening chapter. This started to go beyond coincidence and started to feel purposeful.
Q: Where’s your go-to writing spot, and how do you deal with writer’s block?
A: I wrote much of Black Folk during the pandemic, and I started out writing it in my kitchen at night. Then I realized: Who needs a dining room in the middle of the pandemic? So I turned it into my new office!
I don’t really get what I would call writer’s block. My major limitation is that I do not write during the day. My brain is much freer during late-night hours, 11 p.m. to about 3 a.m. Being kind of punchy and sleepy at night helps me relax, and the words flow.
Published in the Fall 2023 issue | Chapter & Verse